Surrey History Banner

The Semiahmoo Trail
by Ron Dowle

This is an abbreviated and reconstructed version of "The Semiahmoo Trail: Myths, Makers, Memories" by Ron Dowle, published by the Surrey Historical Society in 2008.

Semiahmoo Trail cover

Cover picture is Garry Watkins and son walking the Trail in 1977. The Semiahmoo Trail: Myths, Makers, Memories pulls back the curtain on a little–known piece of Surrey history. The Semiahmoo Trail was built 1873–74 and crossed Surrey from the Fraser River to the Canada–U.S. border. Author Ron Dowle has written a highly readable first–ever history of the Trail. The 68 page book includes previously unpublished material from pioneer writings, surveyor field books and historical plans and maps held archival collections in British Columbia and Whatcom County in Washington State. The book may be purchased from the Surrey Historical Society through John Bliss


The origins of the New Westminster to Semiahmoo Road have been obscured by a fog of mistaken beliefs and the story told by the few remaining papers is related here for the first time in its 135 year history. It was built as a Wagon Road and formerly ran across Surrey from the Fraser River to the US border, much as the King George Highway does today. Although the construction of the Road had already been given some consideration by the Provincial Government in Victoria it was correspondence from an unlikely source, which, in 1873, finally produced action. Information about the use made of the Road is sadly lacking and within 30 years of its construction, with the coming of the railways, it was falling into disuse.

The Semiahmoo Road was built in 1873–74 to link New Westminster with Semiahmoo; a settlement located at the 49th parallel in US territory where present day Blaine, Washington, now stands. The Road started on the south bank of the Fraser River from Brown's Landing, a wharf built by Ebenezer Brown, a prosperous wine and liquor merchant and a prominent New Westminster citizen. Today, at low tide the remains of wooden pilings can be seen in the Fraser River under the Skytrain Bridge, all that remain of Brown's once busy wharf. Browns Landing developed into a thriving community which became known as Brownsville. Today it is known as South Westminster and the once respected name of Ebenezer Brown is little remembered.

From Brown's Landing the Semiahmoo Road ran between the two lots Brown, with much foresight, had pre–empted in 1859. It rounded Snake Hill and then ran south–south–east, across the future Municipality of Surrey, with a slight change of direction where it crossed the Serpentine and Nicomekl Rivers, and continued to the mouth of the Campbell River. From there the route followed the coast to the 49th parallel and Semiahmoo (Blaine). Its total length was 26.8 km (16.75 miles). The remnant of the Semiahmoo Road in South Surrey, now known as the Semiahmoo Trail, was the first site in Surrey to be designated as a heritage site. The By–law conferring this status (15280), enacted in 2004, gave the Trail permanent protection and was the culmination of years of campaigning by former Surrey Alderman Garry Watkins. It soon became evident that with the increasing pace of development in Surrey more protection was needed. Jack Monk, a member of the Surrey Heritage Advisory Commission, created the Friends of Semiahmoo Trail, an informal organization dedicated to preserving the Trail and actively assisting in its maintenance. The Friends worked closely with the City of Surrey and in 2005 two further Bylaws (15808 and 15984) were enacted to ensure that future developments adjacent to the Trail would be consistent with the preservation of its rural and heritage status as an amenity to be enjoyed by all.

Brown's Landing

Brown's Landing in 1902

Was there a pre–existing trail?

It is not clear when the romantic notion arose that the Semiahmoo Trail was originally an aboriginal trail to the Fraser River. The idea was not mentioned by the veteran surveyor, WN Draper whose 1944 paper was the first to publish any information about the construction of the Trail. No references to the story have been found before the 1970s but it had certainly become a verbal legend by the late 1940s. The name, Semiahmoo Trail suggests the "Trail of the Semiahmoos". This is a natural, but mistaken, interpretation; in fact the name means the "Trail to Semiahmoo". Many people still believe that the Trail was originally an aboriginal trail. It is ironic that we owe the preservation of the Trail in South Surrey to a mistaken belief about its origin.

Before the Road was built

When the Semiahmoo Road was built there were only 14 qualified voters in the area; nine years later, in 1879, when Surrey became a municipality, there were still only 35 registered voters. At that time women did not have the right to vote. The few settlers gained access either from the coast or by river.

Prior to the construction of the Semiahmoo Road, there were scarcely any roads in Surrey. In 1858 a trail from Semiahmoo to Fort Langley was constructed and in 1861 James Kennedy, one of Surrey's first settlers, who had pre–empted land on the south shore of the Fraser near the former Annieville, built the Kennedy Trail under contract from Colonel Moody, the Officer Commanding the Royal Engineers Detachment.

This trail ran from Mud Bay to Kennedy's pre–emption on the Fraser River. In 1865 a section of the ill–fated Collins Overland Telegraph Trail was built though Surrey and followed portions of the Kennedy Trail. (See Kennedy Trail)(See Trails)

At this time, New Westminster was already a town of some importance. It was the largest town on the Pacific coast north of San Francisco and was the first town in British Columbia to have a Mayor and a Municipal Council. It lost its status as the capital of the Colony of British Columbia two years after the colonies of British Columbia and Vancouver Island were united in 1866.

By 1871 pressure was building for the construction of a road from New Westminster to Semiahmoo. A petition from Semiahmoo settlers on both sides of the border was organized and strongly supported. In 1859, soon after the International Boundary Commission had delineated the boundary between Canada and the US, the first survey work was carried out in the area which was to become Surrey. JW Trutch, a surveyor and later Lieutenant–Governor of British Columbia, laid out the Coast Meridian (the meridian from the point where the 49th parallel intersected the coast of Semiahmoo Bay) as a base line for surveys and future land sales. The Surveyor–General's maps show that several other surveyors were active in the area between 1869 and 1874. They were continuing Trutch's work but their activities were not connected with the construction of the Semiahmoo Road.

The radical editor of the Mainland Guardian, JK Suter, frequently berated the Government over their slowness to act and open a Road. News items which pointed out the need for a road found a place in his columns. On June 28, 1871 he reported:

Dr. Thomber was sent for to Semiahmoo on an important case and will have to go on foot and by canoe about 40 miles round to reach it. The consequence is that he will be several days absent whereas if the road was opened he could go and return the same day. When will our citizens learn to understand their own interests?
On July 1 he added: Dr Thomber returned yesterday. . . after travel by Mud Bay and Semiahmoo Bay. . . . The population of Semiahmoo is increasing and the people there would be glad to have the road completed as soon as possible.
The following month, on August 30, Suter reported: A number of settlers from Semiahmoo came to this city only last Saturday and attended divine service at Holy Trinity Church. They said numbers would come on Saturday and stay to Sunday to attend church if there were a trail.

Reasons behind the decision to build the Semiahmoo Trail

Pressures within British Columbia

On July 1st 1871 British Columbia entered Confederation with Canada as a Province. The agreement with British Columbia provided a very generous population estimate which was the basis for annual grants from the Federal Government. The Province was heavily indebted due to road construction during the Cariboo Gold Rush and other regional rushes. There was pent–up demand for many capital projects especially road construction to provide settlement access through many parts of the Province. One of the priority projects was a road from New Westminster to the border community of Semiahmoo (present Blaine, Washington).

Pressures outside of British Columbia
A letter from Mr Burns

The surprising event, which finally seems to have moved the Government to action, occurred on February 13, 1873 when the Mayor of New Westminster, James Cunningham, read out to the Municipal Council a letter from John E Burns, Chairman of the Executive Committee of Port Townsend in Washington Territory. Burns said that he was going to open a steam ship route for mail and goods from Port Townsend via various Gulf Islands to Whatcom and Semiahmoo. He expected that the service would commence within the next 90 days and asked the Mayor to open a road to Semiahmoo to facilitate trade and communication.

PORT TOWNSEND W.T., Feby, 3. To the hon. Mayor and Gentlemen of the Common Council of New Westminster, B.C. Item: – It is proposed to immediately open a mail and steamship route from Port Townsend to Dungeness, San Juan, Lopez, Orcas, [ ? ], Guenas, Fidaglo and Samalah Island, Whatcom and Semiahmoo, and back twice per week in a good steamer adapted to the trade; it is further proposed to procure a Custom house or a Local Deputy Collector of Customs at Semiahmoo for the purpose of effecting an interchange and inter–communication with British Columbia on the new road to and with New Westminster.
It is desired to have the road from your place made a stage road to a point convenient and opposite Semiahmoo and a line of stages thereon; then with a steam ferry, to connect with Semiahmoo, a through and direct route and consequently trade and a most desirable [ ? ] communication through you with British Columbia would be generally secured. The route – would be to Semiahmoo, 125 miles, thence to New Westminster say 16, – which is not to much for one days (sic) travel. We have already taken steps which we think will secure this as a mail route and an adequate mail service thereon, completed and in operation within the next 90 days. Now in view of the premises, and the Inter–Territorial and Colonial importance of the scheme, will you cooperate with us by taking such action as will secure the desired, and indicated (or some other as good) connection. I think the importance of the measure justifies addressing you upon the subject, and will, no doubt, secure the attention at your hands, which it seems to us, to merit. A copy of a letter sent to Semiahmoo City will immediately secure the cooperation of that settlement. Hoping to hear from you soon and favorably, we remain the Executive committee for the citizens of Port Townsend.


The Council appointed Councilors Ebenezer Brown, Charles G Major and R Dickinson as a three man committee to consider Burns' proposal. They reported back favourably and the Mayor called a public meeting to ascertain the views of citizens.

The well attended public meeting was held on March 1 and resolutions supporting the project were passed. A subscription list was opened and about $650 subscribed. Ebenezer Brown, the owner of the wharf at Browns Landing, headed the list with $200, a very handsome sum in those days. The Mainland Guardian editor forecast that the amount subscribed would in a few days be doubled. He was not far out for the total eventually reached $1227.50, which would be $21,940 in today's money and Ebenezer Brown's contribution would have been more than $3,500. The Council resolved to forward Burns' letter, along with the resolutions passed at the public meeting, to the Government and requested that the Mayor write to Burns at Port Townsend and to the settlers at Semiahmoo with an account of the proceedings at the public meeting.

In early April a further letter was received from Burns informing the Mayor that his steamship service would commence operation on April 1 and anticipating the early completion on the road:

JAMES CUNNINGHAN, ESQ., Mayor of New Westminster
Dear Sir:
I have the honor to inform you that our efforts have been successful, in procuring the establishment of the proposed Mail Route from this place via the (nearly all) San Juan Group of Islands to Whatcom and Semiahmoo, and service weekly thereon, commencing April 1st prox. Two other steam mail routes also terminate at Semiahmoo, thus converging at your doors important streams of probable travel and traffic. Your evident connection therewith, by Stage road, soon to be completed, is very gratifying to us and I have no doubt will prove mutually very profitable, and tend to make "as we ought to be" closer neighbours.
Chairman Committee
Port Townsend, W.T. March 27, 1873

The Provincial Government

No Government records concerning the decision to build the Semiahmoo Road have been found. An exception is an entry in the Executive Council minute book dated June 2, 1873 stating that $2,500 "over the vote for New Westminster" had been appropriated for the Semiahmoo Road.

At this time the Lieutenant–Governor of British Columbia was JW Trutch, the former surveyor, who knew the area of present day Surrey as well as anyone. He had surveyed the Coast Meridian. He also surveyed the area on the south bank of the Fraser River, later known as Brownsville, and from where the Semiahmoo Road was to start. In 1873, less than two years after Confederation, the main concern of BC politicians was the lack of progress in the construction of the railway link with the rest of Canada. The promise of a rail link had been the key to securing British Columbia's entry into Confederation.

References in the Mainland Guardian suggest that the project to open the Road had been a under consideration by the Government for several years before the arrival of the Burns' letter. The letters from John Burns and the substantial contribution by the citizens of New Westminster were evidently the catalysts which moved the Government to action. The absence of any urgent need and the acute shortage of funds had no doubt been the reasons for inaction. With Confederation, Federal funds became available and the reactions of merchants and influential citizens in New Westminster to Burns' letter, plus a tangible demonstration of interest in the shape of a handsome public subscription towards the cost, evidently moved the Government in Victoria to action and matters moved forward with amazing speed.

The survey

On April 19 a brief item in the Mainland Guardian reported: "We are informed that George Turner, CE has instructions to proceed next week to lay out the line of the road". Sessional papers also record that George Turner on behalf of the Government and LF Bonson on behalf of the citizens of New Westminster located and surveyed the line of the Semiahmoo Road and that Bonson was subsequently appointed Superintendent of the District (presumably of Roads) at $100 per month and supervised the Semiahmoo Road contracts. They also record that Turner was paid $75 for the survey and $21 for the plan. The accounts of the Lands and Works Department state that he was out for 15 days and paid $5 per day.

In April/May 1873, when the Semiahmoo Road was laid out by George Turner and Lewis F Bonson, Surrey had not been surveyed and divided into the Sections which are now the basis for all survey work. This was not done until later in 1873 and 1874 by the pioneer surveyors William Ralph and Joseph Carey. Their work laid the foundations for all future development in Surrey but their names have until now been lost to history. The only previous surveying in the area had been done by J W Trutch in 1859–60 and some of his survey lines are shown on the Plan for the Semiahmoo Road – the line which became 96 Avenue and a portion of the lines which became 16 Avenue and 156 Street.

George Turner

The Surveyors responsible for laying out the route of the Semiahmoo Wagon Road. George Turner who had to lay out the line of the Road by eye and with what surveying instruments he carried with him; selecting the most direct route, the easiest gradients, and the best country with the least amount of water to contend with.

Lewis Bronson

None of this was in time to be of any help to George Turner who had to lay out the line of the Road by eye and with what surveying instruments he carried with him; selecting the most direct route, the easiest gradients, and the best country with the least amount of water to contend with. In those days Surrey was a damp place; an old map of Surrey shows a dozen or more large ponds. One reason why Surrey is today a City of Parks is that many areas of damp, swampy ground were set aside for parks because no other use could be found for them. George Turner presumably marked the route in the usual surveyor's manner with cairns or posts (through these are not mentioned in any contract specifications) and by blaze marks on trees (which are mentioned in two of the contracts).

The first map of the Semiahmoo Road, entitled "A Map of Part of the New Westminster District BC", was produced before much work had been done on the Road. It is held in the Victoria Office of the Land Title and Survey Authority. It shows the Semiahmoo Road labeled "Semiahmoo Waggon (sic) Road under Contract. Position approximate." The route of the Semiahmoo Road is clearly copied from the plan drawn for the construction of the Road. It shows all the imperfections of that plan. The probable date of the map is July or August 1873.

The contracts

For contract purposes the Road as far as the mouth of the Campbell River was divided into four Sections identified by the letters A to E. Specifications calling for tenders were sent to New Westminster in the first part of June, 1873 and on June 14 Suter devoted an entire Mainland Guardian editorial to extravagant complaints about the inadequacy of the specifications: ". . .the Chief Commissioner of Lands and Works is quite incapable of drawing up a perfect document of the kind", "[they] are simply useless as a basis on which to tender", "anyone submitting a tender must draw on his imagination". However, tenders were received and were recorded in the Sessional Papers:

Summary of the Contact Sections

Summary of contract sections

In each contract the specification occupies one handwritten page or less and if these were copied from the specifications sent to New Westminster no wonder Suter complained about them. On July 3, 1873, barely one month after the specifications had been received in New Westminster, three contracts were signed in the Victoria office of the Chief Commissioner for Lands and Works, Robert Beaven, later to become Premier of BC. The fourth was not signed until August 14. The contacts called for completion of the Road to the Nicomekl River by September 30, and to a point near an aboriginal village at the mouth of the Campbell River by October 31. The contract for the final section to the 49th parallel was not signed until June 24 of the following year (1874).

A tracing attached to each contract shows the beginning and end points of the four original Road construction contracts marked with letters A to E. These tracings can be fitted together to form a complete plan of the Semiahmoo Road based on information provided by the surveyor, George Turner. All contracts were signed for the Government by Robert Beaven, Chief Commissioner for Lands and Works, and witnessed by his assistant Stanhope Farwell. The contractors' signatures were witnessed by one of the guarantors or by a contractor's assistant. Henry V Edmonds, clerk to New Westminster Council, also witnessed some of the contracts. The guarantors were prominent New Westminster citizens and included: the Mayor, James Cunningham, Ebenezer Brown and Charles G Major. Major was another prominent merchant, who, along with Brown, had been a member of the committee appointed by the Municipal Council to consider the project. Sometimes the contractor himself signed as guarantor.

The List of contracts

List of contracts

The contracts specify a road 12 feet wide with a total clearance of 16 feet, a mere 2 feet on each side of the road (in the contract for Section D–E only 15 feet of clearance was required) and with ditches 2 feet wide and 1 foot deep. No provision seems to have been made for passing places. Corduroying, made with either logs or slabs, was covered with four inches of gravel or dirt. Cedar or red fir was always specified for corduroying. The amount of corduroying required gives an indication of the nature of the country through which the road ran.

Some details from each contract are given below; costs and dates are taken from the contracts, payment details come from the Sessional Papers. Surprisingly only one of the original contracts, B–C, gives the length of the Section although the last contract, for the Section between the mouth of the Campbell River and the 49th parallel, signed the following year, states the length very precisely.

Construction of Section A–B

Section A–B

Land on the south bank of the Fraser River opposite New Westminster had been surveyed and divided into 12 lots by JW Trutch in 1859. Each lot was a little more than half a mile deep and a quarter of a mile wide. Ebenezer Brown had pre–empted lots 3 and 4. He built a small wharf and started a hotel, Brown's Hotel, on the site where the present Brown's RV Park is located. Brown had already built a plank road (i.e. a road corduroyed with slabs) between his two lots and the contract commenced "from the end of Mr. Brown's plank road" and needed about 850 yards of corduroying to reach the base of Snake Hill where the contract ended. This was the shortest of all the contracts, almost all of it the 850 yards of corduroying. It was by far the longest stretch of corduroying in the contract. Brown paid for extensive but unspecified improvements to the contract work. Full payment was made on October 20, 1873, so this contract was evidently completed on time.

Map Section A–B north

Map of Section A–B and part of B–C

Construction of Section B–C

Section B–C

From Point B, the road swings around Snake Hill and continues in a south–south–east direction. Point C was located south of the intersection of present Highway 10 and King George Highway probably near where the present 144A Street joins King George Highway. There was some wet and swampy ground to contend with and nearly 600 yards of corduroying was needed; six small bridges also had to be built. The land was heavily treed in parts and the contractors had about 7 ½ miles of blazed line which they were instructed to follow ". . . as near as possible; that is, not to deviate more than one chain either side of the blazed line with the privilege of going round any large stump that may be in the way". The final payment of $937 was not made until October 6, 1874, so the actual completion may have been delayed by as much as a year. However, there is no record of any penalties being exacted. A note added to the specifications by Robert Beaven and dated November 11, 1873 reads: "Bridges should have handrails. No portion of road completed according to specifications".

The contractors for this Section, William Brewer and William Woodward, were neighbours. Their pre–emptions numbered DL168 and DL169, were side by side just north of the Serpentine River, and the two men had arranged matters so that the Road ran along the boundary lines between their pre–emptions. On the other side of Brewer's land, Lancelot Grimmer had pre–empted land (DL167). He signed the contract as guarantor. Grimmer later became an official of the British Columbia Electric Railway. Another guarantor was William Woodward's son, John, who was then only 16 or 17. Both contractors had been farmers in England before coming to British Columbia. Brewer was from Surrey, England, and it is said that he suggested the name Surrey; the new Surrey having the same geographical relationship with New Westminster as his native county had with Westminster in England. (See W.J. Brewer) William Woodward was the founder of the Surrey pioneer family of that name. He came to British Columbia in 1870 from Cheshire, England after the death of his wife and three of his daughters in an epidemic. He brought with him his young son John. They were later joined by John's surviving sisters. (See Woodward Family)

map of north sector B–C

Map of Section B–C

Construction of Section C–D

Section C–D

The contractor for this Section was John Kirkland. He had a good deal of experience with such work and his name frequently appears in Sessional Papers as contractor for other projects. One of the few facts known about him is that in his will he left his handsome savings to his four sisters in Scotland apparently having no other family. He may be the John Kirkland who became a Justice of the Peace in Ladner in 1883. Kirkland received a half payment on the completion due date, September 30, and the final half on December 12. The contract required the construction of a bridge over the Serpentine at a new location, as well as the strengthening of and repairs to the Nicomekl Bridge. This was a short section and although the payment dates imply that there was no great delay in completing the work, as there were actually serious problems with the construction. On September 27 the Mainland Guardian reported: "The Semiahmoo Road is progressing very well as far as it goes but. . .the Mud Bay flats remain untouched. . . . There is three and a half or four miles which will be entirely impassible in winter except by canoe." Two further contracts would be needed to make the bridges satisfactory.

Map of Mud Bay Section C–D

Map of Section C–D

Construction of Section D–E

Section D–E

John Kirkland was also the contractor for this section. The contract was signed six weeks later than the others, on August 14, and completion was not required until October 15, two weeks after the other contracts. Perhaps this was a concession to the contractor who had two contracts to carry out. Two bridges are specified in the contract for Section D–E, but these would have been smaller bridges over minor streams. Again the contractor is instructed to follow the blazed line without deviating more than one chain from it. The contractor was also enjoined to avoid sharp angles. The contract terminated at a small aboriginal village near the mouth of the Campbell River. According to GM Sproat many old houses were destroyed when the Road was built and by 1879 the village had been abandoned.

Trail between 24th and 28th Ave. The modern Semiahmoo Trail Stump on Semiahmoo Trail

Left: The Semiahmoo Trail, middle: The Semiahmoo Trail between24 and 28 Avenues, right: Semiahmoo Trail Stump

Sketch map of Camp Semiahmoo area in 1879

Sketch map of Camp Semiahmoo

Construction of the Section from the Campbell River to the 49th parallel

Mouth of the Campbell River

Sketch of Mouth of the Campbell River

The final section of the Road to the 49th parallel was not part of the original contracts signed in July and August 1873. Five tenders were received for the contract for this Section.

Contracts tendered

Tenders for Campbell River to the 49th parallel

Section D–E

Contract awarded for the Campbell River to the 49th parallel

The two farmers, Woodward and Brewer, who had successfully bid on the initial contracts are still interested in road construction but are now bidding against each other. The contract for this section was not signed until June 24, 1874, almost a year after the first contracts. No explanation for this has been found. The contract was for $1,100 and was let to William Litster. The original for this drawing, which does not show the references to the contract, has been found and may have been drawn by Turner. The length of the section is given with great precision, down to the last link, 1 mile 56–17/100 chains; such exact measurements are not used in any of the other contracts. The cleared width for the Road, 30 feet, is more than double that previously specified but the width of the Road remains the same; 12 feet. The contract includes the construction of a 100 foot bridge across the Campbell River, described as a common bents type. The specifications for this contract were written up on a more detailed form than the earlier contracts. Standard specifications were included in the form with blanks left for specific details. Perhaps complaints about inadequate specifications had, had some effect.

Map Nicomekl to the Campbelll River

Contract for the section from the mouth of the Campbell River to the 49th parallel

Construction Problems

When the Chief Commissioner of Lands and Works, Robert Beaven, signed the contracts for the construction of the Semiahmoo Road, it must have seemed a fairly modest project. More than 20 percent of the total cost of $5,537 had been contributed by the citizens of New Westminster. However, it was soon apparent that more work was needed on the Serpentine and Nicomekl bridges and on September 22, 1873, less than three months after signing the original contract, Beaven signed a new contract with John Kirkland for these bridges. A section drawing of the Nicomekl Bridge was part of the specifications. The contract also states that "the under structure of the [Serpentine] Bridge is to remain as it is at present". It is not clear what this statement implies about the removal of the bridge but the surveyor, William Ralph, was in the area in August and September of 1873 and in his map he shows the bridge still in its old position. For the Nicomekl, an entirely new bridge was needed and was to be built on the west (downstream) side of the old bridge. The cost for both bridges was set at $725 with completion by October 31. However, the first payment of $375 was not made until December 31 and the balance was not paid until April 27 of the following year. It is uncertain whether the picture of the bridge on the next page is of Kirkland's bridge; the original is undated but is thought to be from the early 1880s.

On July 19, 1875, a new contract for the Serpentine River Bridge with more detailed specifications was signed with Alexander Murchison and William Henry Vannatta. This bridge was to be 134 feet long, 14 feet wide, with a main span of 55 feet and two other spans of 34 feet. The cost was $995. Completion was required by September 15, 1875 and full payment was made on October 28. A further unexplained payment of $74.87 was made to Murchison and Vannatta on November 18. Vannatta was Murchison's son–in–law. Both families had arrived in New Westminster in 1873 from Sioux City, Iowa, and moved to Langley in 1874.

The bridges were not the only problem Beaven had to deal with. Section C–D of the Road, between the two rivers, an area appropriately known as Mud Bay Flats, had huge water problems and had to be rebuilt. Tenders were called for and were recorded in the Sessional Papers under a heading "Woodward's to Nicomekl Bridge".

Nicomekl Bridge contact

The new contract for this section was signed with William J Brewer on May 14, 1874. It called for enormous drainage ditches on both sides of the Road. They were to be 20 feet apart, six feet across at the top, four feet deep and four feet across at the bottom. No traces of these ditches remain as they lie buried under King George Highway. The outsides of the roadway were to be walled with solid grass sod and the centre filling packed solid to receive the corduroy on top. The construction was in effect a causeway across the Mud Bay Flats. The completion date was August 31. The cost was a staggering $4,750, nearly as much as the initial $5,537 cost for the entire project. Payments for this work were spread out over the second half of 1874: June 30, $937; September 17, $1,050; October 19, $1,168.75; December 28, $750. A final payment of $844.25 to complete the contract is missing from the accounts in the Sessional Papers. No papers dealing with this considerable cost overrun have been found. An editorial in the Mainland Guardian commented on a speech made by Lieutenant–Governor Joseph Trutch to the Legislative Assembly on December 23, 1873. The paper complained that there was "not the remotest allusion to the cost of carrying the Semiahmoo Road over the swamp [i.e. Mud Bay Flats] from the portions constructed at each end".

Building the Road

The following table shows the cost per mile of the various contracts and is a measure of the difficulty of the terrain, which principally means the amount of swampy ground and water the contractors had to contend with.

Cost per mile

Chart of cost per mile

The two long sections across north and south Surrey (B–C) and (D–E), over relatively well drained country, were the least expensive per mile. The most costly sections, A–B and the new contract for C–D, crossed the flood plains of the Fraser River and the Serpentine and Nicomekl Rivers and were five times more expensive. McDonough (A–B) evidently got his estimates right; he probably knew the area he was bidding on well. But Kirkland (C–D) was wildly wrong in his estimate (he was the only bidder). Perhaps he was mislead by poor specifications or just did not know the area he was taking on. Litster's bid for the section to the 49th parallel included a long bridge. The final cost of all contracts was $13,182 (road construction and bridges) to which must be added the cost of supervision and inspection and some items shown in the Sessional Papers but not included in the contracts, such as flood gates for the Serpentine River Bridge. The actual total must have been nearer $15,000 or about $280,000 in today's money.

The Public Works Report in the 1875 Sessional Papers also lists a contract for "Section A of the Semiahmoo Road commencing at Brown's Landing, opposite New Westminster, and terminating at the junction of Section 1 New Westminster and Hope Wagon Road". But this part of the Semiahmoo Road was already completed as Section A–B, with improvements paid for by Ebenezer Brown, and as part of Section B–C. Although listed by Draper as a Semiahmoo Road contract, the payment is shown in the Sessional Papers as being for the New Westminster–Hope Road, now known as Yale Road, and this is where the contract properly belongs; it was not one of the Semiahmoo Road contracts. Draper's 1944 paper is the only previously published reference to the Semiahmoo Road contracts. He lists most of them but misinterprets some. He was evidently working only from the Sessional Papers and had not seen the original contracts.

Nicomekl Bridge 1880

The Nicomekl Bridge 1880

Bridge over the Nicomekl River

The building in the middle background is the Customs House. The picture was probably taken between 1880, when the Customs House was opened, and 1886, when a lift span bridge was built to enable vessels to go farther up the Nicomekl River.

The opening of the Road passed without ceremony and the Mainland Guardian does not appear to have regarded it as an event. At a meeting in Ottawa on November 26, 1874, presided over by the Mayor of New Westminster, a petition regarding mail services was presented to the Postmaster General in which the second item of five was: "The necessity for the earliest possible establishment of direct mail communications with Semiahmoo," suggesting that the Road must have been open at that time. The final payments to Brewer, on October 19 and December 28, for remaking the Road between the Serpentine and Nicomekl Rivers also support the conclusion that the actual Road was completed in the late fall of 1874.


Two reminiscences from members of the work crews who built the Semiahmoo Road have been found. One is from Lois Boblett (1844–1925) who, with her husband Ed, was the founder of the Boblett pioneer family in Blaine. She wrote:

One year [1873] Ed and Charley, our boy, were going to Mud Bay, B.C., to work helping to build a corduroy road across the flats and the contractor wanted a cook so I hired out and went over to cook for the crew. There were twenty–five men and I cooked nearly all summer and got $45 a month. I felt quite rich when we got through and came home. We worked all that summer.

The other comes also from south of the 49th parallel and is from George T McKinley:

. . . I was about fourteen years of age, and thinking I was pretty much a man, started knocking around for myself. My first job was with a crew slashing out a trail from Semiahmoo to New Westminster at $25 per month and board. That work took us all summer and fall, and since I had not yet learned to smoke or drink, I came back with ninety dollars in my pocket and feeling like a millionaire. It seems that pay for the work crews was around one dollar per day with $1.50 for key workers.

Lois Boblett's reference to a 25 man work crew may be exaggerated. A 25 man crew being paid $25 per month would consume the entire budget for contracts for Sections C–D and D–E in 6 and 8 weeks, respectively. The contracts appear to have taken longer than that to complete. Perhaps the work crews were nearer half that size.

Locating the Route across Surrey

In North Surrey parts of the original Road have been incorporated into Surrey's present road system. The first part of the Old Yale Road from the Fraser River at Brown's Landing follows the same route as the Semiahmoo Road. The two routes separate after about one and one–half miles. The original route is preserved in a pleasant suburban street, still called Semiahmoo Road, which runs as far as 99 Avenue. From there the Road is lost under highway and housing developments in Whalley and Newton and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Headquarters adjacent to Surrey City Hall. It re–emerges for a short distance as 144A Street and then disappears under the north lane of the King George Highway. The Nicomekl Bridge, which now funnels traffic from the King George Highway to Crescent Road, was originally part of the Semiahmoo Road.

The Semiahmoo Trail north of 32 Avenue before residential developments had encroached to its edges.

From the Nicomekl Bridge the Trail follows Elgin Road and crosses Crescent Road to Elgin School. From there it passes through mixed deciduous and coniferous woodland. This was the most attractive section of the Trail. Much of this section is now marred by housing developments, but new plantings are providing screening and there is still woodland left to enjoy.

In 1910 a plan was drawn up by the then Surrey Municipality to develop the Semiahmoo Road, between 32 and 24 Avenues, then known as Elgin Road, to a regular suburban street. This plan was never put into effect but it did establish the standard 66 foot road width as a corridor for the Trail. The stretch between 32 Avenue and 28 Avenue was hard surfaced in the 1950s, though the Surrey Heritage Advisory Commission hopes to return this section to a true trail condition. From 28 to 24 Avenue, the Trail runs through a Douglas Fir forest where the trees are some 80 to 100 years old and were not there when the Trail was built 135 years ago. When the Road was built it was probably an area of mixed Douglas Firs and cedars with trees much bigger than those of today and with less under–brush, alder, maple, etc. Stumps of the first growth cedars that were there can still be seen: the Douglas Fir stumps have long since disappeared. The continuation of the Trail across 24 Avenue can be seen as the driveway of a private residence. South of 24 Avenue it ran in a south–easterly direction crossing 152 Street at about 22 Avenue. The section to 22 Avenue is shown on a 1923 map but cannot be identified on 1930 air photographs.

North Surrey

Rather more is known about the route of the Road through North Surrey than these three markers and the few Road remnants suggest. The first survey of Township 2 in North Surrey is by Joseph Westrop Carey. In 1874 he recorded the locations where his survey lines crossed the Semiahmoo Road. These survey points show that the Road did not pass exactly through the intersection of 80 Avenue and the King George Highway, as stated on the marker, although it did pass close to it. A small portion of the Road can also be seen in the garden of a residence near the intersection of 132 Street and 96 Avenue.

South Surrey

The first survey of Township 1 in South Surrey had been carried out the previous year, 1873 and the locations where the Semiahmoo Road crossed the survey lines were recorded. The surveyor referred to it as the "new Road". In late August 1873, the surveyor noted that he crossed "the blazed line of the New Road to New Westminster". This was in Section D–E of the Road. The contract for this part of the road had only been awarded on August 14. A map drawn by this surveyor, William Ralph, on which he shows the Semiahmoo Road. In 1874 another surveyor, James Mahood, surveyed pre–emptions including those of two of the Semiahmoo Road's contractors William Woodward and William J Brewer. These lie just north of the Serpentine River and Mahood’s map showing the Semiahmoo Road.

In the early 20th century, when most of the Semiahmoo Road had disappeared, those parts remaining in use in South Surrey were known as Elgin Road for the obvious reason that they led to Elgin and are marked as such on some Surrey plans, e.g. from 32 Avenue to 24 Avenue and 144A Street. The name remains for the road leading to the Nicomekl Bridge.

White Rock and the Semiahmoo First Nations' Reserve

In White Rock there are no traces remaining of the original Semiahmoo Road; 1930 air photography also shows no traces. In the Semiahmoo First Nations Reserve, the original route followed the present line of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad.

Three routes through South Surrey and White Rock

At various times the Semiahmoo Road has followed three different routes through South Surrey and White Rock.

Three route through South Surrey

The original 1873 route descended the bluff, somewhere near Maple Street, where the gradient is less severe. It carried on to the western end of the present Semiahmoo Park, and then along the coast to Semiahmoo (Blaine). The plan at appears to show a somewhat different route but this plan is more a diagram than a map. Sproat's and Ralph's maps show the Road as built. The route is also shown on various old maps.

A second route was constructed ca 1907 when the Great Northern was building the railway along the coast through White Rock, using the Semiahmoo Road for the road bed. A new road, which became the present Beach Road, was built approximately parallel to the track and turned north to cross the Campbell River by a new bridge at the foot of Stayte Street. This bridge replaced the original bridge at the mouth of the Campbell River whose location was used by the railway. The present footbridge at the foot of Stayte Street was built for the visit of Pope John Paul in 1985; pilings from the older bridge can be seen beside it. Consequently the route of the Semiahmoo Road had to be changed. The new route to the foot of Stayte Street is shown on a 1910 map of Surrey.

The third route resulted from the construction of the Campbell River Lumber Company's Sawmill in 1913 which forced another change. The area of White Rock between Stayte Street and Maple Street was used for housing for sawmill workers and for storage buildings. The Semiahmoo Road again took second place and was relocated to join Stayte Street at its intersection with Buena Vista Avenue. This route is shown on the 1918 cadastral map of the SE 1/4 of Township 1 and also on a 1923 map of Surrey.

Use and demise

The use and demise of the Semiahmoo Trail is another story. Little is known of the use of the Road during its 30 years of existence but maintenance in what was then often a waterlogged and soggy Surrey would not have been easy. However, the Road must have been a vital link for the communities at Semiahmoo, in the fertile farming areas near the Serpentine and Nicomekl Rivers and for other scattered settlers. It was also the land connection between the most important town in mainland BC, New Westminster, and the US border.

A stagecoach service did operate between New Westminster and Blaine in the 1880s and 1890s but it is not known exactly when the service commenced. The first reference found in the Williams British Columbia Directories is in 1889. Two services were running. White and Gee's tri–weekly service ran from New Westminster to Blaine via Elgin making "a close connection on Tuesdays and Saturdays with steamers for Whatcom and Seattle" and returning the following day. The office was at Wise's stables in New Westminster. The second, also a tri–weekly service and making the same "close connections", was operated by DS Miller. Their office was at Transfer Stables on Columbia Street near the Canadian Pacific Railway depot. This service probably ran via Cloverdale and Halls Prairie Road, now 184th Street. It appears that both services actually started in Brownsville. The 1892 Williams British Columbia Directory lists the service only under the Brownsville and Elgin entries. The service probably ended around the turn of the century when the railway provided faster and more comfortable travel.

There is almost no information about the general use made of the Road. No contemporary photographs, letters or journals which describe travel along it have been found. One lady's reminiscence exists. Elizabeth Loney, who had lived at Elgin as a child, recalled in 1958:

At Elgin there was a hotel catering to the traveling public. Some traveled by stage from New Westminster en route for Blaine. Its capacity would be eight or nine passengers besides the teamster. Here the horses, two in number, were fed and rested, likewise the travelers if so desired. . . . After feeding the horses the stage continued on the Semiahmoo Trail a narrow corduroy road with overhanging branches. Had two vehicles met they would have had a difficult time passing. Once when a theatrical group arrived in New Westminster having evidently been told that they could get to Blaine, USA, by this route, they came to Elgin. Imagine their indignation when they were told that there was only a twice weekly stage. Its passengers were limited to eight or nine with the driver. All went well until they reached the Semiahmoo Trail south of Elgin. It had been raining and the corduroy was afloat, while the wet branches caressed their cheeks much to their annoyance. The horses were having difficulty finding their footing among the floating cordwood. The screams of the ladies broke the silence of the wilderness. It was a very tired group of players who presented themselves in Blaine that night.
Another incident of the Semiahmoo Trail happened soon after this incident. A wedding was to take place. A present must be bought. It was too far to go to New Westminster so we decided to go to Blaine, only six miles distant. A guest at the house decided he would go with us. For some reason we did not have time to go during the day. There was the same rough trail through the wilderness, the same floating logs, and the same caressing wet branches. We reached the bridge on the Campbell River. Unlike the present bridge it was only wide enough for a horse and buggy to pass. From the bridge we traveled the beach road until we reached the Customs Office – this at the time was located on the beach road near the Bay. The Customs Officer greeted us with: "No crossing between sunset and sunup." It was well after sunset then. Horrified at the thought of a long trip home without having fulfilled our errand we looked at the man. Fortunately my husband knew the official, Mr Henry Chantrell, the first B.C. Customs officer at Semiahmoo. When my husband told him of our errand he allowed us to cross. Having made our purchase we were soon on our way home.
Our guest, who had been tense for most of the trip, never having experienced such a trip, breathed a sigh of relief when we were back again. But being something of a joker he remarked: "had it been daylight we would never have made it!" The Semiahmoo trail on the way to the Indian Reserve crosses Johnston Road at or near the present Fortune Teller's home.

The account shows that as late as the 1890s the Semiahmoo Road was still the one lane, 12 feet wide, road constructed 20 years earlier. Elizabeth Loney's poetic description of the branches "caressing" the ladies' cheeks, and the reference to floating corduroy suggests that maintenance was fairly basic. No photographs of the stagecoach have been found. It is disappointing that something so relatively recent should be so little recorded. Were John Burns' hopes realized that a mail and trade service between New Westminster and Semiahmoo "would prove mutually very profitable"? Nothing is known of this. Perhaps the one person who really profited was Ebenezer Brown who would have collected fees for each vessel which used his wharf, Brown's Landing, the northern end of the Semiahmoo Road. On November 18, 1883 Joseph Knevett de Knevett son–in–law of Ebenezer Brown, whose wife was Brown's sole heir, wrote a personal letter to the Lieutenant'Governor, on notepaper bearing his family crest, complaining about the condition of the Semiahmoo Road. In his letter he pointed out "the advisability of making the Semiahmoo Road a practicable route to the American side." No doubt he had his eye on increased traffic and the fees this would generate at Brown's Landing.

The complete Semiahmoo Road from Brownsville to the 49th parallel is shown on an 1897 map but on a 1910 map the Road has disappeared from its junction with the Old Yale Road to the Nicomekl River; clearly the Road no longer served a useful purpose there. A 1923 map restores a little of this by showing the short stretch which is today's Semiahmoo Road in North Surrey.

Today it is hard to understand how a public road, in use for 30 years, and more in some parts, can have largely disappeared from view under housing and other developments without any formal decisions by Surrey Council and without any legal proceedings. What seems to have happened is that as the Road fell into disuse it simply became incorporated into neighbouring properties. The Council did not wish to be burdened with its maintenance and the narrow strip of land along which it ran was then of no value to anyone. The coming of the New Westminster Southern Railway in 1891, from New Westminster to Blaine, sealed the fate of the Semiahmoo Road and the Age of the Automobile completed the process.

Next Page: The Kennedy Trail

Return to Surrey's History INDEX

View My Stats