SURREY CENTRE: The story of Surrey’s first town centre

Home to Surrey’s first church, town hall and early school and cemeteries, Surrey Centre is where it all began

Hopping onto a bus on a wet Thursday morning to take a four-hour tour to learn all about the Surrey of yesteryear, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

As a city hall reporter, I can tell you a lot about the Surrey of today. But the city’s history a century ago? Not as much.

Today, the name of the game in Surrey is development.

Nearly every city council agenda is packed full of townhouse development applications.

Density. Infill. Growth.

How frequently does one hear that 1,200 new residents are moving to the city every month? Or that Surrey will surpass the population of Vancouver within five years?

As the city fights to become a grown-up city – and many would argue it already has – it’s establishing a new downtown core dubbed City Centre.

But just for today, I’m going to step out of my typical shoes, and instead, let’s rewind 100 years.

Let’s go back even farther than that. To where the city started.

It all began in “Surrey Centre” ­— the area around 168th Avenue (Coast Meridian Road) and 60th Avenue (Old McLellan Road).

Surrey Archives’ Ryan Gallagher tells me people often think of Cloverdale as being the city’s historic core – but not so.

Surrey Centre, located nearly two kilometres northwest of Cloverdale, was the city’s first true town centre, home to the first town hall (1881, pictured), first church (1884) early cemeteries and featured a school (1891) and general store.

Gallagher said city staff often have to clarify if they mean the historic Surrey Centre or today’s City Centre in the heart of Whalley.

“Oftentimes the names are used interchangeably by newcomers to Surrey’s history,” he remarked, but mistakenly so.

When the first settlers came to the area around the 1870s, Surrey was a wilderness. There were no roads. It was home to many of the well-known families: Boothroyd, Richardson, Bose, Hucks, to name a few.

Abraham Huck was one of the first to settle, arriving from California in 1872 with his wife Nancy. Together, they bought more than 300 acres of land.

Their first home was a log house (pictured), in which they lived until they built a frame house and general store.

The store provided basic supplies for the few settlers in the area.

They were, in every sense, real pioneers. Abraham was storekeeper, postmaster, blacksmith and farmer, as well as being one of the original movers toward developing the amenities of a pioneer community: the school, the church and the local government.

In fact, one of the earliest council meetings was held at the Huck home on McLelland Road in 1881. It was at that meeting he was paid $1 for the land the town hall would be built on.

Abraham was also a member of the building committee that laid the corner stone for Christ Church at Surrey Centre (now known as Christ the Redeemer Anglican Church at 16613 Bell Rd.). In fact, he was the one to donate the land.

The church (pictured in 1890), still stands today.

It is magnificent.

I stood inside of the carpenter gothic church on my recent tour with Reverend Paul Borthistle.

The church was built in 1884, an idea of a group of farmers, including Reverend William Bell, who got together in 1882. Bell was the first Minister of the Anglican congregation.

Lumber was hauled up the Serpentive River to construct it.

“As you see it now is pretty much as it was,” said Borthistle. Up until 1916, the pews were actually just benches, he said. The windows, though, are all original.

“The original church did not have electricity,” he remarked. “The circles you see on the wall were gas lantern. And the gas was welled in Steveston.”

The parish tries to keep the building as true to its heritage as possible, noted Borthistle, though one great modernization was installing a sprinkler system.

“We’ve gone 132 years with no fire, and we want to keep it that way,” he said with a chuckle.

The beautiful building (today’s interior pictured) attracts attention of the theatric kind.

Most recently, the TV show “Supernatural” filmed an episode there.

“They had an explosion and blew the doors out,” said the reverend. “We usually have about one film shoot a year. They love the feel.”

The church’s bell has an interesting story, Borthistle revealed. The church went three years without a bell until an unfortunate accident.

“A young lad from one of the families who was a member of the church drowned in the Serpentine River. His family donated the bell, had it cast in Cincinnati.”

Today school children from Surrey Centre School (across the road) come over for the Christmas concert every year and each child gets a turn ringing the bell.

“I’ll be passing them, six months later, and they’ll ask to come ring the bell again,” said Borthistle with a smile.

When the original Surrey Centre school was built in 1891 (pictured), it had just one room, 18 students and one teacher, Miss Martha McDowell.

Before moving to Cloverdale sometime around 1938, Surrey Centre was also home to the city’s first fairgrounds in the late 1800s.

And the area was home to Surrey’s first town hall, built in 1881. It stood on what is now an all-weather playing field for the school.

This building was moved to Cloverdale Fairgrounds in 1938 and formed the nucleus of the Surrey Museum when it was established in 1958. Today it sits inside the truck museum.

In 1912, a new hall was built in Cloverdale for $18,000, now home to Surrey Archives.

Jerrilin Spence, my city tour guide (pictured), said this was “where it all started” as we stood in the cemetery adjacent to the church. “This was the hub. It was called Surrey Centre for a reason…. The real changeover happened when the Cloverdale (train) station was put in there.”

She’s referring to the station off of 176th Street at 55th Avenue. The train station and interurban cars have been restored by the Fraser Valley Heritage Rail Society and the group offers trips to and from Sullivan Station. The season starts up in early May (details at Fvhrs.org).

So Surrey Centre didn’t retain its importance as an early urban centre for long. When the New Westminster Southern Railway was built through Cloverdale in 1891 alongside present-day 176th Street, Surrey Centre’s influence began to wane and Cloverdale’s prominence began.

Oh, and there’s one more little gem I suggest you check out. The Wired Monk coffee shop (16811 60th Ave.) was opened in the restored George Boothroyd home in 2007. It’s one of the oldest buildings in Surrey — believed to have been constructed in the mid-1870s, making it about 140 years old.

As the area developed in the early 2000s, Park Ridge homes, as part of a development plan, restored the home to what it looked like in the 1890s. As the company wrote when it opened in 2007, “The Wired Monk at Boothroyd Corner desires to carry on the tradition of this first pioneer.” The character of the heritage home has been maintained, and is most certainly worth checking out.

“Places have so much more value when you hear a story,” mused Spence. “It’s that story, that connection, that emotional thing that drives us to remember.”

amy.reid@thenownewspaper.com

-Files from Surreyhistory.ca and special thanks to Surrey Archives for providing archival photos.

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