ON THE SUNNY AFTERNOON OF May 25, 1896 conductor George Farr of tightly-packed streetcar No. 106 remarked jokingly to passenger James Townley as they approached Point Ellice Bridge: "If we get over the bridge we'll be lucky." They were his last words. Seconds later the streetcar with 124 screaming passengers plunged from the bridge amid a mass of iron spars and broken beams into the tidal waters below. With conductor Farr perished 58 men, women and children who had been joyously bound for the Queen Victoria Day military fete at Macaulay Point. Not since the loss of the S.S. Pacific which went down in 1875 with 230 of its 232 passengers, after being hit by a collier within a few hours of leaving Victoria, had so many Victorians been simultaneously bereaved. If we today could imagine 600 of our citizens being killed in a single accident it would be mathematically in proportion to the loss of lives in the Point Ellice Bridge disaster.
The accident cost relatives endless grief and the city $50,000 in legal claims. It was caused by a decayed beam in the center span. The beam had been drilled for inspection four years earlier, but the drill holes were either not caulked at all, or insufficiently caulked. Rot spread from the holes to the entire beam. The beam snapped with the weight of the overloaded streetcar ... it was scheduled to carry only half the number of passengers on board at the time, and the whole center span collapsed into the water. It was revealed later that the bridge had sagged when the heavy 135 streetcar was crossing it four weeks earlier ... hence the conductor's joking remark: "We'll be lucky if we make it." The bridge which collapsed was the third on the site.
The first was built in 1861 and was followed by the 1873 and 1885 bridges. A temporary bridge was built soon after the tragedy and a new rivitted bridge opened in 1904. This was again replaced in 1957 and many of those who witnessed the 1896 tragedy or were bereaved thereby were present at the opening of the new Point Ellice Bridge. The Point Ellice Bridge tragedy marred what had been the practically accident-free record of the Victoria Electric Tramways since the first car line was started in 1 890 from the Outer Wharf to the Fountain (Humber Green). Gradually the steel tracks were lengthened. The second line to be built ran from the steam plant on Store Street to the Jubilee Hospital and was a tremendous boon for visitors to the sick. The No. 5 cars ran from Victoria West to the Gorge. Lines also ran to the Oak Bay Hotel, to the Willows Inn - a favorite rendezvous for sports fans - from Burnside to Tolmie, Fairfield to Hillside, Cloverdale to the Outer Wharf and to James Bay via the trestle bridge. The drivers and conductors worked a IO-hour day for 365 days a year and were paid 22 cents an hour. Pioneer directors of the Company included D. W. Higgins, Andrew Gray, Joseph Hunter, F. S. Barnard and Thomas Shotbolt, the druggist.
Many Victorians recall even today with nostalgia the passing of the streetcars, the last of which ran in 1948. The open, raised platform sightseeing car was as sure a sign of spring as the Tally-Ho horses on the Causeway are today. Guests at the Empress Hotel delighted in watching the quaint cars trundling across the Causeway like noisy toys. At 5 cents a ride (later raised to 7 cents) the cars were immensely popular for many years with the thousands of passengers who used them daily. In spite of this, many people were not above cheating the conductor by handing their passes out of the window so that waiting friends could board free. Many citizens complained of the swaying, jogging and jolting on curves and points and the incessant clanging of the driver's bell. The original Company finished up as part of the British Columbia Electric Co., which took it over when tight money hit the North American Continent in 1896. A. T. Goward, who started as a streetcar conductor, became vice-president of the B.C.E. The buses which replaced the electric cars were in turn taken over together with the B.C. Electric Company by Premier Bennett and his Social Credit government in 1962, a measure which caused great controversy. The drivers and conductors of Victoria's tramcars were better known to city dwellers than the premier or the mayor. The deaths of motorman Harry Talbot and conductor George Farr on car 106 was felt as a personal loss by thousands of passengers.
Close ties which were partly a result of isolation knitted together the permanent residents of the community and these ties were reinforced by intermarriages. The marriages between Priors and Works, Rogers and Angus's, Barnards and Loewens had their counterparts among the Smiths, Browns, Dickinsons and Joneses on the lower social scale. Some newcomers found this clannishness of Victorians rather irksome ... which is the complaint of many newcomers, especially those from the prairies ... today. A sidelight on some of the grumblers was given by Mrs. Baillie Grohman, a visitor in 1897, whose husband engineered great mining developments in the interior.
She stayed at Mrs. Doane's boarding house opposite the Cathedral, where the Tyrrwhit-Drakes, Creases and others called on her. She wrote in her diary: "I could never understand a lot of Englishmen saying as they do that they do not like the Colony and it is a dull place. There's plenty going on. The Navy is in Victoria the greater part of the year and there are dances, tennis parties, picnics, boating parties up the Arm and the sea, and country drives on a duckboard. Added to this is the lovely scenery and fine weather and beautiful wild spring. The families are mostly English or Scottish." Mrs. Baillie Grohman also got from landlady Doane a "Who's Who" of Victoria. According to Mrs. Doane there were people of "good class" and "no class." 137 Mrs. Doane presumably was considered "no class," but she hit back, telling Mrs. Grohman that lots of women giving themselves airs were second-raters, married to schooner captains when "it was easy to get her man and women were scarce."
Also, said Mrs. Doane, many of the so-called ladies had Indian blood. No doubt many of the newcomers felt as they do today that Victoria was somewhat claustrophobic. Residents had to get out of the city occasionally to appreciate all it had to offer, but in the 1890's there were many fewer alternatives than there are today. The S.S. Charmer ran once daily to Vancouver, a town with merely 19,000 people. For those with more time and money the American-owned S.S. H. F. Alexander and other ships of the Pacific Steamship Co. ran once a week to San Francisco. These ships were subsidized by the Federal government and the H. F. Alexander, the crack steamship, could make San Francisco in I¼ days. But the grumblers were a minority. Most people had never left Vancouver Island and had no possibility or desire to do so. For those with business interests the shipping arriving in Victoria provided endless opportunities for cultural and commercial exchanges. All visitors could be assured of a warm ... and if they had money or influence ... a still warmer welcome.
The reception given to Dr. Webb in 1889 was almost vice-regal. Dr. Webb, whose father-in-law was Wm. Henry Vanderbilt, arrived here after a cruise to Alaska and was escorted personally by militia colonel E. G. Prior and Robert Ward, president of the Board of Trade, to Craigflower Bridge. An elaborate system of tip-offs, messages from agents in ports of departure and even on the ships themselves kept local realtors and other businessmen well posted regarding passengers and their means. It is to be feared that many who thought they were coming to a quiet, un-commercialized British city, different from go-getting San Francisco or Vancouver, were rather bewildered. Most welcome of all were British visitors and the most avidly read items in the local newspapers were those revealing where they were staying and who was paying them visits. The importance of visitors could be gauged from the caliber of their visitors. The preference given to Britishers was evidence of a became overwhelmingly pro-British. The great architect of this sentiment was Princess Louise, daughter of Queen Victoria who arrived in 1882, accompanied by her husband, Governor-General the Marquis of Lome. Her arrival gave much needed encouragement to a city still dubious of its future. In fact many at the time of her visit thought there wasn't much of a future. It was by then known that the trans-Canada railroad would definitely terminate in Vancouver.
The sealing, canning and manufacturing industries had not acquired the importance of later years and the dry dock project was bogging down in a conglomerate of cement and corruption. Princess Louise by her very presence restored confidence just as the proximity of a brigadier or other "red tab" in the firing line gives confidence to the scared private soldier. Victoria went all out to show its appreciation. These "all-out" efforts are portrayed, not very flatteringly, by Margaret Ormsby in British Columbia - a History. She writes: "The merchants, householders and the civic authorities entered into a tense competition to demonstrate the fact that Victoria was concerned with Gothic revival.
Hideous monstrosities made their appearance: the arch at Point Ellice Bridge intended to typify the city gates was supplied with two tiers surmounted by parapets. But its circular pediment bore the slogan: 'Loyal Hearts and English Homes.' "A massive and imposing castellated structure was erected by the City Council, and Fort Street boasted a pseudo-Tudor arch with two hexagonal towers and parapets, as well as a center arch surmounted by an embattled gable - all this in imitation stone. 'Victoria Welcomes Queen Victoria's Daughter' said one placard. " 'Union is strength,' declared the other. " 'The Orient greets the Occident,' announced the Chinese arch. From the balconies of their shops furriers draped bear skins with 'Welcome' letters in rawhide and a show window in David Spencer's shop displayed a circular headed screen surmounted by a crown in scarlet and blue fringed with evergreens.'' Princess Louise came for two weeks and stayed for three months in Victoria. Storekeepers proudly announced her patronage and the privilege of "purveying" to her. She was very popular with all.
Black was her favorite color and Victorians became accustomed to her black shawl and bonnet or black-figured silk dress with dolman as she shopped on Government Street. The Princess saw nothing undignified in inspecting 15 varieties of Pendray's locally manufactured soap, Brackman-Ker's oatmeal, Goodacre's dressed beef and other not very glamorous exhibits at the Beacon Hill exhibition. Nor did beer shock her. She went with her husband to see one of the town's master brewers in action. They found the master brewer Arthur Bunster in shirt sleeves chopping wood to heat the brew ... which is evidence that industry in the early 1880's was on a rather modest, do-it-yourself basis. The object of the royal visit was to investigate and encourage industry in the province. It was because her husband pursued so indefatigably this aim and was constantly touring the Mainland that Princess Louise was left so much on her own. But her presence in itself gave great stimulus to local dressmakers, clothiers, the carriage trade and caterers. She gave a dinner for Mr. Justice Gray, Mr. Justice Walkem and Mayor and Mrs. Shakespeare and other guests in Cary Castle (Government House).
To console the noninvited she held a "drawing room" in the James Bay Assembly Chamber ( in one of the Birdcages). She also gave a garden party at Government House, attended bazaars and other functions, was guest of honor at a Union Club dinner and visited St. Ann's Academy, the High School and the Royal Jubilee and St. Joseph's hospitals. So popular was the Princess ( and desperate the Colony) that Premier Beavan even asked whether she could be the Queen of a separate Vancouver Island. This revealed a rather lamentable lack of knowledge of British monarchical tradition. The Empire-mindedness which the Princess inaugurated increased with the increasing prosperity of the 1880's and 1800's. Indeed, Victoria's patriotism exceeded anything to be found in the Mother Country. Local newspapers constantly referred to Victoria as a "Watchdog of Empire" and the Colonist editorialized that "Victorians hoped to be forever loyal subjects of the Queen."
Indicative of the growing enthusiasm for things British were the Queen Victoria birthday celebrations of 1892. They brought out the biggest crowds in the history of the annual celebrations. Ex-mayor R. P. Rithet was out with his family in his launch Hollybank; Captain John Irving took a party around in his new "naptha" launch and the Arm (Gorge) was crowded with other happy parties. The steamers Dale and Badger with passenger-carrying scows in tow plied from the foot of Johnson Street. Canoes, skiffs, sailing craft, Indian dugouts ... anything that could float was in service for the regatta. There were fireworks displays in the evening, a scow carried the magnificent band of one of H.M. warships and serenaded the holiday makers; every little cove along the Gorge had its picnic party. Diving competitions were held near the Point Ellice Bridge and crowds watched men walking the greasy pole, and the Indian canoe races. But the water regatta was only part of the celebrations.
In Beacon Hill Park Royal Navy ratings took part in tug-of-war competitions and soccer games. Horse races consumed a large part of the afternoon, and various games of skill and chance were staged by visiting showmen. The day climaxed with a military full-dress parade and a grand concert in the evening. Victorians did not get many holidays - six days a year, namely the Queen's birthday, her succession (June 20), Coronation Day, Good Friday, Easter Monday and Christmas Day - and they made the most of them. To be accepted in Victoria society meant being a British patriot and Colonel E. G. Prior, commander of the volunteer Militia Coast Artillery Brigade typified the sentiments of his times. He told the 34th annual dinner of the Sons of England in 1908 that he hoped Canada would soon have conscription with millions of young men "willing and ready to uphold the honor of our dear old flag, under which and for which our forefathers fought and bled, and of the King of whom we are all so proud." The enthusiastic singing of "Land of Hope and Glory," "The Maple Leaf Forever" and "God Save the King" terminated the proceedings.
Prior may have been more of a fire-eater than some of his contemporaries. One imagines that the highlight of his life was when he was permitted to accompany the 1885 expedition as a volunteer on the staff to restore quiet and confidence to the Skeena River Indians above Port Essington. The battery landed and deployed its guns, but no shot was fired. The provincial constable expressed confidence that the object of the expedition had been achieved. Rather embarrassingly, the warship which was supposed to bring the expedition back forgot to keep the engagement and Prior and his men had a less glamorous return voyage as passengers on the C.P.'s Princess Louise.
The Hon. E.G. Prior, as he became known, was a Yorkshireman who built up the big hardware business which once stood at the northeast corner of Government and Johnson Streets. It then moved across the road and in 1969, the B.C. Hospital Insurance offices were on the location. Prior was premier for five months, November 1902 to June 1903, and lieutenant-governor 1919-1920. In Prior's days there had been no world wars, nor had the nuclear bomb been invented to make people doubt the wisdom of law backed by the Royal Navy. If there had been a few more Priors in Victoria's early days this city, instead of being south would be north of the border with the United States. Douglas himself, as Royal Governor, had wanted the Royal Engineers and Royal Marines to capture Puget Sound and push on to the Columbia River in 1861.
His object was to safeguard trade for Britain by securing the Columbia River as boundary, but Whitehall discouraged his patriotic zeal and told him to hold his hand. Victoria's pride in Empire coincided with a tremendous increase in Empire trade. Many large vessels called here regularly on their way to Vancouver and those from the Orient brought Japanese silk, Chinese tea, Chinese immigrants and businessmen, globetrotters and Indian Army people who chose the all-Empire route via Canada to the Home Country. The Canadian Pacific "Empress" liners were the pride of Victoria. The service from Japan and China was inaugurated in 1890.
By trans-shipping in Vancouver to rail cars, for which the route across Canada was specially cleared, Japanese silk could reach Britain before that sent in ships via the Suez Canal. The white hulls and yellow funnels of these magnificent liners arouse nostalgic memories today. They could steam continuously at 22 knots. The first liner, the Empress of India, was followed by the Empresses of China, Japan and in 1913 by the crack liners of all, Em press of Russia and Empress of Asia. The Japanese, for reasons of national prestige, felt they should share the trade and their steamers named mostly after their ports of call: Seattle, Yokohama and others were visitors here. Other regular lines whose vessels called here included the Royal Mail, Blue Funnel, Holland-American, Canadian-Australian and Canadian Mexican line, the latter with one ship S.S. Lonsdale.
Government and Wharf Streets were busy as beehives with agents, skippers, brokers, ship chandlers and other businessmen buzzing in and out of the offices of the steamship and railway companies ( including American) who did business there. There was in addition an extensive coastal trade as the seaway was the only direct communication with Nanaimo (the Malahat Drive was not built until 1912) and the West Coast. C.P.'s Princess Patricia made the first trips to Nanaimo followed by the Princess Mary, part of the latter now being the Princess Mary restaurant vessel. The growth of Vancouver and Seattle and the advent of motor car and air transport helped to speed Victoria's decline as a port. This was at one time a matter of deep regret, but in recent years there has been a reaction to the idea of ever growing ports and cities. This reaction has been caused by the growing awareness of pollution and the belated realization that centers can grow too large for efficient administration.