As an independent researcher in Chilliwack, Chad Reimer, with a Ph.D. in history from York University, has examined the role of historical writing in colonialism and nation building as it pertains to the West Coast in Writing British Columbia History, 1784-1958 (UBC $85). 978-0-7748-1644-1

Reimer's survey covers only about half of the histories of British Columbia. Of the approximately forty efforts to follow in Hubert Howe Bancroft's large footsteps, currently the most-used is Jean Barman's The West Beyond the West: A History of British Columbia (1991). For authors who have written histories of B.C, see abcbookworld entries for Akrigg, George Philip Vernon; Anderson, Alexander Caulfield; Angus, H.F.; Anstey, Arthur; Bancroft, Hubert Howe; Begg, Alexander; Bennett, William; Boam, Henry J.; Bowering, George; Brown, Ashley; DeGroot, Henry; Denton, V.L.; Fladmark, Knut; Goodchild, Fred H.; Gosnell, R.E.; Gough, John; Griffin, Harold; Hibben, T.N.; Hocking, Anthony; Howay, F.W.; Johnston, Hugh; Lane, Myrtle E.; Lawson, Maria; Macfie, Matthew; McKelvie, B.A.; Molyneux, Geoffrey; Morice, Adrien Gabriel; Nuffield, Edward; Odlum, Edward Faraday; Ormsby, Margaret Anchoretta; Robin, Martin; Roy, Patricia; Sage, W.N.; Scholefield, E.O.S.; Stephen, Pamela; Tod, John; Woodcock, George.

In 2011, the Chinese Canadian Historical Society of British Columbia (CCHSBC) joined forces with UBC's Initiative for Student Teaching and Research in Chinese Canadian Studies (INSTRCC) to launch Gold Mountain Stories, a new series to represent Chinese experiences in North America, including a new book by Chad Reimer. In his Chilliwack's Chinatowns: A History, Reimer follows dual trails of arson in 1921 and 1934 to discover the previous existence of two Chinatowns in his hometown of Chilliwack. Bolstered by interviews and archival research, Reimer brings the Chinese, Whites, and Natives characters of Chinatown North and Chinatown South to life.

Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
Writing British Columbia History, 1784-1958
Chilliwack's Chinatowns: A History


The Trials of Albert Stroebel: Love, Murder and Justice at the End of the Frontier (Caitlin Press $24.95) by Chad Reimer

Review by Valerie Green


Sumas Prairie, April 1893. The body of John Marshall is found on the veranda of his cabin by a neighbour, trapper Ira Airheart, who had come to check on him.

Shocked by the evidence of a gruesome murder, Airheart runs two miles to the nearby town of Huntingdon, south of the Fraser River.

Before the authorities could arrive at Marshall's cabin, townspeople were already traipsing around the cabin, tainting the crime scene.

Once the authorities did arrive, they ordered an on-site autopsy and a coroner's inquest. The ensuing investigation soon led to the arrest of one of John Marshall's friends, the handyman and part-time barber, Albert Stroebel, thought by many to be "a harmless boy who seemed much younger than his twenty years." Arrested and put in jail, Stroebel is described as a gentle soul, and "an unlikely killer; short, lean and crippled in the right leg and foot."

So begins the whodunnit, The Trials of Albert Stroebel by Chad Reimer.


Reimer gives a lengthy description of Sumas Prairie, a low-lying landform shared by B.C. and Washington State, about forty miles from Vancouver. At the beginning of the 1890s it was still a frontier settlement where immigrants wandered freely back and forth across the border, giving little thought to the fact that they were moving from one country to another.

We learn about Strobel's background, how he came to be living in a room at the† owned by Margaret Bartlett, matriarch of the Bartlett family. Margaret, a strong woman who held her family together, ran the hotel while her husband Charles spent many nights away from home "drinking the night away."

Comfortable living with the Bartletts, young Albert fell in love with one of the Bartlett daughters, 13-year-old Elizabeth. Any relationship between a man of twenty and a very young teen would be frowned upon today, but in those days many young women were married at fourteen.

[caption id="attachment_41236" align="alignleft" width="800"] The only known photograph of Albert Stroebel, seen wearing a faded tuxedo jacket over his prison garb. Courtesy Royal BC Museum.[/caption]

Stroebel was arrested for John Marshall's murder a few days after the body was discovered. Other suspects included a passing tramp and a young boy named David Eyely who had delighted in teasing Albert Stroebel and getting him into trouble.

Stroebel's trial was set for June 7 1893 under the province's most distinguished jurist, Judge Matthew Begbie. But Judge Begbie surprised everyone by postponing the trial to November.

Hence, Stroebel's initial trial, presided over by John McCreight, a man who had served as the first Premier of British Columbia (before Amor de Cosmos) began in November, 1893.

By the time the November trial began in New Westminster, public interest was high. The court room was packed to capacity. People had their appetite whetted for "true crime" from the many lurid newspaper reports of stories about characters like 'Jack the Ripper' in London and Lizzie Borden with her axe murders in Massachusetts.

It ended with a hung jury, although Stroebel?s defense lawyer, Aulay Morrison, did a masterful job of defending him. As the jury could not reach a unanimous decision, a second trial was called for.

Rather than postponing until the following Spring Assizes in New Westminster, crown prosecutor Theodore Davie requested the trial be moved immediately to a Victoria court, to be presided over by Judge Walkem.†For his second trial, Stroebel would be tried alongside David Eyely, who had confessed to having been involved in the murder with Stroebel.

Readers will enjoy insight into the characters of Begbie and McCreight, as well as varying interpretations of the law, including the actions of Theodore Davie, the crown prosecutor who presided over both of Stroebel's trials, and was brilliant throughout, despite a lingering illness which eventually took his life in 1898.

At 22, Theodore Davie had taken a bride of fourteen, Blanche Baker, and their nuptials had caused a scandal. For that reason, Davie might well have had some understanding of the relationship between Albert Stroebel and Elizabeth Bartlett.

Without modern day pathology and forensics such as DNA and finger printing, lawyers did the best they could to defend or prosecute criminals. Stroebel was finally found guilty and sentenced to hang on January 31 of 1894, but the story was far from over as Stroebel awaited his fate on death row.

The surprising twists and turns in Stroebel's case are superbly portrayed by Reimer and one is left to wonder "was justice finally served for William Marshall or not?"

This work of creative non-fiction would have benefitted from the inclusion of an index but it is impeccably researched and told in an electrifying, attention-grabbing way by Chad Reimer who is also the author of Before We Lost the Lake: A Natural and Human History of Sumas Valley (Caitlin 2018).

[caption id="attachment_41237" align="alignleft" width="800"] Author Chad Reimer at Musselwhite Cemetery in Abbotsford where John Marshall, the murder victim, is buried.[/caption]





Before We Lost the Lake: A Natural and Human History of Sumas Valley by Chad Reimer
Halfmoon Bay: Caitlin Press, 2018
$24.95 / 9781987915587

Reviewed by Jeff Oliver


Up until its disappearance, in matter or mind, Sumas Lake never really stood still. Since its birth at the end of the last ice age, it was a spillway for the mighty Fraser River and contiguous watercourses, an expandable basin to hold the deluge of meltwater as it rushed from mountaintop to the Pacific. With its associated wetlands, Sumas Lake was like a giant sponge that soaked up the overflow, sparing lower parts of the Fraser Valley from severe flooding. Hemmed in by the hard rock of Sumas Mountain to the Northwest and Vedder Mountain to the southeast, the spring freshets poured into Sumas Lake, expanding its shoreline northeast and southwest over adjacent bottom lands of alluvial clays, sands, and gravels, so that the lake?s surface area expanded to over twice its size. An average year saw it grow from around 14 square miles and a depth of around nine feet to over 31 square miles and a depth of 28 feet, figures that say nothing of the scale of early Holocene inundations or when ?historic floods? began to be recorded in the district.

It was within this waterscape that humans and natural organisms made their home, its fluid nature shaping everything to come. Like other Northwest Coast peoples, the Indigenous peoples of the lake were expert fishers, but they developed a particular mastery for sturgeon, which they caught using extraordinarily long harpoons, some over 50 feet in length, from cedar dugout canoes or from fish weirs built along adjacent streams. Waterfowl was another important resource. Ducks and geese were taken by the hundreds, even thousands, but this only a tiny fraction of the millions of birds that migrated annually to the valley.

Composite photo of Sumas Lake with Sumas Mountain in the background, circa 1920. Leonard Frank photo. Wikipedia Commons

Within the extensive wetlands that ringed the lake, people staked out and gathered the tender white roots of wapato, an aquatic plant producing tubers that provided a much-needed source of starch. While the lake and its surrounds provided all that was needed to survive, and more, stagnant pools of water over the summer months also meant it was also home to a vast concentration of mosquitos. To defeat their ravages people came up with an innovative cultural adaptation peculiar to the Lower Fraser Valley: settlements built on stilts to escape the summer hordes. But their depredations were not seen as wholly negative. They gained a special place within local mythology in which warriors took the Mosquito as a guardian spirit.

Watercolour painting at Sumas Lake, 1916. Photo courtesy The Reach Museum, Abbotsford, P5665

In the 1860s White settlers arrived in the Sumas Valley. Most came and went. Some stayed on after the Fraser Canyon Gold rush, others came as representatives of the Crown or the Provincial colonial government. A few stayed to make a new life. While most settlers were initially attracted by the lofty ideals of establishing a small farm and raising a family, the difficulties of draining low-lying land combined with the toing and froing of the lakeshore was more than they had bargained for. Those who stayed learned to adapt ? just like their Indigenous neighbours, the Sema:th and Sto:lo. With its rich growth of blue-joint grass, four to six feet in high, carpeting the landscape, the valley became famous for its pastoralist economy well before cultivation of the soil produced anything reminiscent of agrarian living. What?s more, because low-lying wetlands were annually inundated, it was impossible to improve or own land in ways that pioneering extolled. These ?marginal? lands became a sort of ?commons? through gentlemen?s agreement. Given the richness of the local environment it was dairy farming that produced the greatest profits, a realisation not missed out by local native people, so that Sumas graziers ? newcomers and Indigenous alike ? drove their stock onto the rich grasslands to roam.

As more and more settlers arrived, greater and greater pressure was placed on land and resources. Prying eyes began to size up lands used and occupied by Indigenous peoples, while others began to covet the land that sat, wasted, under the lake. The end of the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth were increasingly difficult ones for the Sema:th and Sto:lo. Introduced diseases like smallpox and measles hit them hard, and they were increasingly circumscribed to Indian Reserves that got smaller as the years went by. If this was not enough, as settlers poured into the district, they began to threaten to take away the lake as well. The language of progress and God were invoked to make the land fertile, to have paradise regained.

Map of Sumas Lake, 1919. Courtesy of National Archives of Canada

The early history of ?redeeming? of the valley was more about talk than action, more bluster and high rhetoric from competing under-financed factions of prominent White settlers and men of science. There was nothing inevitable about the dewatering of the lake until the Province of British Columbia effectively underwrote the plan. After a litany of promises and false starts, the Sumas Dyking Commission, operating with a modern command and control structure, set to work to deliver it.

In 1921 A mechanized task force of monstrous dragline shovels and dredgers arrived on the scene to commence a four-year plan of action that would see dykes, canals, and ditches bite into the valley floor, altering and stemming its watercourses and fundamentally redesigning the landscape. The coup de gr‚ce was the finishing of the Sumas Dam in 1924. Its ten sluiceways passed water out of the lake, while the dam?s reinforced concrete kept the Fraser River at bay. With it, Sumas Lake passed into memory.

The rich agricultural bottom land of Sumas Valley today, looking north,with the Fraser River at the top. Google Earth image

As Chad Reimer writes in Before We Lost the Lake, up until the 1920s Sumas Lake was a ?long-lived dynamic force within the region.? Much of this history is lost to our collective consciousness, buried (metaphorically at least) beneath dairy farms, suburban tendrils, and the asphalt of the TransCanada Highway; its only visible testament a banal roadside heritage plaque inscribed in the language of progress.

To give other authors their due, the history of Sumas Lake has been covered before ? to my mind Laura Cameron?s Openings: A Meditation on History, Method and Sumas Lake (McGill-Queens University Press, 1997), being one of the most provocative ? but Reimer?s is the first that sets out to tell, in his words, ?the full story? of Sumas Lake; a narrative ?beginning with its birth in the last great Ice Age, and ending with its premature death and lingering presence into the 21st century? (p. 11).

The book can be divided chronologically around three main themes. The first, which addresses its natural and human history from Sumas Lake?s glacial origins up until European contact, works as a foregrounding to the later chapters. The second addresses the early colonial period, when incomers and natives lived in relative co-existence with the natural rhythms of the lake. The third deals with the events around the more aggressive impacts of colonization in the late 19th and early 20th century, including the dewatering of Sumas valley.

Before We Lost the Lake is first and foremost an environmental history of the valley and the people who made it home through adapting to its watery rhythms. It is also the story of modernity, and the ?mastery? of the natural world along with its devastating impacts, both human and natural. While there is no single organizing thesis, momentum is achieved by the dynamism that Reimer brings to his sources and the critical attention he brings to a range of issues, from the ambiguities of the settlement ?frontier,? to the sharp end of colonialism and the tragedies it would visit upon native communities, to the assumptions of progress that underwrote nature?s transformation.

Historical geographers and other spatial historians will appreciate Reimer?s attentiveness to the uncertainty surrounding the colonial surveys that sought once and for all to fix the shores of Sumas Lake to the map. While the map sought to give the illusion of control, in reality this would not be achievable until dams, ditches, and pumps brought the valley to a heel. And up until then, the remaking of the valley was hardly the upward-swinging plot-line we have become accustomed to, with its narratives populated by sure-footed, axe-wielding pioneers. Rather, change in the valley was about compromise, adaptation, and unexpected outcomes.

In this context Reimer?s gentle chiding of local White settlers? efforts to master nature is somewhat reminiscent of Theodore Steinberg?s Slide Mountain (University of California Press, 1996), and its critique of the folly of owning nature ? even with the Sumas Lake turned to dry land, nature had some surprises up its sleeve in the form of the 1948 flood, which once again submerged parts of the valley.

While there is much to praise in this book, there are a few shortcomings. Anthropologists and Archaeologists might wince at his occasional ahistorical treatment of Indigenous groups who sometimes appear to be little more the living expressions of ancient people who have ?for countless generations? lived in ?their homelands much to themselves? (p. 65), or wish more from his less-original and underdeveloped explorations of the pre-contact human geography; but these are minor issues in a book that really comes into its own with the complex meeting of people, ideas, and place that that saw the remaking of the valley from around the middle of the nineteenth century.

Before We Lost the Lake is engaging local history with academic heft. Reimer doesn?t spend time hitting you over the head with lofty concepts, rather he embeds complex ideas subtly through his deeply-researched and richly-textured historical examples. What is more, this is a well-written book. Reimer?s punchy and economical prose should appeal to a wide range of readers interested in British Columbia?s past, from scholars of different stripes to students and armchair enthusiast alike.


[BCBW 2020]