The village of Matsqui was inundated during the flood of 1948. Photo courtesy The Reach/P1699

PHOTOS & STORY: Matsqui flood remembered, 70 years later

Houses were submerged by eight feet of water in 20th Century’s largest Fraser flood

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.

• • • • •

Seventy years after communities up and down the Fraser flooded, Lower Mainlanders are once again watching the river rise. Areas outside of the dikes are under evacuation up and down the valley, although there’s no indication yet that vast areas of prairie under protection are at threat.

Many dikes were upgraded following the 1948 flood, but they are still considered vulnerable if the river rises towards what was seen in 1894. And although floods of that magnitude are rare, and historically thought to occur once every 500 years, on average, experts note that there is close to a 20 per cent chance that such an event could occur in the next century. And that figure is likely to increase substantially due to climate change.

Given that context, it’s worth considering the Fraser Valley’s last major flood disaster.

• • • • •

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.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here


Residents used boats to access their homes and rescue belongings during the flood of 1948. Photo courtesy The Reach/P1399

The flood of 1948 swamped Matsqui with eight feet of water. Photo courtesy The Reach/P1634

Residents used boats to access their homes and rescue belongings during the flood of 1948. Photo courtesy The Reach/N275

Just Posted

A COVID-19 exposure has been reported at Abbotsford School of the Integrated Arts (Sumas). (Abbotsford School District)
COVID-19 exposure reported at Abbotsford high school

Abbotsford School of Integrated Arts’ exposure on Oct. 19, 20 and 21

Thomas Dawson Peacock
Surrey man, 32, charged with sexual interference

Incidents alleged to have happened in Surrey and Abbotsford

Highstreet shopping centre is holding its Land of Boo from now until Halloween. Visitors are invited to dress in costume and take their picture in front of one of the Halloween-inspired backdrops. (Highstreet photo)
Abbotsford celebrates Halloween with pandemic in mind

Socially distanced events replace usual spooky activities

Abbotsford resident have submitted a number of jack-o-lantern photos. (Pixaby)
SLIDESHOW: Abbotsford shows off jack-o-lanterns

Social media users submit jack-o-lantern photos for Halloween 2020

The number of new COVID-19 cases has risen sharply in Vancouver and the Fraser North region over the last week.
Chart: Tyler Olsen
CHARTS: Weekly COVID-19 case counts continue to rise in Fraser Valley

The number of new COVID-19 cases has risen sharply in Vancouver and the Fraser North region.

Over the years, Janice Blackie-Goodine’s home in Summerland has featured elaborate Halloween displays and decorations each October. (File photo)
QUIZ: How much do you really know about Halloween?

Oct. 31 is a night of frights. How much do you know about Halloween customs and traditions?

A Mercedes SUV is covered at a gas station in the Clayton area following a deadly shooting there on Sept. 28, 2019. (File photo)
This house at 414 Royal Ave. became notorious for its residents’ and visitors’ penchant for attracting police. It was also the site of a gruesome torture in August 2018. It was demolished in 2019. KTW
6-year sentence for Kamloops man who helped carve ‘rat’ into flesh of fellow gang member

Ricky Dennis was one of three men involved in the August 2018 attack

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

An online fundraising campaign in support of the six-year-old boy, Edgar Colby, who was hit by a car on Range Road Oct. 25 has raised more than $62,000 in a day. (Submitted)
$62K raised in 1 day for boy in coma at BC Children’s after being hit by vehicle in Yukon

The boy’s aunt says the family is “very grateful” for the support they’ve received from the community

Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Health care employees take extensive precautions when working with people infected or suspected of having COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
WorkSafeBC disallows majority of COVID-19 job injury claims

Health care, social services employees filing the most claims

Vancouver Symphony Orchestra Maestro Otto Tausk. (Photo:
50/50 lotto players buck up for Metro Vancouver musicians hit hard by COVID

‘Rapidly growing jackpot’ for VSO’s 50/50 draw as they go online with

Conservative leader Erin O’Toole rises during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Wednesday October 28, 2020. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
Conversion therapy ban gets approval in principle, exposes Conservative divisions

Erin O’Toole himself voted in favour of the bill, as did most Conservative MPs

Most Read