Sloughs, Bogs, Grassland and Scrub – The Islands Before Richmond

Richmond is truly a child of the Fraser. The City is built on islands in the delta of the Fraser River which were formed, starting about 11,000 years ago, by the deposition of silt and sand on top of glacial deposits from the last Ice Age. Solid bedrock sits more than 200 meters below the surface. Averaging about one meter above sea level with areas subject to flooding during high water, the islands were drained by a vast system of sloughs which allowed rainwater to run off to the river as well as allowing fresh river water to flow in and out with the tide. The shorelines of the islands changed continuously with the action of the river and tides, sections washing away during spring freshets and other areas growing though deposition of silt.

At one time Lulu Island was separated into two islands by a channel, named Daniel’s Arm by Archaeologist Dr. Leonard Ham, which flowed northwest from Lion and Don Islands on the South Arm to the North Arm at Mitchell Island, the last vestige of this being Bath Slough.

This 1935 aerial photo of Richmond clearly shows the former path of the channel known as Daniels Arm, a strip of farmland in this view, separating the east and west Richmond bogs. City of Richmond Archives map.

The low, slough-drained grass and shrub lands that supplanted the former track of this channel, which filled in around 1000 years ago, separated the east and west Richmond bogs, large sphagnum and cranberry bogs. The west part of Lulu Island was mostly slough-drained grass and shrub land, bordered on the west by the Crabapple Ridge, formed on an early beach berm. The higher banks of the island were edged by clusters of wet coniferous forest, spruce forests and alder scrub.

This map shows the types of vegetation existing in Richmond and the rest of the Fraser Lowlands between 1858 and 1880. City of Richmond Archives Map 1987 76 8.

The vegetation on Sea Island was mostly spruce forests on the east and central portions and grasslands and scrub around the north, west and south parts of the Island.

To the Coast Salish peoples of the area, Richmond’s islands were gardens, with cranberry bogs, crab apple trees and plentiful other plant resources.  Deer grazed in the grassland and the sloughs were home to beaver, muskrats and mink as well as spawning salmon. Sturgeon and salmon were available in the river as well, and wildfowl were plentiful, especially during migration cycles. The natural sloughs were important transportation arteries, giving access deep into the islands. More than 100 km of the sloughs were navigable by canoe.

It is estimated that the population of the land now called Richmond was 1000 to 2000 people during the winter, but swelled to perhaps ten times that many during other times of the year, especially during the fishing season. Archaeologists estimate that as many as six permanent house sites existed on Lulu and Sea Islands as well as many fishing and short term camps, salmon weirs and other miscellaneous sites. The smallpox epidemic of 1781 decimated the population of the area leading to the abandonment of most of the sites, although many continued to be used by the First Nations peoples well after the arrival of European settlers.

This is a copy from one of the original surveyor’s field books used by Joseph and John Trutch when they surveyed Lulu Island in 1859, showing some details of the land and vegetation of Lulu Island at the time. Trutch Field Book #10.

Richmond’s Islands were first surveyed in 1859 by Joseph and John Trutch who were awarded a contract from the Colonial Government to survey land along the Fraser River. From this survey we can glean some information about the land and vegetation of Richmond before European settlement. Missing on the 1859 survey is a large block of land in the South Arm “Slough District”, comprising Block 3 N Range 6 W, apparently skipped at the request of the Hudson’s Bay Company who were still actively trapping beaver there at the time. The survey of that section was completed by J.A. Mahood in 1874.

This early map of Richmond is based on the Trutch survey drawings and shows notes on vegetation. Note the blank space at the South Arm “Slough District”, an area not surveyed at the request of the Hudson’s Bay Co. City of Richmond Archives photograph RCF 17.

Early European settlers used the slough complexes for transport, much as the First Nations people had but, with the construction of roads through Richmond the sloughs became a hindrance to development, rather than the benefit they had been. Farmers and road builders built ditches and canals, dyked their property to prevent flooding and filled in the original sloughs. By the end of the First World War most of the natural sloughs in Richmond were gone.

Today very little of the original slough system remains and Lulu and Sea Islands are completely encircled by dykes with drainage systems and pump houses removing water from the land. Few people are aware of the original geography, vegetation and prehistory of the islands they call home.


Vantage Point – Industry on the South Arm of the Fraser

Steveston Harbour showing canneries and fish boats, 1959. City of Richmond Archives Photograph 2010 87 29

Steveston Harbour showing canneries and fish boats, 1959. City of Richmond Archives Photograph 2010 87 29

A recent addition to the holdings of the City of Richmond Archives is an album of aerial photographs taken from 1959 to 1962 showing industry on the South Arm of the Fraser River, at New Westminster, and on the Upper Fraser.

The album was created by the New Westminster Harbour Commission with aerial photographs taken by George Allen.

Crown Zellerbach paper mill and wharf, 1959. City of Richmond Archives Photograph 2010 87 28

Crown Zellerbach paper mill and wharf, 1959. City of Richmond Archives Photograph 2010 87 28

Images from 1959 depict Steveston Harbour and the wharves of what were Richmond’s three major industrial plants on the South Arm: Crown Zellerbach Paper Mill, Canada Rice Mills, and LaFarge Cement.

Canada Rice Mills plant and wharf, 1959. City of Richmond Archives Photograph 2010 87 27

Canada Rice Mills plant and wharf, 1959. City of Richmond Archives Photograph 2010 87 27

The photographs were taken in the same year that the Deas Island (George Massey) Tunnel was opened.

La Farge Cement plant, showing Don and Lion Island, 1959. City of Richmond Archives Photograph 2010 87 31

La Farge Cement plant, showing Don and Lion Island, 1959. City of Richmond Archives Photograph 2010 87 31

The 52 photographs in the album are among a larger number of images that have been recently scanned as part of the ongoing Archives digitization program.

Early Navigation and the Leading Tree at Garry Point

In the early days of navigation, mariners depended heavily on knowledge of landmarks and geographical features to find their way. This was especially true when entering harbours and river mouths. Early navigational charts showed important physical features that would be visible to mariners, and at the mouth of the Fraser River one of the most important of these was “The Leading Tree”, a large tree at Garry Point which stood out starkly on the otherwise featureless landscape of Lulu Island.

This view of Steveston’s “Cannery Row” shows a rare image of the Leading Tree at Garry Point, on the left, ca. 1890. Photo from City of Richmond Archives digital reference files.


Article from the New Westminster Daily Columbian, November 21, 1891. (City of Richmond Archives Reference Files.)

The Fraser was first charted in 1859 by Captain G.H. Richards, who also had a series of navigation buoys anchored to mark the river channel.

On his chart the tree was featured as a navigational marker and it subsequently appeared in future Admiralty charts and sailing directions for decades to come.

The tree was called by several names, the Leading Tree, the Lone Tree, the Garry Tree and the Garry Bush and was either a spruce, pine or fir, depending on which record is read. Regardless, it was  a vital guide in making one’s way into the river, even for experienced local mariners.

Improvements in navigating the river continued, with the availability of river pilots and installation of lightships and lighthouses at the Sand Heads, but the tree continued to be a navigation aid until 1891 when newspaper reports in the May 30, 1891 Daily Columbian raised concerns about the tree’s future, saying that “Mr. Turner (George Turner, formerly of the Royal Engineers) had two mattresses sunk at Garry Bush to try and save it from being carried away. Garry Bush, a well known land mark to mariners, is a tall pine tree with some wild crab apple trees growing about, on the lower end of Lulu Island.”

The article states that in the previous three years 400 to 600 feet of shoreline had been washed away and  that the roots of the tree had become undermined. A later article from November 21, 1891, titled “An Ancient Landmark Gone” stated that despite efforts to save the tree, it had been washed away in a gale on the 20th.

1978 34 3

Gambles Observatory at Garry Point in 1909. Built as a tide gauge, a fixed red light was added to it after the tree was washed away. It was visible for six miles. (City of Richmond Archives photo 1978 34 3)

The loss of the tree prompted the authories to install a light at Garry Point, mounted atop Gamble’s Observatory, which had been built as a tide gauge by Provincial Government Public Works Engineer F.C. Gamble, the supervisor of dyking operations in the lower Fraser Valley.


A walking tour map of Garry Point Park from 1989 shows significant locations around the park, including the location of the “Garry Point Tree”, No. 11, and Gamble’s Observatory, No. 12. (City of Richmond Archives Reference Files)

The construction of the Steveston Jetty in 1911 and a program of dredging have stabilized the shifting main channel and newer lights and navigation markers and buoys make the trip up the river much less risky than in the past, but all these modern aids to navigation have a heritage that stems back to a single large tree that grew at Garry Point.