A flood at the Port Mann and the Canadian National Railway shops. Men are in the water, a house, and a railway crossing sign are shown in the flooded area. (Photo courtesy of the City of Surrey Archives / SMA89.064.004)

HISTORY: Memories of 1948 Fraser River floods still run strong

Looking back on the Fraser River flood of 1948, 70 years later

By Sue Bryant,

Cloverdale Reporter

The news has been filled with stories of the latest flooding in British Columbia, brought on by the freshet season. Each year, when the snow melts quickly in the warm sun, the waters rise along the Fraser River, making their way to the Salish Sea. While this year was particularly difficult for many regions, the 1948 floods still hold the record as the region’s worst flooding in living memory.

From Chilliwack to Richmond, the deluge of water that rushed down the Fraser River in 1948 has yet to be surpassed. The statistics of that year were staggering, with more than 2,300 homes destroyed, 16,000 people forced to evacuate and many livestock and crops lost in a time when the area relied heavily on agriculture. At its peak, the water level was measured at 7.6 metres.

In Surrey, the lowlands from Bridgeview and Port Mann and up to Barnston Island, Port Kells and Tynehead were hit extremely hard. Ellen Tompson Edwards was a young child at the time and recalled watching a house float down the Fraser River near Port Kells.

On Friday, May 28, 1948, the river began to rise significantly and the decision was made by local officials and the military to evacuate Barnston Island. At the time, Barnston Island was home to 35 families, 500 head of cattle, 300 sheep and many chickens, pigs and horses. The ferry barges had to be quickly adapted with extra heavy planks and side racks to hold the nervous livestock during the trip over the swirling, angry river. Evacuation of this magnitude was challenging but they successfully evacuated all but two horses from the island.

The residents of Cloverdale opened their homes and farms to the evacuated families and their livestock, but could not take them all. As 1948 was a banner year for the Cloverdale Rodeo, several new buildings, including with larger barns, had just been completed to hold the growing event. This proved extremely fortunate when large numbers of animals needed to be sheltered quickly.

Meanwhile, volunteers were organized to begin sandbagging and shoring up the dykes. One of the first groups to volunteer to assist in sandbagging was the Surrey Junior Chamber of Commerce, based in Cloverdale. The Jaycee’s, as they were known, gathered and formed lines, passing the sandbags up to the river’s edge. The crews worked all day and all through the night, and one of the oft-remembered scenes was the lantern-lit path snaking its way up to the dyke in the darkness.

By Saturday, the river measured two metres higher than the highest spot on Barnston Island. The crews were working tirelessly to keep the dyke intact as best they could, along with assistance from the military. That evening, however, nature overtook the crews. Volunteer firefighter Bruno Zappone was on the dyke with his gravel truck when he heard a worrisome noise. The truckers coming up behind saw rocks crumbling underneath the truck, and Zappone gunned the truck in an attempt to get out of harm’s way. The dyke crumbled completely beneath him, and within minutes a four-metre gap had been torn in the island’s protecting wall. They were well prepared and there were no injuries or loss of life.

Meanwhile, down by Port Mann, many houses and farms were well underwater. The flood waters had also covered the railroad tracks, severing rail transportation from Vancouver. The rowboat was the only means of transportation in the northern stretches, which brought with it several challenges as well.

Debris and strong currents made it difficult for those attempting to evacuate. The Surrey Leader reported two men rescued near Port Mann. Hearing calls for help around midnight, two Good Samaritans went out to investigate. They found a sunken boat and the former occupants stuck in flood refuse, unable to break free. One man was holding his friend up, both clearly exhausted by being stuck in the water for several hours. With assistance, they were able to signal the Navy, who was close by assisting with other evacuations, and they were rescued.

Many remember the resilience and fortitude of the local residents during the crisis. Fleetwood resident Mary Taylor later recalled attempting to help a friend whose home was under a considerable amount of water. They were surprised when their friend declined the offer of help telling them, “I’m staying here. I got the chickens, the dog and cat on the porch. Every day some of the Municipality comes out and they bring me food every day. I’ve never lived so good in all my life.”

After the danger of the flooding began to recede in mid-June, there was no shortage of fundraisers and assist in the recovery effort. The B.C. Flood Emergency Fund encouraged all wage earners to donate one day’s pay to flood relief, which many did.

On June 11, the Cloverdale Athletic Hall held a “Flood the Hall” fundraiser and benefit baseball game, which was quickly sold out. The Tara Supper Club in Crescent Beach also held a “Cavalcade of Stars” event, welcoming local celebrities to encourage donations to the restoration fund.

It was a defining moment for Surrey, and one that showed the strength of community spirit during difficult times.

Sue Bryant is an oral historian and a member of the Surrey Historical Society. She is also a digital photo restoration artist, genealogist and a Surrey Museum and Surrey Archives volunteer.



editor@cloverdalereporter.com

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Cloverdalefloodinghistory

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

 

A flood at Port Mann and the Canadian National Railway shops. (Photo courtesy of the City of Surrey Archives / SMA89.064.002)

Just Posted

Abbotsford Triathlon Club staying fit in COVID-19 era

ATC members using virtual reality training, social media and solo races to keep in shape

New crosswalk lights could be coming to McDonald Road

Action based on data collected from district in summer

Snowfall warning in effect for Coquihalla Highway

Total accumulations of up to 25 cm can be expected by this evening

District of Kent prepares for urban beekeeping

Permits soon available for a number of residential zones

Social media a blessing and a curse during time of crisis: B.C. communication expert

‘In moments of crisis, fear is very real and palpable,’ says SFU’s Peter Chow-White

B.C. records first at-home death from COVID-19, but 70+ hospital patients have recovered

Total of 970 novel coronavirus cases in B.C., with the majority in the Lower Mainland area

Helping those at risk, one piece of paper at a time through ‘isolation communication’

Simple paper tool during pandemic making its way across Canada thanks to social media.

‘Back to school, in a virtual way’ for B.C. students in COVID-19 pandemic

Province adds online resources to help parents at home

Canadian COVID-19 round-up: Air Canada cuts 15,000 jobs, 90% of flights

Comprehensive Canadian news update as of 2:30 p.m., Monday, March 30.

Canada expands 75% wage subsidy to COVID-19 affected businesses of all sizes: Trudeau

Program will provide up to $847 per week for each worker

Pay parking suspended at B.C. hospitals due to COVID-19

Temporary free parking reduces need for keypads, contact

Canadian ferry operators call for inclusion in COVID-19 travel restrictions

Domestic travel restrictions should include ferries, operators say

Cruise ships, one with COVID-19 on board, carry Canadians covertly through Panama Canal

Zaandam, Rotterdam pass through canal under cover of darkness in face of local protests

Fraser Valley sex offender charged again less than two months after prison release

Taylor Dueck, who was living in Mission, has history of sex assaults in Abbotsford

Most Read