The Victoria Gold Rush

"THE TOWNSPEOPLE WERE JUST LEAVING CHURCH to return to their whitewashed cottages on Sunday morning, April 25, 1858 when the Commodore, a wooden side-wheel American steamer brought the first shipload of gold-seekers. From their position on the hillside (Christ Church hill) they watched fascinated as she disembarked a stream of men, most of them wearing red flannel shirts and carrying packs containing blankets, miners' wash-pans, spades and firearms. The first large "non-British" element had arrived in the Colony.

"Of the 450 men in the party only 60 were British subjects. Some had money, some were penniless. Most carried bowie knives and revolvers." This is the dramatic description by a witness of the first gold rush. Victoria with its few hundred settled white residents, its picnics, intimate parties and amateur theatricals, its politicking and Douglas-baiting had to cater to what some authorities estimated at 25,000 gold-seekers. If today's Victoria had to find temporary accommodation and supplies for 10,000,000 people the problem would be mathematically in proportion. The settlement became a tent town with acute problems of sanitation, food, accommodation and administration.

Even before the gold rush, human shelter was at a premium. One resident had solved his problem by building a house out of the upper works of a wrecked steamer. Another, Captain W. Gosset, the ;England. With the arrival of the gold-seekers the settlement swanned with '.open latrines, tents, lean-to's, negroes, Kanakas, Chinese, Jews, Frenchmen, Englishmen, Germans and other nationalities. Every' one complained of the stench from open drains. There was no trunning water except when it rained, and then too much of it.

''Taverns and drunks were soon in too plentiful supply. Roads were: rutted, trails often bearing a sign "no bottom obtainable." Drays · on Wharf Street sank axle-deep in mud. Cattle roamed in and out of the tents. The nationalities congregated like birds of a feather ... the Jews on Johnson Street, the Chinese in nearby "Little Canton, the Kanalcas on Kanaka Row (now Humboldt Street) and the negroes wherever they could find room.

Within six months of the arrival of the first gold-seekers, 225 "buildings," nearly all of them with wooden fronts and canvas sides went up in what is now downtown. The gold-seekers, many of whom were surprised to find that the diggings were not in Victoria, were eager to get to the Mainland. The Surprise, a side-wheeler, made 15 return trips to Fort Langley in 1858, sometimes with 500 passengers. But even so, many of the miners tried making it by canoe and in the treacherous tidal waters not all succeeded.

No private corporation designed solely for trade could possibly cope with all the problems the gold rush entailed. The repeat of these problems with the Barkerville gold rush of 1862, and the Leechtown* rush two years later spelled the end of the Hudson's Bay Company's monopoly, and Douglas and the Company were thankful to be relieved of their burden. Douglas, backed by H.M. warships and aided by good commonsense and the interest of the Colonial Office, maintained British rule.

He also kept order. Douglas foresaw the need for competent and honest civil servants if British rule was to be maintained. The result was a considerable influx of customs men, legal experts, surveyors and others, whose * Leechtown is the smaller and lesser known gold rush near Sooke * presence, while contributing to good administration, aroused the jealousy of many easterners and others who had located here and found a living hard to get. Douglas also intended that Victoria should derive the main benefit from the gold rushes. He deliberately gave preference to Victoria by making it a free port in 1859, thus ensuring that it became also the main supply center for the Mainland.

Goods entering the Fraser River without being routed via Victoria were taxed. But for the gold rushes Victoria might have continued for decades as a somnolent backwater ... a community living on fishing and farming with all that makes for greater sophistication conspicuously absent. Indeed when the first three gold rushes were over that is what many local pessimists thought it would become. The gold rushes injected money into the economy. The money enabled new buildings, better communications and the incorporation of the settlement as a city. Land which could hardly be given away in 1857 became suddenly valuable.

Improved land values helped to finance public works. The new 800-foot long James Bay bridge (on the site of the present Causeway) was built in 1859. Maintenance seems to have been substandard: a piledriver and four men fell through the rotten planking nine years later. Before the bridge was built, passage from Government Street to the three or four houses in James Bay meant walking (in winter wading), or riding the trail skirting the mud flats where the Church of Our Lord now stands on Humboldt Street. For many years tides came right up to the Church. The old bridge from Johnson Street to the Indian Reserve was removed in 1860 thus enabling the waterfront mooring area to be extended. Many wharves went in. The first Parliament Buildings were put up in this period. They have remained an economic mainstay of Victoria ever since.

They were not, of course, the present imposing buildings, but a collection of half-timbered cottages. As to architecture, the Colonist described the main building as something between a Dutch toy and a Chinese pagoda and they were immediately christened "The Birdcages." The scene greeting the first legislators was very different, the outlook seawards was a junky waterfront, discarded water-logged lumber, shacks and garbage of all descriptions. Douglas originally intended the buildings to be on Government: Street between Bastion and Yates. But the land there having become very valuable as a result of the influx, he decided to sell it and use the proceeds for the Parliament Buildings, locating them where land was cheap.

The Legislature and especially Dr. Helmcken and Amor De Cosmos, a newly arrived, vociferous journalist-politician, wished to censure Douglas for using public moneys to build without Parliament's consent. Douglas's short reply to this was: "It wasn't public money." The motion was thereupon withdrawn. The main Birdcage, one of five buildings, first faced the harbourfront on Belleville Street. Four of the five buildings were demolished to make room for the present buildings. The fifth went up in smoke in 1957. Builder was Gideon Hallcrow, a former Scottish crofter and handyman.

He built also the nearby Helmcken House in 1852. Helmcken House is a very modest single-storey structure (30' x 25') with about the same living accommodation as would be found in many an English working class home of the period. There was no running water. Small fireplaces provided the heat. It has the horsehair sofas, fruit under glass and what-nots beloved by those of the Victorian period. Douglas persuaded Helmcken to build near him because he was nervous of roaming Indians at night. Helmcken regretted afterwards that he had obliged. Lumber cost $40 per 1000 feet in the rough and had to be hand-processed.

The doctor had a servant problem because Indians would not live in a house. He complained that he could have built the dwelling for one-third of the cost a few years later. But with an acre of land around it must have commanded very attractive views. Incorporation of Victoria as a city is partly the result of Dr. Helmcken's pleadings. This always cheerful, popular doctor, who charged nothing for his services to poor patients, reminded Douglas in 1859 that he had won nothing about a bill for the enfranchisement of Victoria sponsored by J. D. Pemberton two years earlier. The bill was to make Victoria independent of the Hudson's Bay Company.

Douglas still prevaricated but the bill eventually became law in 186!2. Pemberton was not totally disinterested in getting the city franchised. With a colleague, B. W. Pearse, he had laid out the town-site and both were considerable lot holders. They could assume that enfranchisement of the city would enhance the value of their holdings. The visitor to Victoria in 1862 would have found not a city but a shack-town. There were only 2,500 permanent residents. Two years before the population was only 608 with a temporary summer addition of 25,000 or so gold-seekers from outside.

Stepping ashore on Wharf Street the visitor would have seen a dusty open space, littered with cow and horse dung ... today's Bastion Square. On his right hand were the Hudson's Bay wharf and the Company's administrative buildings. There were only a few brick buildings in the whole city. He could have walked round the entire built-up area in 20 minutes and even this area included many patches of wasteland. Outside the perimeter formed by Wharf, Courtney, Douglas and Johnson Streets were very few buildings. The city's franchise extended over 1,000 acres and excluded the larger part of James Bay.

Beyond the buildings were bush and marsh where deer, grouse, pheasant and duck were plentiful. Most striking was the abundance of saloons and hotels in the city area. Here and there between them were merchants' stores, the merchants when business was slack playing cards on upturned packing cases on the sidewalk. But for the harbor-front, the uniforms of the Royal Marines and the Royal Navy, one could have been in the Wild West. Nothing looked permanent.

The drinking facilities would have astonished the visitor. Government and Johnson Streets had most of the hotels and saloons. Going north along Government from the James Bay bridge there were successively the Australia Hotel, the John Bull Hotel, the The Australia Hotel which stood on piles on the northeast comer of James Bay Bridge (approximately where the Empress Hotel rock garden is) was notable in later years for being the only saloon with an organ.

The Crest" handicraft shop, Hotel de France, the Star and Garter, the St. Nicholas Hotel and next to it, the Island Hotel, The Victoria, since renamed the Windsor, is the city's oldest still standing hotel. When built in 1858 it was one of the community's two brick hotels. It was renamed the Windsor in 1890 when the New Victoria Hotel, since demolished, went up at the northwest corner of Government and Johnson Streets. The original Victoria was built by George Richardson who arrived here in the Princess Royal. It had an accident in 1876. People were not used to the recently installed gas mains, and Richardson, smelling gas in the small hours, searched for the leak with a candle. The blast blew down a four-inch partition brick wall, tore off the wallpaper, wrecked the interior and wrenched a street lamp from its socket on Fort and Government Streets two blocks away.

Richardson, clad only in loose-fitting nightshirt, was extensively singed and a tenant unnecessarily broke a limb when he jumped from an upstairs window. The St. Nicholas Hotel on Government Street used to advertise a large public restaurant and a "ladies ordinary," its site being now that of the Poodle Dog restaurant. There was also a hotel on View between Broad and Douglas, the St. George, later to become the Driard Hotel and now part of the Eaton Block. The plank sidewalk ended at Government and Johnson Streets, so the visitor would tum left along Johnson and avoiding the potholes (one could disappear forever in some of them), would see the Pioneer Saloon, the Lager Beer Saloon and the Royal Hotel.

On Yates Street, between Wharf and Government Streets, were the Identical Saloon, the Phoenix Saloon, the Bank Exchange, the Fashion Hotel, a notorious gambling and dance hall operated by the American John Keenan, and many other drinking places.

Eating and lodging houses also abounded. On Government Street opposite the theater, Mrs. McDonald ran a restaurant and oyster saloon with suppers "all hours of the night." The Royal Hotel and Restaurant built by James Wilcox in 1858 and later renamed the Occidental was at the southeast comer of Wharf and Johnson (now a gas station site) . Ringo, a freed (or runaway) negro slave, ran Ringo's Restaurant on Yates Street. He was an excellent cook and kind to the hard-up. The London Coffee House on Cormorant Street offered breakfast with plate of meat for 25¢, dinner for 37½¢ and coffee with bun 12¢. One of the better eating places was the Colonial Restaurant at 95 Government Street. It was run by the asthmatic Sosthenes Driard who was later to operate the Driard Hotel, the most famous hotel of its time.

Sosthenes' corpulence was a tribute to the quality of his cuisine. Other well-known kitchens were the Regent on Fort Street and the Lord Nelson on Store Street. Between the saloons on Yates Street was the Metropolitan Lodging house with rooms from $2 to $7 per week per person, or from 50¢ to $ 1 per night. Board and lodging for $7 a week was the usual charge. The Union Hotel was cheaper. It had 51 beds from 25¢ a night up. Outside Victoria was Six Mile House at Parsons Bridge, Craigflower. Its opening in 1855 with what an observer described as "a grand spree" was still fresh in memory when the city was franchised and in Saanichton, Henry Simpson from Kent, a former baker for the Hudson's Bay Company, borrowed £83 n 1858 to build the Prairie Tavern.

The tavern was replaced with the Prairie Inn in 1893 and this building which still stands and serves the public gives a fair idea of the modest nature of much of the accommodation of those days. Some of the "Inns" were smaller than the modem dwelling. "Amenities" in the sixties might include a washstand and ewer and a spittoon; the walls were thin partitions where every conversation and footstep echoed and the lighting, if any, was a lamp or candle. Victoria was no place for the after-dark stroller.

A ravine ran east to west between Johnson and Pandora Streets, debouching into the harbor. It was bridged in three places, at Store, Government and Douglas Streets, but the pedestrian could easily miss the footbridges in the dark with most unpleasant results. Their social impact apart, it is almost impossible to overestimate the effect of the gold rushes on Victoria's development. Never before or since, to use a current political slogan, had Victoria "had it so good." For one of the few times in her history she was dependent not on local trade supplemented by tourist dollars, but had a captive market landed at her wharves.

The Hudson's Bay Company and early settlers in their wildest optimism had never conceived of such a bonanza. Here were scores of thousands of visitors, all of them in need of accommodation, food and drink, clothing, miners' equipment and transportation. People like John Work, Joseph Despard Pemberton, Peter McQuade and many others who later became prominent citizens, previously accustomed to dealing in shillings, found themselves dealing with hundreds of pounds. Hard-pressed householders, glad to trade milk for groceries or after much haggling a horse for a cart, found a ready cash market for anything they could offer.

Anything on four legs that could be used for transportation ... semi-wild mules, horses fit only for the knackers' yard, even camels were imported and found a ready market. The demand for lumber and carpenters for the construction of hotels and saloons was insatiable and many a man abandoned farming or the Hudson's Bay Company service to satisfy the demand or to seek his fortune in the gold-diggings. As is still the case today, Americans were first to see the business possibilities in Victoria. They had the experience of the California gold rush to guide them. They came chiefly from San Francisco; Alfred Waddington, a Victoria merchant and later Inspector of Schools, describes them: "an indescribable array of Polish Jews, Italian fishermen, French cooks, jobbers, speculators of every kind, land agents, auctioneers, hangers on at auctions, bummers, bankrupts and brokers of every description."

Before long Victoria had Wells Fargo, the carriers, the Bank of British North America, the Bank of British Columbia, San Francisco shipping companies and agents of all descriptions. Many of the merchants left when the gold rushes were over, but a lot of their money remained here. Transient or permanent they had to buy or rent land on which to erect their stores and saloons. One-third of the advertising in Mallandaine's first city directory came from San Francisco.

Whereas in the early months of 1858 the Hudson's Bay surveyor Joseph Despard Pemberton had been pleading cap in hand with few takers for residents to buy downtown lots at $500 up, late in 1858 Donald Fraser, a British journalist, paid $3,100 for a lot at the comer of Government and Yates Streets. Lots 20 feet by 70 feet on Johnson Street near Wharf fetched an average price of $2,000 each in late 1858. A lot at the comer of Store Street near the gas works bought earlier for $700 sold in 1862 for $3,050. Business frontage downtown rented at $2 to $6 per foot per month. To illustrate further the demand - small log houses built by the Hudson's Bay Company for its men at a cost of $100.00 fetched 50 and 70 times this price.

The vendors, chiefly French Canadians, in most cases speedily drank their newly acquired fortunes and in two or three years' time if still living were as poor as when they were born. And who made the money? There were about 30 holders of 10 or more downtown lots in 1858. They included such well-known names as Charles Bayley, the Rev. Modeste Demers, H. G. Dallas, Roderick Finlayson, Donald Fraser, John Helmcken, Wm. Leigh, Alex Mouatt, D. McTavish, Jeremiah Nagle, James Yates and George Pearkes. Some of them held on to their land. The first city assessment in 1862 shows Donald Fraser as owner of land on Wharf, McClure, Collinson, Vancouver, Government and Yates Streets valued at $250,000.

Robert Ker (government auditor) was assessed on $20,000, Dr. Helmcken on $32,000 and R. Finlayson on $12,000. Chief Justice Begbie and Bishop Hills of the Anglican Church were both large landholders as also were John Foster McCreight who later became Premier, Selim Franklin, George Hunter Cary, Jeremiah Nagle and H. A. Tuzo, a Hudson's Bay physician. George Cary, first Attorney-General, who erected "Cary Castle" (Government House), achieved unwelcome notoriety when in the early years of the settlement he tried to comer its water supply by fencing the spring at Spring Ridge and charging admission.

Bishop Hills invested in land on behalf of the Church with funds provided by the Burdett-Coutts banker family. He bought not only downtown but also extensively in Saanich. Land transactions in the first gold rushes are evidence enough that real estate then, as now, was one of Victoria's chief trading commodities. The gold rush was certainly welcome to the Hudson's Bay Company not only because of its commanding trade interests, but also because back in 1850 the Americans were offering 640 acres of land free to every settler, while Douglas was trying to get $5 an acre here. The gold rushes also convinced Victorians that here and not Esquimalt was the logical town-site, and laid the foundations of fortunes the benefits of which are still enjoyed today by descendants of the pioneers.

Among the early merchants were W. & J. Wilson on Government Street founded in 1862; Kent & Frost, hardware merchants on Fort Street and Peter McQuade, ship chandler on Wharf Street, not forgetting of course, the Hudson's Bay Company which dwarfed all competitors. Other prominent merchants of the day included Hibben & Carswell (Willson Stationers are their successors) , William Wilson, draper; J. H. Turner & Co., carpet merchants; E. Marvin & Co., hardware; Guy Hostin, gunsmith; Alfred Fellowes, iron merchant and J. S. Drummond, stoves and hardware, while Fardon and Maynard & Dalby, pioneer photographers, were willing to mail home a picture of the adventurer in full mining garb.

Fardon, who was taught photography by his wife, must have made money. He figures later as owner of the Fardon Building on Langley Street. Wharf Street was dominated by the Hudson's Bay Company, whose retail store was on the west side. Adjacent to their wharf was Englehardt's Wharf on which was the Company's salmon house. In the first weeks of the 1858 gold rush when accommodation was at a premium, men were allowed to sleep here amidst the reek of salmon for $2 a night.

Two Americans opened what was probably Victoria's first restaurant in this old building, which was demolished in 1878. At the comer of Wharf and Yates stood Treweek's warehouse, pulled down in 1873. N. Treweek paid $6,000 to have the building erected. It sold for $50. Victoria in its first year of incorporation suffered from an excess of politicians, lawyers, merchants, transients and saloons and a considerable shortage of accommodation, water, women and good roads. So short was human shelter that some transients would cross Puget Sound to get a good night's sleep. The Council could do little about transients, women and bad roads, but it made a start on sanitation and water.

The first City ordinances banned slaughter houses, tanneries, distilleries and other "offensive" trades. Privies had to be emptied between midnight and 6 a.m. Night soil, soap-lees, ammoniacal and "other such offensive matter" could not be moved along a thoroughfare between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. Horses and cattle had to be kept off sidewalks and footpaths. This bylaw was probably inspired by the bad behavior of a bull which tossed and badly injured a child on Pandora Avenue. Wandering pigs and goats were to be impounded. The depositing of rubbish, filth, ashes or offal on sidewalks or roads was prohibited. An odorous early complication was caused by a dead horse on the James Bay side of city limits. Frantic calls for relief from polluted air came from the City's influential James Bay residents, but ownership of the carcass was denied and maintained (the prevailing southwest wind favoring them at the time) that the horse was Victoria-bred and owned.

Finally some unknown benefactor with a strong stomach pushed the carcass one night inside the City boundary enabling the Council to dispose of it. As a first fund-raising measure the Council imposed taxes on everything that moved on wheels, two or four legs. Male residents and dogs (the insult was unconscious) were assessed $1 per head per year. Also taxed were carriages, buggies, saddle horses, milk wagons, liquor, real estate, theaters, circuses.

Lawyers narrowly escaped being taxed. They pleaded that it was wrong for the law (the city) to tax the law. Thomas Harris was a very popular first mayor. He had done well in Victoria. He arrived with the gold-seekers but speedily exchanged the red shirt of the miner for the striped apron of the butcher, opening first of all a slaughter house on Wharf Street, then Vancouver Island's first butcher shop in 1858. His Queen's Market at Government and Johnson Streets was a favorite social rendezvous.

Although he became an M.L.A. in 1861, Harris was always proud to class himself as an "humble tradesman," but the term became progressively less appropriate as he ascended the ladder of fortune. His residence where now stands the Government Street branch of the Bank of Montreal (Bastion and Government Streets) was the most handsome and best furnished in Victoria, but quite ordinary by today's standards. It was one of the few brick buildings of the time and he frequently entertained his supporters there. He also raced horses and was a popular figure on the Beacon Hill course, betting being in his blood. Harris arrived here only a year before Victoria's first horse race on May 2, 1859, and a Jockey Club of sorts came into being in 1861.

A jovial Englishman from Hertfordshire, Harris as mayor needed all his good humor. He weighed 300 pounds and the mayoral chair collapsed under him at the first council meeting. There were no council chambers, the City Hall not being built until 1877. The Council had to meet in the police barracks on what is now Bastion Square, which also contained the court room and the lock-up. On one occasion the Council found the court in session. Harris sent acurt notice to the magistrate telling him to quit in 10 minutes. Ten minutes elapsed. Nothing happened. Harris sent a messenger to ask for the magistrate's reply. The magistrate told the messenger that a reply wasn't necessary and went on with his case. 

Some of the outraged councillors exploded into murderous threats. Councillor Copland suggested that 20 specials be sworn in to throw the magistrate into the street. But Councillor Copland coveted the mayor's position and Harris knew it, so took no action. The Council later got temporary quarters at Broad Street and Trounce Alley. While in office Harris suffered a bad accident. He was driving to his Saanich farm when the shafts came away from the cart. Harris held tight to the reins and was dragged over the dashboard. He was discovered only the next day ... an indication of the sparse population of the area.

During the mayor's illness Councillor Copland appointed himself deputy-mayor. Many viewed this with disfavor and when he attended an official dinner in his self-appointed capacity he was unceremoniously ejected before he had a chance to eat. Harris, like many others who had spent too generously during the boom years of the gold rushes, fell on lean times later and had to sell his fine home. He died of melancholia. There were many such deaths among Victoria's pioneers and medical opinion today associates them with heavy drinking. Harris Green, on Pandora Avenue in front of the First Church of Christ, Scientist, opened in 1920, bears a tablet to the memory of the first mayor.

But of greater impact on the citizens than incorporation and the establishment of a more representative Assembly was the establishment of a public bathing place next to W. and J. Wilson on Government Street. This venture by an enterprising San Francisco youth was the forerunner of many others. The bathing establishments conferred an inestimable boon on residents and transients. People were for the first time in Victoria in 1862 able to get a hot bath ... and some had been here since 1843.