The B-Side: the Hidden History of Victoria’s Waterfront

February 13, 2015 by Nevin Thompson

Nowadays, Victoria’s waterfront is a picturesque place to go site-seeing or attend festivals in the summertime.

In the past, however, much of the shoreline including the Inner Harbour was the working heart of the city, and a major place to meet or embark on voyages.

First Nations people have lived and gathered in Victoria for thousands of years.

In fact, the shoreline where the Coast Guard station is currently located between Fisherman’s Wharf and Ogden Point was once a major gathering point for people from all over the Northwest Coast and Puget Sound.

Visitors would paddle oceangoing canoes to Victoria to trade, and they would set up temporary camp on the beach across from Songhees during their visit.

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Image source: qmackie.com, vihistory

Victoria: a few firsts on the West Coast

The Victoria region has always been a  transportation and communications hub.

In 1861 Victoria became the first Canadian community on the West Coast to get a telegraph connection.

The telegraph connected Olympia Washington with Victoria via Telegraph Cove near Cadboro Bay.

Another first: gaslight was first introduced to British Columbia and Victoria in 1862, just twenty years after James Douglas surveyed the area for Fort Victoria. The coal that fueled the gas lights came from nearby mines of Nanaimo and Cumberland.

Seattle wouldn’t have its first gas lights until 1873. Vancouver would have to wait until 1886.

Victoria: first stop on the way to the gold fields

In the 1800’s, Victoria was a city of firsts mostly because we were the most accessible transport hub on the West Coast for much of that century. People stopped here on their way to the gold fields.

The continent-spanning Canadian Pacific Railway would not be extended to Gastown and False Creek until 1887, so for much of the century Victoria was the first and best deepwater port after San Francisco.

Victoria – a leader in innovative transportation

By 1900 Victoria was part of what was once the largest streetcar and interurban rail system in the world.

The Victoria rail network was operated by BC Electric (the same entity that established gas lights in Victoria) also operated an integrated rail and ferry service that helped link Victoria with the mainland.

The tram, rail, and ferry links all worked together to connect Victoria and Sidney with New Westminster, Port Moody and, later, Vancouver.

An efficient and extensive interurban light rail system

On the Island, in an era before automobiles, electric tram lines provide quick and convenient connections between downtown Victoria and all of Greater Victoria.

Interurban Road itself is named after the old tram line that ran up Burnside to Interurban, and then up the west side of the Saanich Peninsula to Deep Cove.

The Victoria & Sidney Railway ran up what is now Lochside Trail. The flat rail bed makes it an excellent cycle path.

While buses and cars meant an end to light rail in Victoria, the excellent museum on Beacon Avenue in Sidney has some great exhibits of the old commuter rail system.

The first double-decker buses in North America

Victoria, being ground zero for the advanced technologies of the time including rail and gas light, still manages to be innovative when it comes to transportation.

In 2000 Victoria became the first city in North America to use double decker buses in regular public transit service as well as the first city to use hybrid double-decker buses.

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Greater Victoria’s Waterfront: the working heart of our community

Besides serving for nearly a century as a major steamship terminal connecting Victoria with the West Coast and Asia, Victoria’s waterfront employed thousands of people at factories, canneries and shipyards.

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Esquimalt Graving Dock, first built in 1876, is now the largest solid-bottom commercial drydock on the West Coast of North and South America.

The large graving dock was built in Esquimalt in part to provide Victoria with an economic engine after the CPR terminus in Gastown shifted steamship traffic to Vancouver.

Victoria embraced shipbuilding in a big way.

Victoria’s rich history of shipbuilding

Victoria’s shipbuilding industry began in 1859 at at the foot of Dallas Road and became an economic juggernaut by World War I.

Five 2,500 ton, and twenty larger 3,000 ton wooden steamers were built for wartime use, with an additional six large, five-masted auxiliary lumber schooners, being constructed, to maintain B.C. forestry industry shipping throughout the Pacific.

Point Hope Shipyard, the first shipyard in British Columbia, had already been established near Ogden Point in 1873.

Victoria: building and repairing ship during two world wars

During the First World War another yard, Yarrow, based in Esquimalt, repaired and refitted many vessels for the Royal Navy, employing up to 800 men.

During the Second World War the company produced Flower-class corvettes, frigates, landing ships, and transport ferries for the Royal Navy and Royal Canadian Navy, as well as freighters.

Other work included arming civilian ships and refitting at least one as a troop carrier.

At its peak, 3,500 men and women worked for Yarrow building ships in Victoria.

Another shipbuilder, Albion Iron Works at Point Ellice, turned out boilers, engines, and pipes for early steamers. The hulls were made of wood on slips in the yard. Later the yard turned out ships, like the sternwheeler SS Mount Royal.

Albion merged with Victoria Machinery Depot (VMD) in 1888, and the area that is now Dockside Green played a key role in both world wars building and repairing ships.

SEDCO 135-F: cool name, even cooler project

VMD built several BC Ferries vessels and In 1965-1967 also made the oil drilling platform SEDCO 135-F.

At the time of its construction SEDCO 135-F was the largest semi-submersible platform in the world and the first oil platform built in BC.

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Image courtesy Times Colonist

The legacy of Victoria’s innovative, industrial past

The coal gas for the lights came from a large gas and electric works on the east shore of Rock Bay, just north of what is now Victoria’s old town.

A powerhouse at the end of Store Street, where Island Asphalt is now located, also provide electricity for Victoria’s innovative network tram lines that stretched all over Greater Victoria.

The process of creating coal gas left long-lasting effects on the environment.

The Rock Bay site was used for a coal gasification plant from 1862 to 1952 by Victoria Gas and B.C. Electric, which eventually became B.C. Hydro. In 1883, the City of Victoria received approval to use the head of the bay as a dump site. A tannery and sawmills were also located around the bay, a 2004 government document states. Infilling, several metres deep, contributed to the contamination as well.

Cleanup of the site has cost $100 million so far and is almost complete, reuniting Victoria with valuable waterfront land along Rock Bay.

The transformation of Rock Bay will mark the continuing evolution of Victoria waterfront to a knowledge economy.


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