Changing Currents

From its earliest days, New Westminster has sent and received products by ship on the Fraser River. On December 17, 1859, a local newspaper reported that the schooner DL Clinch had left for San Francisco with a cargo of 60,000 feet of cabinet wood and 50 barrels of cranberries. As she left, she received a 13-gun salute as the first vessel with a cargo of BC produce to leave New Westminster for a foreign port.

A sailing ship lodging in early New West, NWPL 273
A sailing ship lodging in early New West, NWPL 273

Before that, salt, nails, gunpowder, molasses, kettles, tobacco, rum, guns, mill wheels, and oxen were frequently carried up the Fraser to Fort Langley, while salmon in barrels, shingles, furs, and beaver skins were carried on the return trip downriver.

In 1925, the British Columbian declared: “Not entirely, but to a great extent, the hopes of New Westminster’s development industrially are based on the river and its recognition as a fresh water port. Shipping in the Fraser River is engaged largely in carrying to all parts of the world the product of industrial plants on its banks. There is also, however, a growing activity in the shipping of products from elsewhere, in itself a valuable recognition of the claims of the Fraser to become one of the major outlets on Canada’s Pacific seaboard.

Aside from a freshwater harbour, normally open year round, the city had wharves and warehouses served with trackage and, through the only inter-switching facilities in the far west, access to four trans-continental railway systems and one of the largest electric railway systems on the continent. This unique combination of water and rail shipping facilities was quickly recognized and the number of ocean-going vessels entering the port of New Westminster jumped from 20 ships in 1923 to 150 ships in 1925.

New West docks circa 1955 NWPL 675
New West docks circa 1955 NWPL 675

By the end of the 1920s, there was a great variety of goods coming and going from the port at New Westminster. Tons of corn and canned corned beef from Argentina and coffee from Brazil were transshipped by road to Vancouver, while the same vessel left with bar metal. The same year, 1929, the Roman Star left with 5,000 cases of fresh eggs for the United Kingdom, France, and Germany–the first such export in a refrigerated ship. In 1937, 60 cars, or 50,000 boxes, of apples were sent to the port, destined for three fast “express freighters” going to the UK.

Liners at the New West dock circa 1940, A Sense of History Collection
Liners at the New West dock circa 1940, A Sense of History Collection

As is often the case, war had a major effect on industry and the import/export of goods. During World War II, the principal export was lumber with some metal and assorted cargo, and the prime destination was the UK. Just a few years later in January 1952, a record was set for the shipment of wheat to the UK with just over 1 million bushels leaving on 13 vessels that month alone. Lumber was the export leader with nearly 32 million board feet being shipped. Of this total, roughly 27 million board feet went to the UK, 3.5 million board feet to Australia, followed by the Hawaiian Islands, Tahiti, Samoa and Fiji. The UK also took the bulk of other lumber products of plywood, shingles, and box shooks, as well as lead and zinc. The export of apples to the UK was down but the entire export of whiskey went to Japan and Fiji.

In 1972, a $3-million auto distribution centre was built on Annacis Island in cooperation with Nissan Auto Co. (Datsun) offering full draft berthage for super car carriers, a 32.7 acre site, and space for 7,000 cars. Now, almost 50 years later, this terminal is known as WWL Vehicles Services Canada and handles vehicles from about 15 different auto manufacturers. The cars arrive on “RoRos,” vessels designed for cargo that rolls on and off its decks. A single RoRo handles roughly 3,000 to 4,000 vehicles, and it takes about four hours to unload the cars. The terminal can store up to 25,000 vehicles at one time.

In 1974—two years after the opening of the Annacis distribution centre— New Westminster moved into the “big league” of the shipping world with the opening of a new container-handling dock equal in size and capacity to any other in the world. A pair of huge gantry-type cranes, the largest in Canada, especially for containers were described as the “heart” of the docks: The Columbian of December 10, 1974 described the cranes as “So important are they to the operation of the dock that they were designed first, and the other facilities were then designed to back them up.

A 1979 Fraser Port brochure describes the port as one “of international stature”:

Imports from, and exports to, Japan are the perennial tonnage leaders, with automobiles and steel accounting for almost 90% of total import tonnage in a typical year. In return, Canada ships to Japan its wood chips and lumber, ore concentrates, and pulp. But the deep-sea traffic which plies the Fraser River carries a truly international bill of lading: asbestos, fertilizer, and wheat for Africa in return for coffee and tea, wine, and twine; lead concentrate to the Netherlands in return for creosote oil; paper products, shingles, and shakes to Australia and New Zealand for their fruit, meat, and nickel.”

A present-day industrial shipping organization near our city is Fraser Surrey Docks. FSD specializes in steel, forest products, containerized cargo, and speciality grains in addition to other bulk cargo. FSD opened in 1962 as a multi-purpose marine terminal. The terminal  handles between 300 and 400 deep-sea vessels annually and when a container ship arrives, it takes over 350 people to unload its cargo.

Those present at the official opening of the New Westminster Harbour Commission in 1913 might not be terribly surprised if they returned to New West today. At the time, Col JD Taylor, New Westminster’s then-MP, said they were marking, “the bringing into being of the port capable of accommodating the shipping of the whole world.” And that is exactly what has happened. The Fraser River is at the very heart of our community and connects us all to the whole world.