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

Surrey bus driver tests positive for COVID-19

Routes he drove have not been disclosed

Surrey mayor denies property tax deferral motion

Councillor’s notice of motion for Surrey property taxes to be deferred until Dec. 2 out of order

Team refunds OK’d for cancelled Surrey Mayor’s Cup soccer tournament

The decision follows the amalgamation of the Central City Breakers club with Surrey Football Club

COVID-19: 4 new deaths, 25 new cases but only in Vancouver Coastal, Fraser Health

A total of 1,291 people have tested positive for the novel coronavirus

COVID-19: Don’t get away for Easter weekend, Dr. Bonnie Henry warns

John Horgan, Adrian Dix call 130 faith leaders as holidays approach

COVID-19: Trudeau says 30K ventilators on the way; 3.6M Canadians claim benefits

Canada has seen more than 17,000 cases and at least 345 deaths due to COVID-19

RCMP call on kids to name latest foal recruits

The baby horses names are to start with the letter ‘S’

As Canadians return home amid pandemic, border crossings dip to just 5% of usual traffic

Non-commercial land crossing dipped by 95%, air travel dropped by 96 per cent, according to the CBSA

Logan Boulet Effect: Green Shirt Day calls on Canadians to become organ donors

While social distancing, the day also honours the 16 lives lost in the 2018 Humboldt Broncos Crash

COMMENTARY: Knowing where COVID-19 cases are does not protect you

Dr. Bonnie Henry explains why B.C. withholds community names

B.C. wide burning restrictions come into effect April 16

‘Larger open burns pose an unnecessary risk and could detract from wildfire detection’

B.C. secures motel, hotel rooms for COVID-19 shelter space

Community centres, rooms reserved for pandemic self-isolation

Most Read