Pioneer Childhood in the Lower Fraser Valley
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In the days of the earliest settlers the Lower Fraser Valley was a vast forest, broken here and there by stretches of open prairie. The latter were islands, and other natural meadows, subject to flooding at high water.
It was there that the first farming took place. Around 1840 the Hudson’s Bay Company started a farm on Langley Prairie in connection with the fort. Similar areas were settled twenty years or more later by miners, teamsters, and others from the Fraser River gold fields. By then the Pre-emption Acts of 1859 and 1860 had made it possible for anyone to take up land, and quite a few of them settled on the large accessible prairies around Sumas Lake and the lower reaches of the Chilliwack River. They brought in cattle from across the border and fattened them on the wild grass and the pea vine.
Although they had little or no clearing to do, they had to cope with annual floods, and hordes of mosquitoes that hatched out when the waters receded. This story is told in “Floodland and Forest” (Sound Heritage Series, No. 37)
By contrast, most of the people who concern us now pioneered the uplands of Surrey, Langley and Mission. They arrived during the 1870’s or the two following decades, by which time all the suitable land had been taken up, and there was nothing for it but to move in among the firs and the cedars, which presented them with a very different challenge.
Access was by wagon roads or trails, meandering through dark woods and marshy bottom lands. Some had been made by Indians—like the one which ran from Semiahmoo Bay on the U.S. border to Brownsville, a small settlement and landing on the Fraser, opposite New Westminster. Another ran from Bellingham Bay to Fort Langley, the so-called Smugglers’ Trail.
One trail had been cut in 1865 for a telegraph line that was to have been built all the way to Alaska, and then to Siberia. That it never got there is another story. But the trail itself was used by riders and pedestrians prepared to wade or swim any creeks they encountered. There were no bridges.
During the 1870s the new provincial government made an effort to open up wagon roads, beginning with the Semiahmoo Trail, which had already been improved by the Royal Engineers. In 1873 it was improved again. And during the next few years an entirely new road was cut through the middle of Surrey, Langley and Matsqui. It was known as the Yale Road, and from it settlers themselves constructed trails north and south into their homesteads.
About that time, too, the Old McLellan Road, as it got to be called, was cut from the top of Wood wards Hill on the Semiahmoo Trail to Langley Prairie; and a few years later the Coast Meridian was opened up from the Yale Road south to the border.
These so-called wagon roads brought the homesteaders into the very heart of the Surrey and Langley woods, and brought them out again when they went to New Westminster for supplies. But for several years they were hardly more than muddy trails that dodged the stumps and were at their best when frozen hard. Roads and bridges, however, were an immediate concern of the newly formed municipal councils, and many a settler found himself working on the roads in lieu of taxes. Bit by bit it became less difficult to move about, especially when they started using gravel.
Loggers and shingle makers also helped to open up the country. As with the farmers, they started at the water’s edge and, as hand-loggers, worked their way along the banks of the Fraser and the smaller rivers. Pushing further inland, they built skid roads and brought in ox teams to haul the logs down to a river landing or a ditch they had constructed. From there the logs would be towed to one of the big mills near New Westminster, or perhaps to the one at Elgin.
In 1891 the New Westminster and Southern Railway was built from Brownsville, down through the middle of Surrey by way of Cloverdale and Halls Prairie, to link up with the American line at the border. By a system of branch lines, logging outfits were able to reach further and further into the Surrey woods. In 1903 a railway was run from Port Guichon, near Ladner, across the delta to Cloverdale, and four years later an extension was pushed up the valley to Huntingdon. This opened up much of Langley to the loggers, with the result that the woods seemed to be teeming with small lumber and shingle mills, and logging camps.
So for a time, logging and homesteading went hand in hand. Logging brought in cash. A struggling farmer could find winter work in the mills and camps, while his sons often got their first paid jobs as grease monkeys, greasing the skids. The camps might buy a farmer’s hay or his oats, his butter or his beef, and sometimes his uncut timber. A later settler might find that the big trees had already been taken from his land, thus saving him some of the heavier work. But the stumps would still be there.
Farming and logging, together, changed the face of the land to such an extent that we hardly recognize in today’s patchwork of farms and settlements, open everywhere to the sky, the raw countryside of less than a hundred years ago. When those who grew up in it try to tell us what it was like and how they lived from day to day, we seem to be travelling in an unknown country. Gone today are the great cedars and firs, the trails that wandered from clearing to clearing. Gone are the bear and cougar, the oxen, the jumpers, the riverboats. The prairies are dyked, the mosquitoes tamed. We are hard put to it to find even a relic of those pioneer days: the stump of a huge tree, a snake fence, a cabin built by some homesteader with his own hands. It was a wooden world, and it burned up all too easily.
What do remain are the patterns imposed on the landscape when trails became roads, clearings became farms, cross-roads became communities.
And memories remain. For the children of the forest seem never to have forgotten the wonder of it. We can hear it in their voices—in what they like to recall, in the way they tell about it. We can also sense how aware they are that the whole phenomenal transformation took place within a lifetime—their lifetime!
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