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North Delta history: The fierce frozen Fraser

It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when North Deltans could skate across the Fraser River
Delta residents take to the frozen Fraser River, circa 1920. (Photo courtesy of the Delta Museum and Archives Society)

By Nancy Demwell, Delta Museum and Archives Society

In 1862, the Fraser River froze solid. The ice was 13 to 25 inches thick from bank to bank, extending from Lulu Island up to Hope. A shipping lane was impossible to keep clear and shipping traffic was stalled. Vital supplies could not reach the then-provincial capital of New Westminster or the Royal Engineers camp at Sapperton.

The freezing of the river was both a boon and a peril to North Deltans and folks from other communities south of the Fraser. When it was frozen solid, the ice provided a highway to New Westminster. Buggies and wagons would traverse the river and people would walk to communities upstream. On Jan. 21, 1862, some enterprising Americans landed beef cattle at Point Roberts, drove the herd up Mud Bay and along the then-new Kennedy Trail (through what is now North Delta), and then up the frozen river to New Westminster, relieving the supply crisis north of the river.

Danger arrived with the spring thaw. The ice broke up with thunderous sound, and ice floes traveled swiftly down the river propelled by the rising waters and powerful current. Wooden hulled ships and boats were at risk from the ice driven downstream by the melting snow and ice upstream.

In 1873, William Brewer and William Jenkins went out in a birch bark canoe to reach Brownsville. Their canoe was hit by an ice floe and snapped in half. The two men clung to their canoe while locals pushed a boat onto the ice and hacked their way through the ice to rescue them. A similar accident happened in 1876 to T. Lewis, a justice of the peace from Sumas, and William Gillander from Chilliwack, but unfortunately these men could not be saved.

The Fraser River has frozen many times in the last 150 years. Les Starheim, a fourth generation North Deltan, remembers going out on the ice with his friend, Berger Stegavig, at the Annieville (now Gunderson) Slough in the winter of 1948/49. They drilled a hole and measured the depth of the ice; that year it was seven inches. Then they laced on their skates and skated all the way to the grain elevator (now replaced by the Surrey Docks). Starheim said that the ice would rise and fall as the tide came in and out.

The Fraser last froze in the winter of 1962, but more modern ice breaking technology kept the shipping channel open. Now, in 2017/18, we are experiencing a very mild winter. Climate scientists report that the Vancouver area has trended to 2 degrees warmer in the past 100 years. It seems that this freezing will become increasingly rare — sadly for Starheim, who enjoyed his skate on the Fraser.

Nancy Demwell is a board member with the Delta Museum and Archives Society.

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Locals enjoy a game of hockey on the frozen Fraser River, circa 1923. (Photo courtesy of the New Westminster Archives)