Today, Smugglers’ Cove in my home town of Victoria, British Columbia, is a peaceful place where families visit to picnic or just admire the scenery. Not so a few decades ago!
The capital city of British Columbia, Victoria, is known for many things today—tea at the Empress Hotel, the world-famous Butchart Gardens, and all the natural beauty and fascinating history. Seldom, however, does one connect respectable Victoria’s past with smuggling.
Nonetheless, just a few decades ago, the inhabitants of the Gordon-Head/Telegraph Bay shoreline were witness to a very busy smuggling trade environment. An imaginary line, roughly four miles from the Canadian shoreline and two miles from San Juan Island, is the border dividing two nations, and that particular expanse of the Haro Strait was once an area populated by smugglers in their vessels as they plied the waters with their contraband.
Writer and ex-policeman Cecil Clark wrote in 1979:
“At the bottom of Haro Strait...should be the interesting remains of innumerable cans of opium, along with the scattered bones of many an early day Chinese. Not to mention lost anchors, old marine cables, and the 50 year-old, barnacled-covered remains of at least two storm-wrecked rum-runners.”
According to Clark, the first contraband to cross the Strait was back in the 1860s when some whisky was peddled to American troops stationed on San Juan Island.
When this particular scheme was discovered, the bootleggers were placed in the guard room and their stock re-possessed.
Later, when the San Juan group of Islands officially became U.S. territory, they also became an ideal place to store the opium being smuggled to Puget Sound. This raw opium came directly from China and was processed in Victoria in five licensed factories. At that time, there was no Canadian law against possession of opium in any amount.
Smuggling then continued in the form of human cargo; Chinese people were taken across to the U.S. at night, loaded onto small boats from the Victoria inner harbour or from Oak Bay or Maynard’s Cove (Smugglers’ Cove) at the end of 10 mile Point. This type of smuggling continued until well into the 1890s.
By the turn of the century, many characters had become famous in the smuggling game; names such as Ben Ure, Tom Bergus, Bill Jamieson, Larry Kelly, Bob Hill, and “Pig Iron” Kelly were well-known.
Bob Hill claimed the title for being the smuggler who ran the most opium, and “Pig Iron” Kelly was said to have run the most Chinese across the line. His gruesome nickname came about, so it was said, from the fact that he had once “weighted his Chinese passengers with scrap metal before pushing them overboard in the path of an oncoming cutter.” This was his way of getting rid of the evidence!
Tales of those early-day pirates were legendary along the coastline, and their adventures were told and retold for years to come. Pig Iron Kelly’s battle with U.S. authorities continued for many years until one evening in 1909 he dropped dead from a heart attack. Two years earlier, Bob Hill, was drowned in the wreck of the Valencia. At the time of his death, there were many warrants out for his arrest. Larry Kelly (no relation to “Pig Iron”) was finally caught and served a term at McNeill Island where he eventually died.
Soon after the turn of the century, Ben Ure, one of the most notorious of smugglers who had masterminded many a successful smuggling scheme, was also apprehended and put behind bars ending his long career which had begun back in the 1860s.
In 1908, the government finally came down on the lucrative 50 year-old opium trade by banning its sale and possession. However, soon after the First World War when prohibition came into full effect in the U.S. smuggling liquor started up once again across the Haro Strait.
This time it was known as “rum-running” and a new era of smuggling from the shores of Canada began. A story for another day . . . .
February is Black History Month, honouring the triumphs and struggles of numerous African Americans throughout history.
The story of Black History Month began in 1915, fifty years after the US Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in the United States. In September of that year historian Carter G. Woodson and Minister Jesse E. Moorland founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, dedicated to researching and promoting the achievements of black Americans and other people of African descent.
In 1926 the group sponsored the National Negro History week and chose the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. It was President Gerald Ford who officially recognized Black History Month in 1976 asking people to “seize the opportunity to honour the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavour throughout our history.”
To celebrate Black History Month this year, I’d like to tell the story of one such person, a man named Mifflin Gibbs, who was frequently mistreated because of the colour of his skin but who overcame prejudice and broke down many racial barriers during his life time.
Gibbs was born in Philadelphia in 1823 but lured by the possibility of gold and hoping for more tolerance to men and women of colour, he moved to San Francisco in 1849 where he and his friend Peter Lester went into business together as importers of shoes and boots.
Sadly Gibbs did not find the tolerance he sought so when he heard that Governor James Douglas on Vancouver’s Island in British Columbia was sponsoring black emigration, Gibbs and Lester decided to head north.
The two men set up business again in Victoria and Gibbs was even able to buy land and build a house for himself and his new bride, Maria, who was of Polynesian descent. Because he and his wife were both light skinned, they were at first accepted into society and had all five of their children baptized in Christ Church Cathedral.
Gibbs even helped the Governor form the all-black Pioneer Rifle Corps helping to bring law to the new colony. He also ran for city council in 1862 and in 1866 was finally accepted to serve in one Ward where he was chairman of the finance committee and acting-mayor during Mayor Trimble’s term. He also represented the Salt Spring Island black settlers at the Yale Convention.
But despite all that, there was still racial prejudice towards him in his newly adopted city. One particular incident occurred at a benefit concert in the Victoria Theatre house when Gibbs and his wife were sitting in the gallery with friends. Some troublemakers went backstage and insisted the performers should refuse to sing until all the black people in the audience had left the building. The performers refused so the troublemakers began throwing vegetables and emptying sacks of flour over the party of blacks in the gallery, including Mifflin Gibbs and his wife.
The last straw for Gibbs was when blacks were also excluded from the annual Queen Victoria’s Day Ball and from the farewell banquet for Governor Douglas who he had thought of as his friend.
He made a decision then to return to America to see if he could help his people there. He moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, where he took law courses and eventually became the first black man to hold the position of Judge in America.
President Benjamin Harrison also appointed Gibbs the State’s registrar of Lands, and in 1897 he became U.S. Consul to Madagascar.
In 1907 at the age of 84, he made a return visit to Victoria after which he moved to Washington, DC to write his autobiography in which he described himself as a “student of life.”
Gibbs died at the age of 92 in Little Rock in 1915 but was long remembered for his distinguished career as a black man who overcame prejudice and managed to triumph.
Christmas 2020 is going to be very different for us all.
This year there will be no large family Christmas dinners and most of our pre-Christmas celebrations have already been cancelled—no parades, no Christmas parties, no magical trips walking through a wonderland of lights and no large gatherings anywhere. As we stagger along under mounting numbers of COVID cases around the world, we try to make sense of what has become our new reality over the past nine months. In some places it is getting worse, not better.
And even though we are one step closer to stamping out the pandemic with vaccines now available, we know we must continue to follow the protocols – social distancing, wearing masks, staying home, not travelling – but it’s hard. However, we should perhaps take some comfort in the knowledge that this is by no means the first Christmas when all of the above was happening.
One hundred years ago, towards the end of WW1 in 1918, the world was experiencing a flu epidemic of unprecedented proportions. It was originally called the Spanish flu mainly because the military in all the Allied countries had placed a ban on the media concerning writing about the viral infection which was causing the deaths of many soldiers. However, in Spain which was a neutral country, the media was able to report on the stories of the many influenza deaths. Consequently it became known as the Spanish Flu.
The pandemic of influenza known as an H1N1 virus definitely began in Europe during the latter part of WW1 and then may well have been spread by soldiers returning from Europe once the war was over.
A big difference in that particular 1918 strain was the fact that it was killing the younger generation and not the elderly or those with pre-existing conditions like COVID has done. A long-term consequence of the influenza at that time was the development of a Parkinsonian syndrome which included a marked tremor.
Although the first cases in Europe were seen in the spring of 1918, the flu arrived here in Canada towards the end of that year and remained virulent for the next two years. It soon spread to even the most remote communities and some villages were completely wiped out. Labrador, Quebec and First Nations reserves were hit the hardest.
In British Columbia’s capital, Victoria, the first known cases appeared at the end of September that year and the first person to lose his life to the virus was a theatre manager in town who died on October 6th.
Just like today, quarantine and social distancing was put into practice and masks were worn, but all medical facilities and hospital workers were soon overwhelmed with cases. To help out, volunteers began organizing infirmaries in schools and hotels.
Sadly there were no effective vaccines or antiviral drugs—in fact a single vaccine for both types A and B of the H1N1 virus was not developed until 1942.
During the years 1918-1920, 500 million people in the world became infected and at least 50 million died. Fifty-five thousand people died in Canada and these deaths were mostly young adults between the ages of 20 and 40.
Like today, the effects of that pandemic were vast, both socially and economically. Businesses closed and children were left without parents. Only essential services were allowed to operate. Provinces across Canada enacted laws regarding quarantine and the wearing of masks in public which most people begrudgingly accepted and obeyed, but when the Canadian federal government suggested that WW1 Victory celebrations should be postponed, that request was not obeyed. No one could stop people from celebrating the end of that awful war. One positive result of the flu epidemic in Canada was the establishment of the federal Department of Health in 1919.
So, as we bemoan what we are currently going through this Christmas, let’s remember there were other pandemic Christmases in the past around the world which were much worse. Without social media and the ability to connect (at least virtually,) life must have been abysmal. But the human spirit managed to accept and overcome and eventually the bad times ended and life went back to normal—and it will again.
Meanwhile, count your blessings, be patient and be safe. Together we will get through it this time too.
MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL MY BLOG READERS AND MAY 2021 BE KINDER TO US ALL!
Now that Labour Day is over, I am looking ahead to Thanksgiving.
As 2020 has been such a difficult year for so many people, we all have to scramble to think of things we can really be thankful for. But I still believe there are many.
But first a little Thanksgiving history because, as you fellow blog followers know, history is my "thing."
The story of the American Thanksgiving dates back to the 1620s following the arrival of the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock and is now celebrated in November every year.
But, in Canada the first recorded Thanksgiving Day did not occur until 1710 at Port Royal, Nova Scotia, and today is celebrated annually in October. This year it happens this coming weekend.
In 1760, Halifax ordered a day of thanksgiving to mark the victory of General Jeffery Amherst’s troops at Montreal. After that, Thanksgiving Days were usually held at different times on different days, and often simply marked a military victory or the birth of a royal child. Nova Scotia’s Scottish settlers particularly liked the religious aspect of Thanksgiving. But it was in Halifax in 1762 that the first Thanksgiving actually gave thanks for a bountiful harvest.
Thanksgiving Day did not become a national event until much later—in 1879. And after the First World War, Thanksgiving was merged with Armistice Day for a while. In 1931, they were made into two separate holidays again, and the second Monday of October was officially proclaimed Thanksgiving Day. Today, most of us automatically connect a bountiful harvest with our Thanksgiving celebrations, Canada’s being a little earlier (in October) than America’s (in November.)
We also think of Thanksgiving as a time to pause and count our blessings. A few years ago, I wrote an article about Thanksgiving listing the many things about which I personally was very thankful. Seemingly trivial things at the time such as having a warm house with a roof that didn’t leak; being healthy and not living in a Third World country where my family might slowly be starving to death. I was also thankful to be living in a free country where I can vote, and especially in British Columbia where the climate is mild and manageable and the scenery is beautiful. I was even thankful that I wasn’t a turkey!
But 2020 has changed us all. COVID-19 has made us look at the world very differently, and my list of things about which to be thankful has grown considerably because I've had to dig deeper into my well of blessings.
Right now I am very thankful to be healthy and COVID-free and all my family members are safe. For so many others around the world it is a very different scenario. Although I miss seeing family members and friends, I am thankful for face time, emails and telephone calls. I am thankful that I don't have a loved one in a senior's home where I cannot visit them especially if they are dying. I am especially thankful I live north of the North American border right now. I am thankful that I don't NEED to travel anywhere at the moment. I'm thankful for my sundeck, a comfortable chair, a little comfort food to enjoy and a safe place to walk. I'm even thankful for masks. And I'm thankful for the fact that I can look forward to hugging everyone again one day.
So perhaps it is a good time to pause and look back over history. Older readers will always remember exactly where they were or what they were doing when war was declared in 1939, or when the events of Pearl Harbour took place in 1941.
My generation has those same vivid memories concerning the assassinations of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy, and the tragic and shocking deaths of Princess Diana and John Lennon. We wondered then if the world would ever again be normal or safe. More recently there was that infamous day on September 11th, 2001, when for a few hours the world went mad and we were all shaken to the core out of complacency into horror and fear. The freedom and safety our ancestors had fought for in past wars was temporarily taken from us in the cruelest of ways.
And today we face forest fires, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes and now a world pandemic second to none. But, we are much more aware of the effects of global warming than we once were. We realize through education and listening to the scientists that we must all stand up and do something before our beautiful world is totally destroyed.
So perhaps this Thanksgiving both in Canada and America it is a time to remember all that is good in the world. History tell us that we have faced these horrible challenges before and overcome them. The evil that was Hitler was finally obliterated in the 1940s. We rallied again after those assassinations in the 1960s, and life continued. Perhaps life was never quite the same and we inevitably paid the ultimate price, but we came through and hopefully learned something. Perhaps we can once more.
As Thanksgiving draws near, we should remember the many blessings we still have and try to think positively about the future we want to create, because for every cloud there is always a silver lining.
A Happy and Safe Thanksgiving to you all as we celebrate sensibly with our loved ones!
If, like me, you're feeling a wee bit “witchy” during these COVID-19 days, here’s a piece of witchcraft history to ponder on.
For instance, did you know that it was on September 22nd in 1692, 328 years ago, that the last eight witches in Salem were hung for their so-called crimes?
The history of witchcraft began back in 1692 in Salem Village, a puritan settlement in Massachusetts. Those last eight witches who were hung were Mary Easty, Martha Corey, Ann Pudeator, Alice Parker, Mary Parker, Wilmott Redd, Margaret Scott and Samuel Wardwell. The men among the accused were more commonly referred to as Wizards. John Proctor was the first male to be named a ‘wizard’ or witch, and Bridget Bishop was the first witch to be hanged in Salem on June 10 that year.
In fact, between June 10 and September 22 of that memorable summer of 1692, nineteen men and women were convicted of witchcraft and taken to Gallows Hill near Salem Village to be hung. Over 150 others remained in jail until the following summer.
So what were their crimes? Most had in some way disregarded the very puritanical existence upon which their society was based. The women might, for instance, have worn unsuitable clothing such as a black cap and a red paragon bodice, intertwined with other vibrant colors. They might have played the game of shovel board in a tavern or been accused of casting spells on young girls by practicing their craft. These so-called “afflicted girls” would act strangely as though having fits with distortion of their bodies. They were probably suffering from epilepsy, but the Puritans believed otherwise. Their behavior, they declared, was obviously as a result of a spell cast upon them by a witch.
You would also be accused of being a witch if you happened to be reclusive or you talked to yourself. In fact any eccentric behavior would have labelled you as being not part of the norm – and therefore obviously a witch. Those accused also often did not go to church, or went to some other church other than the accepted puritanical Salem Village Church. If you were able to speak French or had aided in any of the recent native wars, you would also be accused of practicing witchcraft. And the worst possible thing you could do would be to support a witch who had already been accused, even if he or she happened to be your own spouse.
Following the last hangings on September 22 things finally began to settle down in Salem, and by 1711 some of the families of those accused were even compensated for the wrongful deaths of their family members. By 1752, Salem Village had been renamed Danvers, and in 1957 the State of Massachusetts officially apologized for the wrongdoings in the year 1692.
In 1992, on the 300th Anniversary of those trials and subsequent hangings, a witchcraft memorial was designed by James Cutler and dedicated in Salem, an indication of how education had finally obliterated the fear of the unknown and of those who did not fit into an acceptable pattern of life.
The so-called Witches in Salem in the 1690s, who were persecuted for trivial things which were simply not fully understood by the masses, have little or no similarities to those who practice Wicca today. The date, September 22nd 1692, however, will certainly be remembered as being the one when the witch-hunt in Salem finally ended.
There has been an increased interest in magic and the practice of witchcraft in recent years due in part to the phenomenal success of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. Children, it seems, are fascinated by the world Rowling created and enjoy being transported to a place of make believe.
What a difference 328 years makes!
Anton Chekov had it right—especially for writers like me.
As an established non-fiction writer in British Columbia, Canada, I am now branching out into fiction and the issue of "telling" versus "showing" is paramount.
The biggest problem for writers going from writing non-fiction to writing fiction is being able to switch from telling the story to showing a picture, thereby capturing the readers' attention in the process.
I have written since I was a child in England. I always loved making up stories and using my imagination. When we lived on a small farm for a few years, I would take off on my own wandering the fields while imagining in my head all manner of things. One day I was a princess locked away in a castle waiting for a prince to come and rescue me and flee away on his horse. Another day I would sit under the large willow tree with its branches weeping to the ground and pretend I was anything from a famous actress to a writer of best-selling novels.
But when I left school I studied journalism in London so I soon learnt how to "tell" a good story. This eventually led me to becoming a newspaper columnist and then writing non-fiction and true crime books. I particularly enjoyed all the research involved. Back in England I had also written a few short stories and been published in a number of magazines but once I moved to Canada, I completely turned from fiction and began writing historical non-fiction which soon became my genre of choice and I was good at it.
After successfully publishing over twenty books, the little voice inside my head kept telling me I should try something new—perhaps return to fiction. I had always longed to create a family saga through many generations and because by then I had grown to love the history of my adopted city—Victoria—what better place to set my story than in the city I knew most about? With all the ingredients necessary for a five-generational family saga, I began to create a mammoth tale set on the new frontier with a mighty theme. But soon my one very long manuscript turned into two books, then three, and then four. A series had been born.
I have often wondered over the past four years if I aimed too high for my debut into fiction. My "mighty book" with a "mighty theme" began to prove more and more difficult to create. But, being a strong believer in following your dream and never giving up, I have continued. The first book (Providence) in The McBride Chronicles will be released in the near future - COVID permitting.
Providence's journey has been a bumpy one. During its creation, I have experienced immeasurable family loss and many other upsets long the way. The latest of course is the pandemic. I also believe that life can teach you a lot. In my case, I hope what has happened over the past four years has made me a better writer.
Meanwhile, in order to make Book One the best it can be, I have had to overcome the problem of showing rather than telling as I transcended into the world of fiction. I want readers to experience all the emotions felt by my two main characters, Jane and Gideon, and come to love them as much as I do. Their lives have consumed me for so long and I can't wait for them to be also enjoyed by readers everywhere. And I promise more family dynamics and excitement in future books in the McBride Chronicles.
But first, Providence is most definitely calling! Those of us who leave our comfort zone and venture into the unknown to follow our dream, are the ones who win in the end. Do you agree?
Are you passionate about saving our heritage? If so, read on . . . .
Many historic sites around the world that rely on visiting tourists for income, are suffering badly this year because of COVID 19. Many will not survive without more financial support—either from government, private donations or tourism.
In British Columbia’s capital city, Victoria, in Canada, there are many such heritage sites. One is Point Ellice House pictured above. It overlooks the scenic Selkirk/Gorge Waterway and today is situated in an industrial area in the city. The house and its surrounding landscaped gardens offer a serenely beautiful oasis of peace and tranquility. The house was built between 1861 and 1862 for Catherine and Charles Wallace and was designed in an Italianate Villa-style by architects John Wright and George Sanders. A few years later the Wallaces sold the house to Peter and Caroline O’Reilly and it remained in the O’Reilly family for over 100 years. Some say their ghosts still walk the halls.
In 1966 Point Ellice house was designated a National Historic Site and in 1975 became a Provincial Historic Site. Today Point Ellice House Museum and Gardens are operated by the Vancouver Island Local History Society with some financial support from the Province of British Columbia.
Another such gem in the capital city is the Emily Carr House on Government Street. The house was the home of the Carr family where famous artist and author Emily grew up. Emily was a contemporary of the Group of Seven and her paintings and books are widely known throughout the world. This house is also a provincial and national historic site and would normally be open to the public at this time of year. It, like many others, has been closed down during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Heritage sites in Victoria such as Point Ellice House, Emily Carr House and also Craigdarroch Castle, are largely dependent upon funding for their general maintenance and operating expenses. Funding for most heritage sites is limited and therefore has to be made up by tourism and events. Visitors to these sites are the key to survival. And this summer there are none.
This situation is not restricted to the capital city alone. Around the province there are similar strains being placed upon heritage sites.
One example is the Barkerville Historic Town and Park in the Cariboo. During the summer, Barkerville usually receives approximately 65,000 visitors between May and September, plus many events and some that happen over the Christmas season. The opening this year has been delayed. Although it will partly open in June and July, much funding has already been lost.
Jan Ross, long-time caretaker of Emily Carr’s house, recently retired but is still very much involved in speaking out for provincial heritage. She dedicated 25 years of her life as caretaker of the Carr home until March of 2020 when she and her husband retired. Although a new caretaker will now be running the house, COVID-19 has again put a halt to any visitor movement.
A similar situation exists at Point Ellice where director Kelly Black was beginning to make some innovative changes to bring in more money when COVID-19 put a stop to all her plans. Although Point Ellice will open in July on a restricted basis, much has already been lost.
And so we are left with the question, how can we protect our heritage and save these sites?
One answer might be to spread the word about WHY these sites are important, not just as charming, historical houses (or castles) but because of the important people who once lived there and made a difference in the province.
For instance, at Point Ellice House, Peter O’Reilly was the Gold Commissioner for British Columbia and his wife, Caroline, was the sister of Joseph Trutch, the first Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia. Their daughter, Kathleen has fascinated historians for years—a beautiful young woman who was courted by many famous men including Robert Scott of the Antarctic and Captain Stanhope, heir to an earldom, but declined all their proposals and remained a single woman until she died at Point Ellice in 1945. Many famous people visited Point Ellice House including Sir John MacDonald, the first Prime Minister of Canada.
Carr House, birthplace of Emily Carr, is a gem containing a valuable collection of memorabilia of this famous artist’s life and speaks to the visitor of a bygone era in the city.
Craigdarroch Castle was built by coal baron, James Dunsmuir, a notable industrialist. He built it for his family but died before he could live there himself. The Castle normally holds many events such as weddings throughout the year.
In the interior, places like Barkerville Historic Town are a reminder of the province's gold rush days as well as providing employment for so many people today who have kept the town going. It was named for miner Billy Barker who struck gold there but lost it all before he died.
These are just a few stories of the sites that need saving today. Once COVID-19 has gone and it is safe to travel again, please make sure you support Heritage Sites around the province, across Canada and around the world. They all will need our help.
Tomorrow, June 2nd, will mark sixty-seven years since a young Princess was crowned Queen in London, England, in 1953. Elizabeth II was following in the path of her illustrious ancestors.
Exactly 462 years earlier in 1491, one of her ancestors, King Henry VIII, known primarily for the number of wives he had, was born that month.
June is usually associated with weddings and brides and Henry VIII certainly had his share of both but, during the past two hundred years, a number of notable people have also been born or died on June 2nd. Here are just a few:
A number of interesting events have also happened through the years on June 2, including the beginning of the P.T. Barnum Circus tour through the United States in 1835.
In 1886 President Grover Cleveland was the first president to marry during his presidency when he wed Frances Folsom on June 2 that year.
In 1924, U.S. Citizenship was granted to all First Nations people on June 2, and forty years later in 1964 the Rolling Stones made their first United States tour starting in Lynn, Massachusetts.
A member of the Rolling Stones, Bill Wyman, was married on this date to Mandy Smith in 1989. On that same day, in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, a hunger strike began by students demonstrating for democracy. When over 100,000 citizens tried to protect the students from the Chinese soldiers marching on the Square, a massacre resulted two days later on June 4th.
In the Bahamas when June 2 falls on a Friday it is called labor day, and is celebrated in New Zealand as the Queen’s birthday when it falls on a Monday. In Western Australia it is known as Foundation Day, also celebrated when it occurs on a Monday.
In England, the Trooping of the Color is held that day to celebrate the Queen’s official birthday—although her actual birth date is in April. This year the Trooping of the Color has been cancelled for the first time in history because of COVID 19.
In religious history, James A. Healy was consecrated bishop over the Diocese of Maine, on June 2 1875, which made him the first African-American bishop in the history of the American Catholic Church.
So, on June 2 1953, when a future Queen was crowned in England, it was also a date when many other important events, births and deaths have occurred throughout time around the world.
And this year there won't be as many June brides as usual able to celebrate large nuptials.
Like me, do you find it interesting to ponder on dates in history? Just something else I've been doing during lock down!
Leave a comment below as to what you've been doing to pass the time while social distancing.
Lately I have been pondering on the passing of time and in particular on certain dates throughout history—like May 24th for instance—a Queen’s birthday anniversary celebrated every year on the Monday preceding May 24th. This year in my hometown of Victoria, British Columbia, the holiday will fall on Monday, May 18th.
It is usually a weekend of celebrations ranging from a parade in town and boat races and festivals along the Gorge waterway. Sadly this year it will all look a little different because of Covid-19. And for the first time there will be no parade.
According to historical weather records, May 24th 1819 in England when Victoria was born, was a cloudy day with an east wind blowing. It was also the fourth wettest day of the month. But, in Kensington Palace in London, a future Queen of England came into the world and would later give her name to our city in British Columbia, Canada. During her long reign, however, she never visited the city named for her.
The Queen’s May birthday has been celebrated since the establishment of Fort Victoria in 1843. One of the first major celebrations was in 1853 with horse racing taking place in Beacon Hill Park, a pleasant distraction for the early settlers which continued for many years. More sporting events were added as time went by including cricket.
Many of those early “Queen celebrations” centered around the Gorge waterway though, which soon became known for its boating regattas and picnics for the elite who lived along the Gorge. The citizens of Victoria were said to have enjoyed “lively times up the Gorge Arm” for many a year. Some of the more prominent Victoria families such as the Grants, the O'Reillys, the Drakes, the Dunsmuirs and the Fawcetts had built elegant homes along the banks of the waterway.
The O'Reilly house Point Ellice House, still stands today. It is a relatively unknown gem in the city, and is open to the public. In my forthcoming novel Providence, I have placed the home of my own fictional family, the McBrides, along the Gorge waterway.
Sadly one of the May 24th celebrations ended in tragedy. In 1896 a happy crowd of holiday-makers crossing the Point Ellice bridge on Streetcar Number 16, plunged to their deaths when the bridge collapsed. The people who perished on that day left an incredible void in the lives of many of Victoria’s families. A similar tragedy today would be comparable to the city losing over a thousand of her citizens at one time.
The annual May 24th holiday was originally known as Empire Day but around the time of Queen Victoria’s death in 1901, Empire Day was merged with the Queen’s birthday and, in 1904, was officially set aside as a special day. By legislation in 1952, Victoria Day, was celebrated every year on the first Monday preceding May 24th. Parades, fireworks, festivals, marching bands all followed by the Swiftsure boat races have added to the fun through the years - until 2020 when we will simply have to celebrate in different ways.
Throughout her long reign, Queen Victoria also gave her name to many other places around the world and within the then British Empire such as a state in Australia, the British Cameroons in Africa, a town in Texas, and our own city in British Columbia. In addition, an Island in the Arctic, and Falls in Southern Rhodesia, Argentina, and Brazil are named for the Queen.
It bears remembering that Queen Victoria’s reign, described in the newspapers of the day as “the longest and greatest reign in the history of the British Empire,” had seen the rise of an industrial revolution, progress of railroads, the introduction of the automobile, and the development of a democratic system of rule.
She was a Queen who depicted goodness, duty, conscience and solid virtue, and had resurrected a belief in a strong work ethic and a morality, at least on the surface, second to none.
Today, we may well have long-since forgotten whose birthday we were originally celebrating on the May 24th weekend or what this particular holiday once stood for. To many people, it is now simply the first holiday week-end of the year and a pleasant way to head into summer where, this year, we hope to gradually celebrate socializing with family and friends once again.
How will you spend this long weekend? Hopefully you will stay inside or go out safely by staying six feet apart from others.
In this very strange world of self isolation, social distancing and not being able to travel, I doubt any of us are giving much thought to a man who was so passionate about automobiles and travel in the early years of the 20th century that he decided to make a big difference in the world.
His name was Albert (Bert) Edward Todd and he instigated both the building of the Trans Canada Highway and the Pacific Highway from Seattle south. His story is quite a remarkable one.
He was born in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, in 1878 into a family of high achievers. His father, Jacob Hunter Todd, was a politician and salmon-canning magnate; his older brother Jack a world-renowned bacteriologist; his step-brother, Charlie, a powerful industrialist; and his two sisters were women far ahead of their time.
Bert, however, went in a different direction. He began to study automobile development around the world, observing European experiments made by Karl Benz as well as the works of Haynes, Ford, and Buick in America.
After travelling through Europe as a young man, trying to decide what he wanted to do with his life, he returned to Victoria and in May of 1903 purchased a two-seater model car for $1,800 from Bagster Roads Seabrook, (a car dealer, inventor, and author of Mathematical Tables for Businesses and Trades.) The car was manufactured by the White Sewing Machine Company.
As Bert drove his new car from Victoria out to Shawnigan Lake (a short distance away), he had an incredible vision of the future. He logged and timed his “adventure” that day – two hours and 53 minutes on the outward journey and a mere one hour and 34 minutes on the return trip. Obviously some motoring skills had been gained along the way.
The trip was made without insurance, driver’s licence, registration, licence plates, windshield or fenders (none of which was mandatory at the time.) The following year the government introduced an annual licencing fee of $2 and Bert then became the owner of Licence Number 13 in British Columbia.
But on that day in 1903, history had been made. Bert Todd became obsessed with promoting tourism and better road conditions throughout the entire Pacific Northwest.
In 1910, Bert married Ada Seabrook (the daughter of the car dealer) and for their honeymoon he purchased a 30-horse power General Motors Cadillac to carry him and his bride on a five thousand mile journey south to Mexico and north again along the Pacific coast back to Vancouver Island, a path-finding journey which became the forerunner of all Pacific Highway travel as we know it today. The Todds’ honeymoon trip is in fact a matter of official record in the Royal BC Archives in Victoria and in 1912 was the inspiration behind the building of the Pacific Highway.
Bert’s notes and observations on that trip also helped establish Victoria as a center for tourism in later years. He designed the original map and worked out the exact route the Highway should take. Many of his comments make fascinating reading today:
“....Leaving Los Angeles in the car....we followed the rough and muddy coast road to San Diego; there had been several wash-outs a few days before....”
“...from San Francisco we came north to Oregon by way of Stockton and the Sacramento Valley. While the roads in Southern California were often bad, these in the north of the state proved worse, especially when we tackled the stretch between Redding and Dunsmuir. Our troubles in this direction increased the further north we came and a very heavy strain was put on the car climbing the grades over the Siskiyou mountains in the southern part of Oregon. This road is a toll road and we were assessed $1.50 for the privilege of bumping over its ruts and plunging into its mud-holes.”
America had already realized that the age of the automobile had arrived, and Todd intended that British Columbia should feel the same way. After all, he once commented, “I saw no place on the whole trip that compared with Victoria as an automobiling center.”
Todd later became Vice-President of the International Pacific Highway Association and was the originator of the International Pacific Northwest Tourist Association. He was also Vice-President of the Trans Canadian Highway Association and easily earned the title “Father of Tourism in British Columbia” and “Good Roads Todd.”
In 1914 Burt turned his attention to the construction of the Snoqualmie Highway, and in 1915 began to organize a motor route known as “the Georgian Circuit” to embrace the cities of Seattle, Vancouver, Nanaimo, Victoria, Port Angeles, Port Townsend, Olympia, Tacoma and back to Seattle, a distance of 500 miles. This Circuit was officially opened in Port Angeles in August of 1915, witnessed by over a thousand people.
Todd’s relentless work in road improvement as well as in civic affairs as a Victoria alderman, mayor, and police commissioner, inevitably took a toll on his health. After a lengthy illness, he died in October 1928 in Seattle at the age of 50.
Towards the end of his life, Judge James T. Ronald of the Superior Court of the State of Washington sent Todd a letter in which he praised his dedication, specifically referring to his involvement in the construction of the Pacific Highway by saying;
“.......When one thinks of the great benefit that highway now is to the Pacific Coast, and the great influence its organization had upon highway improvements generally, one familiar with the conditions, must realize what A.E. Todd, a Canadian, has meant to the Pacific Coast of the United States of America.....”
Until his death, Todd continued to believe in the future of the automobile. He saw it as something more than just a frivolous toy for the rich and privileged. He wanted it to become a large part of everyone’s life and he strove to make the automobile easily accessible to the masses so that eventually it would shape the economy, geography, and social aspects of our society.
Today his name can rightfully stand alongside all those who promoted the automobile and early highway construction throughout the Pacific Northwest.
Give a thought to this incredible man of vision when next we are free again to travel those important highways. Let's hope it is soon!