Joe Lundgren heard the noise first: a loud rushing sound that seemed out of place, despite his proximity to the rising Fraser River.
It was around 7:40 a.m. on May 31, 1948, and Lundgren, who had been about to wrap up his eight-hour patrol of the Matsqui Dike, was walking near what is now the north end of Gladwin Road. As Matsqui pioneer Jack Hill would later tell it, Lundgren turned around to see and watched as “the dike just seemed to lift up and crumble to pieces.”
Soon, there was a 50-foot-wide gap, with water flowing at 12 miles an hour, according to High Water, a history of the flood published in 2006 by the Dairy Historical Society of B.C.
Within minutes, a siren was sounded in Matsqui Village, alerting residents of the need to flee their homes. The 20th century’s largest Fraser Valley flood had come to Abbotsford.
Matsqui residents had been on edge before the siren sounded. Dikes had collapsed up and down the river and the army had already been called in.
Across the prairie, residents figured that if the dike did break, they’d get a couple inches, or a couple feet, of water and that they’d soon be back in their homes.
In Matsqui village, the family of 12-year-old Gerry Adams placed a piano on bricks with the hope of raising it far enough off the ground. Many other prairie residents did likewise.
The dike broke dramatically, but Matsqui was not suddenly inundated. Instead, the water took a circuitous route, which gave residents plenty of time to escape.
Frank Keis was 16 and had found himself in charge of the family farm on Townshipline Road following the recent death of his father.
When Matsqui began to flood, Keis eyed a neighbour’s hill as a place of refuge for his cows during the high water.
“We decided we’re just going to chase the cattle up the hill,” Keis recalled recently. As for the house, Keis, too, stacked valuables on bricks.
The water came slowly, taking a day to inundate Matsqui Village. But it kept coming, and coming. And when it began to leave, it did so slowly. It took six weeks for the Fraser to fully recede from the prairie.
It became clear that Keis’ cattle couldn’t stay on their isolated hillside above a sea of water. The Red Cross assisted in hacking a trail through thick bush to allow the cattle to be evacuated out of the area. Other farmers used rafts to rescue their animals.
While many went to stay with loved ones, hundreds of evacuees were housed at Abbotsford Airport. They were joined by nearly as many cows, and there are stories of cattle having to be herded off the runways when a plane wanted to land.
With the floodwaters not receding, Keis, Adams and other residents used boats to visit their homes, and see what – if anything – could be rescued.
Residents found items placed on bricks were now fully submerged by water eight feet deep.
Adams found a similar situation when his father piloted a boat into Matsqui Village.
“We saw devastation,” he recalled this week. “Our house in the village was four and a half feet off the ground. There was four and a half feet of water in the house.”
The keys of the family piano floated in the water.
It took six weeks for the waters to recede. When they did, the Fraser left behind a thick layer of silt. Hundreds of homes had floated off their foundations and moved elsewhere, and the wood in the homes was all warped.
In the bedroom of Adams’ sister, a dead catfish lay on a windowsill.
The disaster also imposed a financial strain on many residents. Adams’ father had been a milk hauler, but with many of the Fraser Valley dairy cows scattered, he had found his revenue slashed. So he took up a second job at a berry plant to make ends meet.
“I think back now, and I never realized what they must have felt,” Adams said.
One person died in the disaster – a man wearing waders dove into the water to rescue his companion, who had fallen. He managed to save her but lost his own life.
Recovery took time. The government provided assistance to help clean and repair the damage caused, both in homes and on farms. But the visible marks of the flood lingered for years.
One could walk in many houses in Matsqui village and see the same colour of linoleum and identical rocking chairs, all purchased right after the flood. Keis, meanwhile, would plow up fish from time to time.
And organizations went to work trying to learn from the disaster of 1948.
The following year, a report by the Fraser Valley Dyking Board declared: “By careful engineering methods one can restrain the river in spots, one can nudge it here and suggest to it there, but never without fabulous expenditures can the lower Fraser River be harnessed and controlled by a system of dikes.”
Seventy years later, local governments continue to wrestle with how to minimize the risk posed by the Fraser, and who is to pay for such fabulous expenditures required. We will tell that story next Wednesday, in part three of this series.
This article relies both on new interviews with Keis and Adams, and accounts collected in High Water: Living With The Fraser’s Floods, by Jane Watt. That book can be found at most local libraries. In 2012, as the Fraser River rose once again, provincial authorities ordered more than two dozen copies of the comprehensive book for its staff to ensure they were informed of the region’s flood history.