YOUR HISTORY: Fraser River flows through history of Coquitlam
What is 1,375 km long, runs from the Rocky Mountains to Vancouver and annually pours 20 million tons of sediment into the Pacific Ocean?
Did you guess the Fraser River?
To celebrate Canadian Rivers Day on June 8, let’s reflect on B.C.’s longest river — the 10th longest in Canada — and its significant ebbs and flows throughout Coquitlam’s history.
The river has shaped B.C.’s geographical, environmental, industrial and historical landscape for millennia. Declared B.C.’s heritage river in 1996 and Canada’s Heritage River two years later, the Fraser is a natural entity onto its own.
It is named after Simon Fraser, a North West Company employe, who was the first European to fully map the river, which he did between 1806 and 1808.
Many Coquitlam residents feel connected to the Fraser because of happy memories like fishing, swimming and canoeing. It may have been the scenic view during a road trip. Many will remember when our now local MP, Fin Donnelly, swam the length of the Fraser and into news headlines in his 1995 Swim for Life.
However you connect to this river, there is one unchangeable fact: The Fraser is interlinked with Coquitlam. The Brunette, Coquitlam and Pitt rivers are all tributaries of the Fraser. Fishing on the Fraser has been part of Canadian heritage and First Nations culture for centuries, and it is one of the largest salmon and white sturgeon spawning waters in the world.
The Fraser made it possible to operate Fraser Mills, which led to urban development in early Coquitlam. The Fraser River provided a water passage for transportation that was crucial as logged lumber travelled down the river for mill processing. Once the wood was ready for export, the river once again enabled lumber products to be loaded onto cargo ships and trains. To ensure safety, the Fraser’s channel was dredged in 1903 with federal government support.
We cannot forget that along with being valuable, the Fraser is also very powerful and has immense destructive potential. Longtime Coquitlam and Port Coquitlam residents still have vivid memories of the 1948 flood. There was relative calm during the balmy May long weekend 66 years ago before an unprecedented number of dikes broke due to the combination of warm weather and heavy snowpack melting. Many accounts can be read on how the community came together to save personal property, and Fraser Mills and Essondale equipment.
Minnie E. Best recalls in the book Coquitlam 100 Years how “the men had to work night and day to keep the water from going throughout the city. All the available men worked placing sandbags by the side of the river.” She goes on to describe her contribution in the form of pie baking for all the helpers.
Residents and industries were well experienced with Fraser’s flooding. There had been a record-breaking 1894 flood. But since then, coastal development had significantly increased. The damage 55 years later totalled in the millions and thousands of people were displaced. Approximately 50,000 acres of land was under water, the clean-up took months.
Magnificent, powerful, life-giving and invaluable, the Fraser River is B.C.’s flowing treasure.
Your History is a column in which representatives of the Tri-Cities’ heritage groups write about local history. Sandra Isabel Martins is museum co-ordinator with the Coquitlam Heritage Society.