Looking Back: A half-way house in Whonnock

Wilhelm Nickels was one of only a few pioneers settling in the Whonnock area before B.C. joined the Canadian Confederation in 1871

First surveyor’s sketch map of Nickels’s land.

“William Nickles … kept a ‘half-way house’ – half-way to Harrison Mouth [Harrison Mills] from New Westminster and one mile above McMillan Island,” reads a passage in John Gibbard’s 1937 MA thesis on the early history of the Fraser Valley.

William Nickles was in reality Wilhem Nickels, but his name was rarely written that way. Nickles, or sometimes even Nickols, is the Anglicized version mostly used.

Coming from Germany, he was taught the so-called “Fraktur” script and he probably was not able to read North American handwriting.

In the document related to the land on which he built his half-way house, his surname is shown as “Nickales,” and he made no attempt to correct the spelling when he signed it with his name in German script.

Wilhelm Nickels was one of only a few pioneers settling in the Whonnock area before B.C. joined the Canadian Confederation in 1871. His land claim on the shore of the Fraser River was registered on March 28, 1870, and his pre-emption of 160 acres was registered as Lot 326.

A short time later, part of that land was assigned to the Kwantlen Reserve to the west, and in compensation Nickels was granted an additional 31 acres, Lot 329, to the east of his original claim.

That is where Spilsbury Street is today.

In 1875, Wm. Nickels, having met the requirements for improvement to the land and residency, received the “certificate of improvement,” on which basis the Crown granted him the land in 1879.

As he was a registered landowner, his name, in a variety of spellings, appeared on the Maple Ridge voters list during those years.

John Gibbard’s information on Nickels and his half-way house comes from an advertisement in New Westminster’s semi-weekly Mainland Guardian. The advertisement first appeared in the publication of Dec. 7 – 1870, and was repeated in several following issues. It says that Nickels’s half-way house was ready to accommodate travellers, and the guests were promised good meals at all hours as well as a choice of groceries and clothing.

But the establishment may have done more than just obliging the weary traveller. From city directories, we know that selling liquor sale was Nickels’s business. In New Westminster, he was involved and probably the owner of a bar called “Poney Saloon” (1877-1878), and the directory of 1880-1881 shows that he traded in liquors.

However, Nickels’s business ventures did not seem to flourish, as on  Feb. 2 – 1880, he signed a legal contract with Frances Spilsbury for a loan of $150 with an undefined “ … part of Lot 326” as security.

For the signature of the mortgage agreement on Monday, Feb. 2, he travelled from Maple Ridge to New Westminster. We come across Nickels’s name, as W. Nickols, in the Feb. 4, 1880, issue of New Westminster’s Dominion Pacific Herald, where his eyewitness account of the Haney Slide that occurred on Friday, Jan. 30 is published.

The contract Nickels signed with Frank Spilsbury called for quarterly payments, but before the first payment was due in May 1880 the mortgage was released. The reason could have been because Nickles returned the $150 earlier than expected, but it is more likely that he had sold his land to Frank Spilsbury.

The mortgage agreement of 1880 shows Francis Spilsbury as a resident of New Westminster, but in the following year, as shown by the Canada Census of 1881, he lived in Whonnock.

Wilhelm Nickles, or William Nickles, disappears from local history.

Perhaps he left the province, forever.


Fred Braches is a local historian who lives in Whonnock.

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