Fraser Valley History

The Fraser River Valley

The Fraser River is an impressive 1375 Km long and flows through a significant portion of the province of BC as it winds its way down to the Strait of Georgia.

The following paragraph, taken directly from the Fraser Basin Council web site, describes the economic output of the entire Fraser Basin.

The Basin contributes 80% of the provincial economic output and 65% of total household income. It contains 21 million hectares of forest – more than three times the area of New Brunswick. Its farms, ranches and orchards compromise half of all BC’s agricultural lands. Eight major mines in the Basin account for 60% of BC’s metal mine production. In addition, some of the province’s – and the world’s – most spectacular natural beauty and recreational opportunities abound in this area, contributing 67% of total tourism revenue.

Farming, forestry and fishing are three of the primary economic activities in the Heart of the Fraser region.

Outline of some of the significant events along the Fraser River

The history of human activity includes an ancient hunter-gatherer culture, a rush of gold prospectors, a steady influx of immigrants, and commercial and industrial development of the river valley.

10,000 years ago to modern day: The Stó:lō people

The First People’s have lived along the river for thousands of years and survived by hunting, fishing and foraging. They moved according to the seasons to different camps in small family groups based on the food resources at each location. They ate deer and elk, salmon, sturgeon and oolichan, seals, wild potatoes, carrots and other root vegetables, and a wide variety of berries.

They most likely built new shelters each season when they arrived at camp. They worked with chipped-stone tools, including cobble choppers and spear-heads.

1808: Simon Fraser navigated the Fraser River to the Pacific Ocean.

The river’s modern day namesake, Simon Fraser, and his party of twenty-three, including two native guides, took 36 days to travel from Stuart Lake (Fort St. James) to the mouth of the river.

Simon Fraser worked for the North West Company and mission was to expand the
fur-trade west of the Rocky Mountains to the ocean.

1858: The Fraser River Gold Rush

News of gold finds on the Fraser and Thompson Rivers reached San Francisco and triggered a mass migration – an estimated 30,000 prospectors.

They travelled up the Fraser by steamer, canoe, sailboat or raft.

The first prospectors arrived during freshet – the Fraser’s spring flood and the weather was cold and wet. Many were disillusioned and left, but many more hopefuls arrived. One estimate is of more than 10,000 prospectors on the river at any time.

It’s estimated that over $10 million in gold was taken out of the Fraser between 1858 and 1860.

1885: The Canadian Pacific Railway

The “Last Spike” was hammered in place at Craigellachie on Nov 7, 1885. The first scheduled cross-Canada train arrived in Port Moody from Montreal on July 4, 1886. The first passenger train reached Vancouver on May 23, 1887.

Immigrant labourers, including many thousands of Chinese men, built the railway – estimates range from 15,000 to 17,000 workers. Pay rates differed according to ethnic or racial origin.

1894: The Fraser River Flood

The 1894 spring flood remains the flood of record for the Fraser. The entire floodplain, from Harrison to Richmond, was affected between May 26 and mid-June.

Houses and barns, railway tracks and embankments, telegraph lines and many bridges between Ladner and Yale were swept away. The flood didn’t fully recede until early July. The provincial government handed out free millet, oats, barley, potatoes and turnips, to help keep cattle from starving, and to allow farmers to re-seed at least a few crops.

The river was above the 20-ft. level for 33 days, and above the 24-foot level for 17 days. The river ran past Hope at 16,990 cubic metres/second (m3/s), or 600,000 cubic feet/second (cfs).
At its peak on June 5, the flood level at Mission was 25 feet 9 inches (7.73 metres).

1913 – 14: Rock slides at Hell’s Gate

Millions of tons of rock were dumped into the Fraser near Hell’s Gate during construction of the CN rail bed down the east side of the canyon. The slide prevented many migrating salmon (an estimated 2/3) from reaching their spawning grounds – the increased velocity of the water in the gorge meant that only the strongest could get through.

1920 – 24: Sumas Lake drained to create farmland.

Sumas Lake covered about 10,000 acres. It was fed by the Chilliwack and Vedder River system and by the Nooksack (Washington State). During the Fraser’s annual freshet (spring flood), the lake expanded to cover 30,000 acres. It was home to swans, geese and ducks, beavers, deer and bears, salmon and sturgeon.

The lake was drained to create new farm land which was referred to as a “reclamation” Canals were dredged and rivers diverted into the Fraser. A series of pumps was also created to keep the water from returning.

1942: Japanese-Canadians were sent to internment camps.

A war-time government forced Japanese-Canadians to leave the west coast and the Fraser Valley. All property, which included farms, boats, homes and businesses, was seized with little or no compensation. New immigrants and Canadian citizens alike were classified as “enemy aliens” and sent to these camps located in southeastern B.C. and some were sent to work in sugar-beet fields in Alberta and Manitoba. Many families were separated, with the men sent to road camps. The confiscations and internment affected about 22,000 Canadians.

1950’s: “Controlling” the river

Financial losses from the 1948 flood spurred dyke construction.

1948 – 1950 – 28 miles of new dikes were built, and over 135 miles of the breached dikes had been rebuilt. $1.3 million went into building and upgrading dikes around Sumas and Chilliwack.

1955 – the Dominion Provincial Board – Fraser River Basin formed to study methods for controlling the river’s flooding and evaluate potential for hydro-electric development.

1979: A debris trap was installed in the Fraser near Hope

During spring flood, the Fraser washes a lot of woody debris down into the lower river valley. The waterborne debris can destroy fish habitat, smother foreshore habitat, damage bridge footings and dikes, damage boats and interfere with navigation.

The debris trap is a series of thin log booms that guides debris into an artificial channel parallel to the Fraser and is put into place during the spring. In a heavy year it catches up to 100,000 cubic metres of wood (up to 2400 logging truck loads). At first, the wood was burned, but in 2005, arrangements were made to sell the wood to pulp mills.

The debris trapping program was initiated by the Fraser Basin Council.

1989: The Fraser River oolichan population almost disappears.

Oolichans (eulachons) are a type of smelt and migrate up the Fraser to spawn in late April or early May. Historically, oolichans often came upriver as far as Hope, but since about the 1950s, Chilliwack has been the upper reach of the migration.

Oolichans (swi:we) are a traditional food-fish of the Stó:lō, usually caught for their oil (“grease”), or dried or smoked.

The numbers of oolichan caught in the late 1980s to the early 1990s were only about 7% of catches in the 1960s. The reasons have not been firmly identified, but some factors may be water pollution, dredging in spawning areas, changes in water flows or sediments caused by logging, by catch losses (shrimp nets), or changes in the ocean environment.

1990’s: Conservation issues were front page news in Fraser River communities.

1990 – Spotted Owl habitat was protected by new government regulations over areas of old-growth forests on Crown land (Spotted Owl Management Plan). Public debate was of protecting an endangered species versus maintaining forest-sector jobs.

1993 – 94 – Dozens of sturgeon washed up dead along the Fraser, and a cause for their deaths could not be determined.

1994 – Fish conservation became a high-profile public discussion when the sockeye spawning run up the Fraser was a million fish fewer than predicted. The sturgeon catch was also closed to both commercial and recreational fisheries in 1994.

1997 – The commercial oolichan gillnet fishery on the Fraser was closed.

1998 – Water temperatures in the Fraser hit record highs, endangering salmon. High water temperatures and low water levels contributed to pre-spawn mortality in salmon runs of 1994 and 1998.

2005: The Fraser was #1 on the Endangered Rivers list.

Among the issues listed for the Fraser are:

  • pollution from sewage and industrial waste
  • rapid urbanization
  • agricultural run-off (pesticides, fertilizers and manure)
  • extensive logging in its headwaters
  • diking and armouring of its banks and tributaries
  • excessive gravel removal
  • lack of protection of tributary streams