By Sue Bryant,
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.