The Fraser Valley’s forgotten (and a little gross) swimming holes

Abbotsford, Chilliwack, and Mission all once had beloved swimming holes. Then, in a matter of decades, they were gone.

By Tyler Olsen | September 10, 2021 |4:38 pm

The pool killed the swimming holes. That and all the gross stuff in the water.

In late August, health officials closed the beach at Albert Dyck Park in Abbotsford, and Harrison Lake’s lagoon is frequently the subject of health warnings. Such closures are a problem in a large region with a shortage of swimming spots. But it hasn’t always been that way.

There was a time when swimmers crowded the shores of Mill Lake. When you could wander down Second Avenue in Mission and cool off in an urban oasis (as much as Mission was urban then). And when kids would flock to the intersection of two sloughs, plunge into the water, and have their parents not really think about the fact their kids were swimming in a slough.

The swimming holes were free, accessible, and extremely popular. They were also sometimes more than a little unhygienic.

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The lake and the creek

In Abbotsford, Mill Lake was a favoured swimming spot. After reclamation work on the former mill site in the 1940s, bathers and children flocked to the lake. Mill Lake became home to the annual Lions Water Carnival and an aquatics group. A wharf and boardwalk were erected to protect swimmers from the powerboats that sped across the lake.

The heyday of Mill Lake swimming didn’t last long, though. In the 1950s, Centennial Pool was constructed on the west side of the lake, and swimmers and organizations went to that pool. The pool was attractive, but the lake was also not as clean as folks may have once wanted to imagine. A century ago, it was the centre of industrial operations that left it strewn with detritus and trees. And while its rehabilitation had removed some of the most obvious environmental carnage left behind, even today the lake bears the signs of the old mill and the train track that once crossed it. Meanwhile, as Abbotsford has grown around it, both run-off and sewage have made its way into the lake.

“I don’t think many people have swam in the lake on purpose since the swimming pool was opened,” said Christina Reid, the executive director of Heritage Abbotsford Society, which is based at Trethewey House on the shores of the lake.

In 1930s Mission, an urban swimming hole blossomed a block from downtown. A creek in the area created a natural swimming hole at the corner of Second Avenue and Horne Street, and in 1933 a “pool” (of a sort) was roughed-in as part of a public park. Over the next decade and a half, improvements were added, including concrete barriers. A photo from 1946 shows dozens of youths using the swimming hole, which resembles an old quarry.

Like in Abbotsford, the outdoor swimming spot was replaced by a formal pool. That heated pool was constructed in the same spot as the old “hole” but is also gone—replaced by a newer, larger swimming pool to the north. The site is now home to the Mission Library’s parking lot.

On Dec. 31, 1958, the Chilliwack Progress reported that Dayton's Pool would be declared unsafe.
On Dec. 31, 1958, the Chilliwack Progress reported that Dayton’s Pool would be declared unsafe.

The slough

Chilliwack had its own unhygienic swimmer’s paradise: “Dayton’s Pool,” a swimming hole in Hope Slough a short bike ride away from the city’s downtown. A photo from 1960 shows more than a dozen kids splashing around the pond, which included a rectangular, boarded-off kiddies pool area. There was a diving board. There was a slide. There was a huge 1950s-era sign urging people to “play safely.” And there was bacteria. A lot of bacteria.

As Merlin Bunt, a local history buff who runs a popular Chilliwack history Facebook page, chronicled this spring, Dayton’s Pool was a local creation that gained the approval and financial support of the Township’s council, which included a farmer who lived nearby named Tony Jesperson. (The pool was also called “Jesperson’s Pool.”) In 1956, council spent $432 to enlarge, deepen, and improve the pool. It provided more money the next couple years too.

The pool was a hit, said Bunt, who swam in it as a kid. But its popularity created its own problems. More than 100 children would use the site at any one time, and it was so crowded, some would dry off by lying down on the roads nearby. And there was the water. The cattle upstream, and nearby septic fields, left kids scratching themselves.

In 1959, Dayton’s Pool was declared “polluted and unsafe” and health officials posted signs declaring: “Warning! Dayton Pool has been condemned by the Medical Health Officer. Users do so at their OWN RISK.”

The township considered whether they could chlorinate the pool, but it was determined that doing so would kill fish. Still, locals continued to enjoy the site—swimmers itch and bacterial counts and all. Queen Elizabeth even cruised by the pool in her limousine in 1959. She did not, apparently, take a dip.

In the end the fate of the pool was inextricably tied to Jesperson. When he died in 1966, the pool lost its most-important booster. And without his work maintaining the site, the pool quickly deteriorated and swimmers abandoned it. They didn’t forget it, though.

For then-kids like Bunt, even 60 years ago there is a nostalgic element to the valley’s last popular swimming holes.

“Even though it was mucky and potentially contaminated,” he told The Current, “when you were young, you didn’t care.”

Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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