Sumas Lake: A Quick Look at a Long History

By Christina Reid
View of the drained lake bed that is now Sumas Prairie
View of the drained lake bed that is now Sumas Prairie, taken from Sumas Mountain. 📷 Lyle Reid

Sumas Lake was and is very important to the Stó:lō peoples, especially the Semá:th. For them, the lake was a source of food, a place to live, a watery highway, and a place which featured in oral histories. Fish and waterfowl were abundant and provided an easy and varied source of food. The lake was large, approximately 10,000 acres, but during the spring freshet (May to July), it often expanded to three times that size.

The discovery of gold along the Fraser River led to surveying and mapping of the area, and subsequently a pre-emption proclamation by Governor Douglas in 1860. The land around the lake was highly fertile and could grow crops and feed livestock, especially cattle. When the area flooded, cattle and animals had to be moved from to higher ground.

While the Stó:lō have been in the Fraser Valley area since time immemorial, most of the land around the lake, even the areas that flooded regularly, was inhabited by settlers by 1871. Aside from the HBC farms at Langley, the earliest attempts at systematic agriculture by the settlers in the Lower Mainland took place on the Sumas Prairie, but farming had to take place after the freshet. 

Due to the pressure from the area’s settlers to correct the flooding after a particularly bad flood in 1876, the Sumas Dyking Act was created in 1878. It was followed by the Sumas Draining and Dyking Act of 1892 and the Drainage, Dyking and Irrigation Act of 1893, but Mother Nature was not fully controlled until the Sinclair Plan was put into place by Frederick Sinclair. It involved changing the path of the Vedder River so it did not empty into Sumas Lake, building dykes in case the river overflowed, and the creation of a dam and two pump stations. The first step was to control the Vedder River by making a canal. The pump stations were used to pump the water out of Sumas Lake until there was no more water.

Sinclair’s proposal was accepted in March of 1920, and the first excavation commenced in August of that year. The pumps make it possible to change the direction of the water’s flow, so that it can be pumped out to stop flooding, or pumped in to fill the ditches for irrigation on the farms.  The first of the two pumps were started in July of 1923, and by the summer of 1924 the land was ready for farming. At that time, the Barrowtown Pump Station was the largest of its kind in Canada, and the pumps could empty an Olympic sized pool in 20 seconds. 

In 1926 the Canadian Hop Growers Association Purchased 600 acres of lake bottom land and created the largest hop yards in the commonwealth. Tobacco was also a popular crop. Two tobacco kilns survive on Sumas Prairie to this day, but the lake that the Stó:lō relied upon was no longer. A new pumphouse was constructed between 1980 and 1983, when the Sumas and Vedder dukes were also strengthened, but the Nooksack and Chilliwack rivers make washouts a continuous threat that we still live with.