John Adams is a well known local historian and author.  He owns "Discover the Past",  a company devoted to historical research, writing, lecturing and providing guided tours of the city and waterfront.  He is the second in our Inner Harbour speaker series, and spoke to us about the history of the Inner Harbour.

John Adams has a B.A. in history from UBC and a Master's degree in Museum Studies from the University of Toronto.  A long time resident of Victoria, John worked for the provincial Government for 25 years at the Royal BC Museum, and was a Manager in the Heritage Branch. He taught museum studies part time at Simon Fraser University and the University of Victoria. 

Fourteen years ago he began his own company - "Discover the Past" devoted to historical research, writing, lecturing and providing guided tours of the city and waterfront.


Mr. Adams has written no less than six books, including 'Old Square Toes and his Lady' (a biography of BC's first Govenor James Douglas) 'Ghosts and Legends of Bastion Square', and the 'Historic Guide to Ross Bay Cemetery'. His next book, to be published in 2014, is entitled 'Chinese Victoria' and is a social and cultural history of Canada's oldest established Chinese community.

Mr. Adams began by thanking the club for inviting him to a speaker in our series -"Victoria Harbour, Meeting the Challenge of making it work"  and explained that when he arrived here as a young boy with his parents in was into Victoria's Harbour that they sailed aboard the iconic CP ship the Princess Marguerite.

In those days there was much industry in the approaches to the harbour, an oil tank farm, a large paint manufacturing plant, a shingle mill and a ship yard; it was not very scenic, and young John was very disappointed that the reality didn't match the image he'd been shown of the Empress Hotel and CP ship terminal.

His family rented a home on Dallas Road close to the Ross Bay Cemetery. The cemetery was fascinating to young John and he soon knew many of the names of the people buried there. It was here also that he befriended a long time local resident "Reg" who was a prolific story teller, Reg had lived in the area since 1909 and knew many interesting facts about early Victoria. It was perhaps this glimpse of times past that began his life-long interest in history.

Mr. Adams described the early harbour from the time of the First Nations people who had established summer fishing villages in the area, and how it was possible to travel by canoe from near Ross Bay via a stream through the Fairfield swamp into the harbour past what is now St Ann's Academy and the Church of our Lord. The harbour with its' plentiful supply of clams and fish was home to both the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations, until their numbers were decimated by an out break of small pox, brought here by other natives likely from the south. In fact John explained, when the first European's arrived they found abandoned villages around the harbour as the inhabitants sought to escape the ravages of the disease by moving inland north and westwards.

The harbour would remain very much in its natural state until the arrival of the Hudson Bay Company who as early as 1843 had begun to travel north from their headquarters on the Columbia River at Fort Vancouver (now Oregon) seeking a new location for their trading headquarters, pending the establishment of a border between what would become the United States and Canada. This border (49th parrallel) was established in 1846 with the signing of the Oregon Treaty. The Hudson Bay established Fort Victoria where today stands Bastion Square. Initially named Fort Albert in honour of the Queen's consort, it was later changed in favour of the Queen's name.

At first Fort Victoria was a very small enterprise, and the Hudson Bay people were primarily interested in developing farms to grow food for sale and export to Russia. The harbour was used as the main clearing point for supply ships coming from the United Kingdom, an arduous journey of many months which required sailing around Cape Horn then all the way up the west coast of South America, Mexico, the US until they reached local waters.

All this would change however on Sunday April 25th, 1858 when a vessel arrived from California with some 600 miners on board. Gold had been discovered on the Fraser River near Yale, and BC's first gold rush had begun. Overnight Victoria's population doubled, and during the next several months no less than 30,000 other gold miners would follow all hoping to make their fortunes.

Victoria grew rapidly as merchants arrived to establish supply stores to provide for these miners before they began their journey to the mainland and the gold fields, first on the Fraser, later at Barkerville. Victoria became the seat of government of the newly declared Crown Colony, and it wasn't until 1886 and the arrival of the railway into Vancouver on the mainland that that community began to outstrip Victoria in importance.

Industry had followed the gold miners, and the harbour became home to several ship yards, an iron foundry, saw mills, and other manufacturing plants. Needing land for industrial expansion, in 1911 the government negotiated with the Songhees First Nations peoples' to exchange their traditional lands on the harbour, for a large area west of the city, and for the princely sum of $10,000 per family. In 1903 the old wooden bridge that spanned the upper reaches of the harbour over the mud flats was taken down, and the causeway we know today constructed. This was followed by the building of the Empress Hotel, a milestone in the life of the harbour.

Sadly industrial Victoria would not be long lived. While the opening of the Panama Canal had caused the breakwater at Ogden Point to be built, and Mr Riffet had deep water docks constructed nearby, Vancouver soon attracted the majority of shipping and commerce, and after the second World War there began the slow demise of most industries around the harbour. Today former industrial sites such as Laurel Point, and the Songhees peninsular are locations for hotels and condominiums.

Mr. Adams concluded his remaks by observing that the harbour had gone throuh many changes, and while it no longer could claim to be the main entry point to British Columbia , there's no doubt that it was here the Province had its beginning, and the harbour remains the core of the city and its' "bridge to the world".


On behalf of the club, Randy Stewart thanked Mr. Adams, and said a donation was being made to the Cridge Center for the Family in his name.