By Sue Bryant,
The corner of 60th Avenue and Highway 15 has been a flurry of activity lately.
The 1881 Town Hall has been removed from the building that has surrounded it for 50 years, in anticipation of the move to the new Museum of Surrey campus.
Surrey is fortunate to lay claim to one of the earliest municipal seats of government in the province, and this is no small testament to the pride in the heritage of our city.
In a council meeting in January 1881, it was decided that a town hall should be built so that residents could attend general meetings.
Councillor Abraham Huck donated one acre of his land at Surrey Centre for this purpose, along with land for a future church and school. This solidified the area as the town centre for the settlements around Surrey, and the site on the hill overlooking Mud Bay made for a pleasant location. The first council meeting was held on May 2, 1881, a mere four months after plans were approved.
| Interior of the 1881 Town Hall, as seen in the BC Vintage Truck Museum.
It was the year that the Canadian Pacific Railway was formed, and in the United States, the year of Billy the Kid’s escapades and the gunfight at the OK Corral. Closer to home, Gassy Jack’s saloon was opened, but the Township of Granville had not yet become the City of Vancouver. The Great Vancouver Fire wouldn’t occur until 1886.
There were no railroads and no bridges across the Fraser River. Very few roads existed and those that did were wagon trails, uneven and treacherous.
For the next generation, the town hall housed the beginnings of what we know today as the City of Surrey.
As well as serving for town business, it was a meeting hall that hosted many of the early community groups. The Farmer’s Institute had its inaugural meeting in 1897 in the hall. The Surrey Agriculture Association held the first Fall Fair in 1888, using the 1881 Town Hall as its main building.
The Surrey Women’s Institute also had their start in this building. Chaired by May Bose, the Institute was responsible for a significant decline in infant mortality in the surrounding area, and increased the general health of the community through educational efforts and medical assistance.
In 1912, the municipal government moved to the newly built hall located on Old McLellan Road, or as we know it today, Highway 10. The original town hall fell into disuse for a few years, acting as a poultry barn. For many places, this would have signaled the end of this founding piece of history.
A grassroots campaign to preserve the hall gathered steam in 1938. Given the lean years of the Depression, it was met with cool consideration by the council until the Cloverdale Junior Chamber of Commerce agreed to pick up the cost of restoration and to move it to a more appropriate location.
In June 1938, the 1881 Town Hall was raised onto a truck and moved to the location then known as Cloverdale Park, where it has been ever since. Young schoolchildren watched from the window as the move took place.
Once lowered onto the new location, it was restored by the local community. Newspapers at the time asked for any free handymen with some extra paint, shingles or just time to come down and lend a hand for the “Town Hall Bee.”
Soon after, homage was paid to the early settlers of Surrey and the original reeves invited to a celebration in the town hall’s new location. The original council’s table and chairs, along with the coal oil lamp were displayed for all to admire. This planted the seed for the town hall to become the first museum in Surrey.
In 1940, former reeve Henry Bose spent some time reminiscing on those early sessions in the hall. He spoke of the late John Oliver, who sat as the town clerk and would later become premier. He also recalled when the beaver was chosen as the symbol for the official municipal seal.
| The 1881 Town Hall, pictured in 1912.
Courtesy of the City of Surrey Archives / 91.2.01
The original town hall would continue to be the museum for the next several years. In 1958, the future looked a little bleak. The museum was run by volunteers and only able to open a few days a year.
An opportunity arose to donate it to the Fort Langley National Historic Site for their use. Thankfully, this idea was not met with strong support and the municipality had the foresight to apply for a Centennial grant from the federal government. This would allow the addition of 1000 sq.ft. of space to be built and further restorative work. One of the early relics showcased in the museum included the helm from the “K de K” ferry which was the only link for many years from Surrey to New Westminster. Later on, additional space would be added to allow for the space to be used as the local court house.
After the Surrey Museum opened in 2005, the 1881 Town Hall would become part of the BC Truck Museum. The A-Frame roof peeking out of the rest of the hall was a familiar sight to all in the area.
As the 137-year old building prepares to make its final move to the Museum of Surrey campus, those young children who watched it move in 1938 are now octogenarians. The 1881 Town Hall, with its simple yet effective design, has served the community for longer than anyone could have expected.
It is a true civic treasure and this remarkable building will now have the chance to be appreciated by all.