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White Rock History: Bars on White Rock Museum’s windows remain as reminders of a forgotten era

White Rock, South Surrey was a rough, sometimes deadly, place for customs and immigration officers

Many have passed by the former Great Northern Railway station on Marine Drive – now the White Rock Museum and Archives – without noticing a small, but significant, detail.

Windows at the east end of the 1912 building have bars on them that seem inconsistent with the free movement of people.

It’s likely a truism that wherever there are bars on the windows of an old building there is some story to be told.

And, as a sign recently placed on the station building points out, the bars there were installed for good reason – between 1913 and 1951 that part of the building was the holding cell for Canadian Customs and Immigration’s White Rock offices.

The close proximity of the Canada-U.S. border, and the prevalence of rail travel before the development of the current network of highways, meant that the White Rock station was the first stop in Canada for many visitors from south of the border.

If some needed to be detained for some reason or another, the White Rock depot cell was the place for them.

This had a lighter side, as the sign suggests – during the Great Depression of the 1930s men would ride the rails up and down the west coast in search of work, and some of them would be detained by the Immigration Department.

White Rock archivist Hugh Ellenwood recalls late longtime community resident Don Munro telling him that, on hot summer nights, the barred windows of the cell would be left open and the unemployed – including some longtime career ‘hobos’ – could regale neighbourhood youngsters with tales of their travels.

The bars left on the building today are the last vestige of the cell and customs offices, a variation in the usual GN depot design which had required approval by the Canadian Board of Railway Commissioners before construction could take place.

Immigration issues

But the bars also point to a darker side of White Rock’s history – in which local customs and immigration officers played a small role in larger events across the globe.

The era in which the White Rock station was built – succeeding a cluster of smaller shacks constructed at the time the waterfront line was first opened in 1909 – was one of institutionalized racism, cross-border crime and unrest.

Close on its heels, in July 1914, came the First World War, a complicated and morally ambiguous struggle with tensions and repercussions that could be felt keenly here, in what was then a tiny summertime resort.

Even before the building of the new station, White Rock was the scene of an international incident recounted by the Blaine Journal in April, 1911 – and one worth investigating further in light of Black History Month this February.

A passenger car-load of 30 potential immigrants from Kansas City were denied entry into the country while the immigration department in Ottawa was notified of their applications for resident status.

According to the newspaper report, the black men, women and children – seeking a new start in B.C. farming communities – spent hours at the original White Rock customs and immigration offices before Great Northern decided to bring the car and its passengers back to the Bellingham depot on the U.S. side, to await more information from Ottawa.

It’s hard to assess full criteria for admission or rejection of immigrants at the time. But it is known that one Canadian requirement – that each immigrant have $50 in his or her possession (about $1,600 in 2023 dollars) – effectively barred most labourers (the largest category among ethnic minorities) from entry.

Whatever the case, Ottawa ultimately chose to allow 19 of the 30 of the group from Kansas City to enter Canada, while the remainder decided to settle in Washington State.

By the summer of 1911, White Rock customs and immigration staff, including Immigration Officer H.G. Lawrence, had become adept at chasing – and sometimes catching – large numbers of “undesirables.”

In many cases, they found that border-jumpers had been equipped, by opportunistic racketeers, with maps showing the best routes to bypass official scrutiny.

By 1912 this influx of potential immigrants, driven by a lengthy recession in the U.S., had risen to some 150 per day. In 1913 immigration officers in White Rock were estimated to be examining between 15,000 to 18,000 people each month – which should come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the sleepy, small-town environment presented in photographs of the time.

The traffic was not all one-way. In the following, fateful, year of 1914 two Great Northern trainmen were arrested in Blaine on charges of smuggling Chinese Canadians, seeking better working opportunities across the line, in their locomotive’s toolbox.

Crime wave of 1914

Failure of international diplomacy – and a complex network of alliances – was about to drag the European nations and their colonies, and ultimately even the U.S., into a ruinous four-year war.

But the bigger news locally – at that moment – was the final chapter in a series of close to a dozen bank raids on either side of the border.

In January of 1914, the Bank of Granite Falls in Snohomish, Wash. had been relieved of close to $1,500 (some $40,000 in 2023 dollars); in March, the Royal Bank in Abbotsford was robbed at gunpoint, in a bold daylight raid, of $2,000. Another successful robbery followed the same month at the Elma Bank in Chehalis, Wash.

In almost all of the raids, witnesses described the perpetrators as speaking among themselves in a ‘foreign language, or barking English commands in thick Eastern-European accents, leading law officers to believe that the jobs were the work of a single group of Russian (or possibly Austro-Hungarian) bandits based in the U.S.

The robberies were in many ways the last gasp of Old West-style banditry, doomed in most jurisdictions by the spread of the automobile and rail traffic, improved communications and increasingly organized law enforcement.

As late as 1914, the Pacific Northwest, still characterized by thickly forested areas, dense undergrowth and only a few roads – more suited to horse and buggy than ‘flivvers’ (cars) – offered greater opportunity for law-breakers to disappear into the woods with their loot.

Determined opposition by lawmen, posses, and armed townsfolk seemed to be turning the tide, however.

On April 7, what seemed to be the same gang – described as seven ‘foreigners’ – attempted an ill-considered robbery of the Union Bank of Canada in Hazelton, B.C.

Canadian authorities shot down three of the robbers and captured three more, although one later escaped to join the remaining man on the loose.

After months of regrouping, and recruiting, the bandits were back in action on Saturday, Oct. 17, 1914 in Sedro-Woolley, Wash., a rough-and-ready frontier town offering many saloons, restaurants, and brothels catering to loggers, mill workers and miners.

Banks in the town offered a brief window on the busiest night of the week for town businesses to deposit their receipts, and it was at one of these, the First National, that a group of six men – armed with pistols and speaking with Eastern-European accents – struck, shortly after 9 p.m.

Bank employees were also armed, however, and they managed to shoot one of the robbers before being overpowered and forced to open the safe, which yielded $11,649 in gold coin and currency.

Alerted by the sound of gunfire, armed citizens and law-enforcement officers opened fire on the bandits as soon as they set foot on Ferry Street, precipitating a 15-minute gun battle that resulted in injuries to two bystanders and the mortal wounding of a 13-year-old boy who had ventured too close to the shooting.

Deadly confrontation

The robbers disappeared into the woods but news of – and outrage about – the robbery spread rapidly on both sides of the border as a growing communications network of peace officers sprang into action.

So it was that when five of the robbers were spotted at Ferndale, Wash., heading north to the Canadian border, customs and immigration officers in White Rock were in the information loop, along with other other lawmen, as far away as New Westminster.

One of the White Rock customs officers, J. Clifford Adams, joined a group of Canadian and American officers speeding to the border in the Hall’s Prairie/Hazelmere area south of Cloverdale in the early hours of Oct. 22.

A popular young man who had been with the service for two years – though only 23 at the time of the robbery – Adams was keen to join in the plan to intercept the robbers, who had been spotted crossing the Douglas border.

The group, headed by U.S. Inspector A.E. Burke, encountered the bandits on foot on a GNR right-of-way at what is today close to the intersection of 176th Street and 16th Avenue.

Burke called out ‘Halt!’ – to which the apparent leader of the gang responded by drawing his .38 caliber Colt automatic.

The lawmen opened fire, pistols and rifles flashing in the wintry darkness, and the bandit dropped dead without firing a shot.

His comrades fired back, hitting one officer in the hand and sending a bullet through the crown of Burke’s hat, scorching his hair. Another robber was hit in the hip but crawled into the undergrowth after his fleeing companions.

As the smoke cleared, Burke and his fellow officers discovered Adams’ lifeless body on the right-of-way, felled by a bullet in the heart.

A larger posse from Blaine, hearing the gunfire, arrived at the scene minutes later.

Grimly, they followed a trail of blood into the bush, discovering the wounded bandit, who was dying from a shot to the head.

At first glance they thought the man’s mortal wound was self-inflicted, but it soon became clear he had been given a coup-de-grace by his companions, who had taken his money belt to prevent the loot from from falling into the hands of interrogating officers.

The three remaining robbers had slipped away in the night, but a total of $3,067.20 was recovered from the dead and dying outlaws.

As day dawned, White Rock learned of Adams’ demise.

“His tragic death has been dreadful shock to the entire community,” reported the Semiahmoo Gazette in the Oct. 27 edition.

“The dead officer was a son of Ald. George H. Adams, a prominent merchant of New Westminster. The young man is a native son of the Royal City, and received his education there.”

Ironically, the bodies of the two dead robbers, after being identified by witnesses of the Sedro-Woolley bank job, were also taken to New Westminster, where they were buried in unmarked graves.

The remaining bandits were soon located, ambushed trying to cross the GNR bridge across the Nooksack River in Ferndale, Wash. by night.

Two of them were killed; one by the Whatcom County Deputy Sheriff who arranged the ambush, the other by the Ferndale Fire Chief, wielding a shotgun, and a further $3,088 was recovered from money belts on their bodies.

The last robber, who escaped with the rest of the loot, was never brought to justice, although operatives of the William J. Burns Detective Agency believed him to be a Seattle dock worker of Russian-Armenian heritage, and Seattle detectives positively identified one of the dead outlaws as another immigrant, former owner of a King Street lunch stand.

War and Prohibition

Other incidents involving White Rock customs and immigration officers couldn’t match that case for drama, although they were instrumental, in 1915, in charges brought against two Hall’s Prairie farmers of German descent, who were accused of aiding enemy aliens to escape across the border into the then-neutral U.S.

Also indicative of a high state of alertness in the early days of the war, a cook named Benson – working at the White Rock Hotel – was arrested by customs officers for carrying a concealed weapon, and subsequently sentenced to a week in prison.

Customs officers also kept busy, for the remainder of the conflict, tracking a steady stream of aliens on both sides looking to cross the border, either to get into the war, or get far away from it.

B.C.’s experiment with Prohibition, which lasted from 1917 to 1921, also kept customs officers on their toes checking for liquor illegally imported from the U.S.

Then, as America enacted national prohibition at the beginning of 1920 – which remained in place until the end of 1933 – the liquor trade started flowing the other way.

Many assume that local authorities turned a blind eye to rum-runners moving alcohol south of the border, but this is not exactly the case.

Minor infractions may have been overlooked, and larger-scale ventures – such as the Balmer’s Boathouse operation on East Beach (which launched regular shipments to the U.S. at high tide) and the infamous St. Leonard Hotel (in what is now Peace Arch Park) may have counted on corruption to grease the wheels.

But smaller operators were prone to prosecution under draconian regulations of the Liquor Control Board that dictated all terms for alcohol distribution in the province (even though B.C. citizens were legally able to buy liquor as of 1921, for instance, they weren’t allowed to consume it publicly until as late as 1925).

Thus White Rock customs officers like Alex Smith were often watching as assiduously as their American counterparts for infractions of the rules – including individuals depositing bottles of alcohol on less-travelled areas of the beach or cases of alcohol waiting for pickup in rowboats anchored off shore.

With their U.S. counterparts, the White Rock officers also investigated large shipments of alcohol travelling southward by train, such as $40,000 worth of liquor concealed in a carload of furniture bound for California in 1921, or the 260 bottles of Old Crow found in a load of lumber seized between White Rock and Blaine shortly afterwards.

Suspicions that the GNR was regularly being used as a conduit for the liquor trade ultimately led to an investigation by railway authorities, although there is no record that significant charges were ever laid.

End of an era

The wild early days of the border slipped slowly into local legend after Prohibition was repealed in the U.S., and as White Rock and South Surrey became increasingly ‘civilized’ – and less inviting for major criminal activity.

Pacific Highway (176 Street), first opened to the border in 1913 – and re-opened, as Surrey’s first paved highway, in 1923 – became the main port of entry on the Pacific Coast by 1937, when a new customs and immigration building was opened there, less than a kilometre from the scene of Cliff Adams’ unfortunate demise.

Ranked the third largest entry port in Canada by 1944 – by which time Second World War security measures had made the border far less porous – it had become the main focus of customs and immigration activity locally.

The White Rock offices were still busy enough, however, that the train-depot’s original central breezeway was enclosed in 1949 to provide additional space.

Barely three years later, in 1951, the era of the railway depot as a customs and immigration port came firmly to a close when a new federal building was opened at the foot of Martin Street, and all activities were transferred there.

About the Author: Alex Browne

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