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Nils Christian Hjorth
Courtesy of Opposite The City

Brownsville settler Nils Christian Hjorth was one of the first homesteaders in British Columbia's two largest cities, Vancouver and Surrey, and on two of its smaller islands, East Thurlow Island and Read Island. In Surrey he has left his name on the road that ran towards his homestead, Hjorth Road and a school that draws pupils from the same vicinity.

A Norse seaman, Hjorth arrived in Burrard Inlet in 1883 and deciding to stay, left ship. In February of 1884 he made application to obtain a lot in the Granville townsite, Gastown. Within months dramatic changes ensued in the lower mainland, placing Hjorth'’s lot in jeopardy, and opening up a brand new opportunity on the south side of the Fraser River at Brownsville. Staying only long enough to prove up his pre–emptions, by 1891 Hjorth had moved up the coast to the islands of the inside passage, where he resided until his death in 1936.

homestead locations

Nils Hjorth – Map of Homestead Locations in British Columbia
Courtesy of Opposite The City

Squatting at Granville

Ship's mate Nils Hjorth was already 36 years old and unattached when he ducked his way into the dense bush just a whistle from the back of Gassy Jack's old saloon on the shore of Burrard Inlet. It was exciting times in this neighbourhood with a dozen or more men getting a foothold in the settlement in anticipation of the national railway reaching saltwater at the head of the Inlet. Hjorth picked out an unclaimed lot, Lot 12 Block 3, on what is now Hastings Street, Vancouver.

There was very dense brush, and very heavy logs laying over one another, four and five high, and very difficult to get in. I went to work and made a trail in February, and then cleared a place to build a house to live in, and erected a house. I cleared land for a garden and fenced it and planted a sack of potatoes and a patch of onions.

By the beginning of March, Hjorth had finished his house and began working under contract clearing land for others and building houses. Hjorth made application to the government to secure his lot and in April received acknowledgement from JW Trutch.

Surrey pre–emption

In the meantime, changes had been taking place around New Westminster, the chief city of the Lower Mainland, where great effort was being made to attract settlers to the surrounding district.

Henry T Thrift of Surrey, erstwhile town clerk and enthusiastic booster of settlement there, on April 23, 1883 wrote to the Columbian newspaper.

Having had occasion to go in to New Westminster a few days since, I was agreeably surprised to find so many newcomers, enquiring for land, and the thought struck me, how necessary that the Government should establish an immigration and intelligence office in New Westminster, so that settlers coming in would have no difficulty in finding locations, or of getting work . . . We should like very much to see about 300 families settled on our wild lands in this Surrey of ours during the coming season.

Surrey had already taken steps in its own interest, introducing an "intelligence office" motion in February. In March 1884, as Nils Hjorth was building his house at Granville, a new public ferry went into operation from New Westminster to Brownsville, offering a cheap and reliable means to commute to the district opposite the city. The ferry K de K was the latest initiative of local government effort to attract settlers and the investment was beginning to pay off. (see Fraser Crossing)

Fresh claims were being taken up within miles of the Brownsville wharf, which took on a new importance as traffic multiplied. By the end of April the municipal bureau had been established with none other that HT Thrift obtaining the appointment as Surrey Intelligence Officer.

Notice to Immigrants

Notice to Immigrants
Courtesy of Opposite The City

Notice to Immigrants

The Municipality of Surrey offers great inducements to persons in search of a home. We have good lands, both wild and improved, good roads, schools, churches and post office. Our facilities for trade are excellent. We have good water communication with outside markets, and our climate is unrivalled. Plenty of Government land. To Manufacturers and grist or saw mill men establishing themselves in this Municipality, the Municipal Council are offering liberal inducements. For further particulars apply personally to Henry T Thrift, C.M.C. Intelligence Officer. Clover Valley, Surrey, B.C.

Nils Hjorth stayed on at Granville until the 23rd of May when he seized on this new opportunity. Hjorth selected a section up the hill only a few miles from the ferry landing, and registered his second land claim within a few months, at Section 24, Block 5 North, Range 2 West.

Hjorth Road

Map of Surrey land holdings

Sec. 24, B5N R2W – This 160 acre block is located from 140 Street to 144 Street, between 108 Avenue and 104 Avenue, a road that was known until 1957 as Hjorth Road. 104 Avenue, the old Hjorth road, is one of the main streets of Surrey, connecting Surrey City Centre with Guildford Centre.
Courtsey of Opposite The City


At its far eastern end Hjorth road begins on the Fraser River at Hjorth Landing, opposite Barnston Island, where now floats the ferry wharf. As the Fraser River makes its large bend around the north end of Surrey, Hjorth Road runs due west, passing near midpoint a park and a school named after it, followed by Invergarry Park on the old Hjorth homestead, crossing King George Boulevard and descending the steep hill towards Scott Road (120th St) at Brownsville, where by direct extension along Tannery Road the Fraser River is reached once again.

Hjorth appears in the 1884–1885 British Columbia Directory as "Hyorth, Nelson, farmer," living at Brownsville. Such variations of his name would continue throughout his lifetime, although official records are consistent with spelling his name Nils Christian Hjorth. In the 1887 Brownsville listing his surname appears as "Hyorth" and his occupation, perhaps reflecting his success in land development, is given as "Capitalist."

The Granville homestead

As Hjorth was working to establish his new homestead in the bush above Brownsville, William Van Horne of the CPR arrived at Burrard Inlet and announced the railway had intentions to terminate at Coal Harbour, near Gastown where Hjorth's lot was located. The Province conceded to the railway a large area of real estate, including the townsite lot to which Hjorth as yet had no title. Some established squatters were allowed to keep their lots, but Hjorth's position was more precarious, having come lately to the site, and his claim was denied. Fifteen recent lot–holders in the same predicament as Hjorth disputed being cast out of their households, with sweat and blisters hacked from the forest. The coming of the railway also meant they stood to make a good profit on their lots, something they would not readily forego. It would take three years and a special act of the BC Legislature before the claims of the Granville squatters were finally settled. By then the townsite had been renamed Vancouver.

This was how the Colonist newspaper described a fortunate half–dozen of the squatters whose claims the railway had decided to honour, before going to arbitration. Nils Christian Hjorth, of Lot 12 in Block 3 was one of the lucky ones. He got word of the victory in his appeal in May 1888, four years after he had built his first rough house in the forest.

Move to the islands – Shoal Bay, East Thurlow Island

Hjorth still had his second homestead in Surrey to prove up. In May 1888, the same month his claim was accepted at Vancouver, Hjorth applied to complete his homestead application south of the Fraser. On obtaining title exactly a year later, he did not tarry long in Surrey. The Census of 1891 records him living up the coast, in the neighbourhood of logging camps.

Shoal Bay holdings

Map of the coast and Hjorth's holdings at Shoal Bay
Courtesy of Opposite The City

Hjorth took his Vancouver and Surrey profits and applied them to a third homestead at Shoal Bay on Thurlow Island – 160 acres comprising Lot 156, Coast Range 1. It was an idyllic site, fronting a picturesque bay and ranging back into forested mountainsides. The island had rich mineral deposits and stands of timber.

Shoal Bay Post Office

Shoal Bay Thurlow Post Office
Courtesy of Opposite The City

In 1894 he applied for title to the property, though it was not granted until 1896. By this time Hjorth had established a general store and was the first appointed Postmaster at Shoal Bay. In 1897, as the result of a court settlement, at least a portion of Lot 156 was seized by the sheriff. However, the Cumberland newspaper listed Nils Christian Hjorth as owner of this lot, with taxes owing, as late as 1902.

Sometime sea captain, farmer, Capitalist, storekeeper, or working in lumber camps, Hjorth spent his time between Vancouver and the coast. In 1900, at the age of 52 Nils, giving his profession as Master Mariner, married a 37 year old Swedish widow, Alma Oberg at St James Church in Vancouver. By the time of the census of 1911, Hjorth did not have family with him.

Move to the Read Island; Hjorth Bay, Read Island

In his latter years, from about 1906, Hjorth farmed on Read Island.

Read Island

Map of Read Island
Courtesy of Opposite The City

Although the piece of property is not known at the time of writing, there is on the west side of the island, on Hoskyn Channel, a small bay, Hjorth Bay, apparently named after Nils Christian Hjorth, and perhaps it was near there he had established his fourth homestead in British Columbia.

Final Move

Hjorth died at Campbell River on Vancouver Island on May 31, 1936 in his 88th year and is buried in the cemetery there, no known headstone. According to vital records, Nils Christian Hjorth, or Nils Kristian Hjorth, was born August 20, 1848 in Norway, the son of Cort Hjorth. His wife whom he married in 1900 was Alma Oberg,(or Ulma Oberg) born January 9, 1863 in Sweden, the daughter of Godfrey Osterman. Carl Gustave Osterman was a witness at her wedding in Vancouver. She had a son from her earlier marriage, named Gustav A. Oberg, born in Sweden, December 6, 1891. Mrs Oberg and her son arrived in Canada in 1899.

A delightful headline in the Comox District Free Press announced Nils Hjorth's last move.

"Old Sea Captain Slips His Cable" Campbell River, June 4 – Captain Nels Hjorth, Read Island, passed away at Lourdes hospital Sunday, in his eighty–sixth year. The old Norse captain was a well known and picturesque figure on Read Island where he had made his home since 1906. Funeral services were held Tuesday for interment in Campbell River cemetery, with R. J. Walker, Gowlland Harbor, deputizing for Rev. Alan Green. He leaves no relatives. Trained to the sea, Captain Hjorth left his native Norway at an early age and subsequently became Master on several sailing vessels which plied between Europe and Coal Harbor, Burrard Inlet, in the early '80s. Subsequently he settled at Vancouver (then known as Gastown) but after a little while removed to the gold mining area at Shoal Bay, Thurlow Island. Here he operated a general store for miners and loggers. Later he became night–watchman on sailing vessels tied up at Vancouver, and in 1906 took up a pre–emption near Hoskin Inlet, Read Island, where he established a small ranch, and where, until a month ago, he lived.

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