Forged Of Fire & Time
Nearly 380 million years ago, the rock below downtown Victoria was freshly formed as the floor of the Pacific Ocean over 1,100 kilometres from where it sits today. The “Wrangellia” terrane, a fragment of crustal material, then began a 200 million year migration, inching an average of three centimetres a year on the backs of tectonic plates and molten lava, on a collision course with what is now known as North America.
A hundred million years ago, Wrangellia impacted the North American plate with tremendous force buckling, heaving, and tearing at the weathered landmass. Two other masses; the Pacific Rim and Crescent terranes collided with Wrangellia some 42 to 55 million years ago, prompting the resulting uplift of gneiss and granite on the South island.
During this time what was to become Vancouver Island was battered by numerous glaciation and erosion cycles, slowly carving and shaping the geological features we associate with the west coast; deep and steep fjords, mountain ranges, and valleys tumbling down to estuaries on the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Ice sheets grew from glaciers high in these mountains, eventually extending to cover both the Hecate and Georgia Straits that separate present day Vancouver Island from the mainland. The last of these glacial periods ended 29 to 15 thousand years ago.
ORIGINS OF HUMAN LIFE
The ancient ancestors of the Kwakwaka’Wakw, Nuu-Chah-Nulth, and Coast Salish people that still inhabit the island enjoyed its riches for many thousands of years. By some estimates Vancouver Island, much like the rest of North America, was inhabited by the First Nations peoples upwards of 25 thousand years ago. Currently, the oldest Pacific Northwestern First Nations sites to be carbon dated exceed 14 thousand years of age.
Coastal tribes often maintained trade routes that wound through thousands of kilometers of familiar and hostile territory. Beads dating back millennia only made in Prince Rupert and areas nearing Alaska have been found in large numbers as far south as modern day California. These vast societies thrived uninterrupted for arguably 20 or more thousand years before outside contact.
Approximately 500 years ago when Sir Francis Drake sailed the northern pacific waters he estimated some settlements housing nearly a million inhabitants, witnessing the end of what is now referred to as the pre-contact period.
THEY CAME FROM AFAR
English, Spanish and Russian navigators all explored the Pacific Northwest waters in the wake of Captain Drake. Juan de Fuca described a strait now of his namesake at the same latitude in 1592, over 200 years prior. These explorations, the establishment of outposts and forts, and the claiming of land was the impetus for many conflicts, marking the beginning of a multiple century long suppression of the local First Nations peoples.
The now famous captains, navigators, and explorers James Cook, George Vancouver, and Juan Francis- co de la Bodega y Quadra extensively travelled and claimed portions of the North Pacific coast for their respective countries.
Between 1774 and 1789 when Puerto de San Lorenzo de Nuca was first established at Friendly cove on Nootka Island, it was the only Spanish settlement in what would later become Canada. In 1790 Spain and Britain nearly went to war over this strategic port of call just off of Vancouver Island’s west coast. Aptly named the Nootka Crisis, these tensions saw the island formally named Quadra and Vancouver Island in 1792, a nod to the two advocates for either country in the Nootka Convention.
Over the next quarter century Spanish interest in the area faded along with their presence. Maps of this era slowly stripped the freshly named island of its Spanish namesake with it simply referred to as Vancouver Island by 1824. In 1843 the first British settlement, Camosun was established, eventually becoming Fort Victoria after several iterations.
Three years following, the Oregon Treaty was formalized between Britain and the United States. Britain became the owner of more than
32 thousand square kilometres of rugged island wilderness and everything it contained, and by 1849 the British colony of Vancouver Island was formally established.
THE SECOND COLONIZATION
By 1858 word of the Fraser and Klondike Gold Rushes had spread throughout the modern world, prompting a massive influx of people to Vancouver Island on their way to mining towns popping up seemingly overnight between mainland Vancouver and Alaska. That summer, 225 buildings were erected in Fort Victoria alone, just in time for the 20 to 30 thousand individuals seeking lodging, supplies, and entertainment on route to prospecting expeditions.
In 1862, enjoying an incredible boom and expansion, Victoria incorporated, followed four years later by the amalgamation of the entire island with the now eight-year-old British Columbia colony.
Finally, in 1871, British Columbia became the sixth province to join the confederation of Canada. A mere 30 years after it’s establishment as Britain’s first settlement on the island, the local population had grown from the relatively steady sub-200 inhabitants to nearly four thousand.
Over the next 20 years the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railways were established, while telegraph lines connecting Europe and Victoria hastened the creation of enormous local wealth, new thriving industries, and international recognition. European extravagance was fully rooted in Victoria by 1890 when Hatley Castle was completed, boasting lavish Italian and Japanese rose gardens; a benchmark for opulence to this day. In 1897 the BC Parliament Buildings were completed, with Craigdarroch Castle following two years later. Finally, 1908 welcomed a golden age of modern indulgence with the Empress Hotel beginning its tradition of service that continues to this day.
EARLY MODERN VANCOUVER ISLAND
Vancouver Island’s transformation from remote fur trading settlement to its current melting pot of industry and technology began in the late 19th century. By the early 20th century railways, automobiles, street cars, electric street lamps, telephones, and traffic control lights seen in other major cities were commonplace in the colony’s capital. Massive ship yards, factories, logging, fishing and mining camps speckled the island, representing a new industrial era for the remote settlement.
Although Victoria was now incorporated as the capital of the colony, Vancouver Island overall remained mostly rugged and wild. Hudson’s Bay Company fur trading outposts, logging camps, and fishing villages such as Clayoquot near modern day Tofino were established, yet modernization of most other areas of the island was slow. Areas such as Tlamatook which is now Campbell River, as well as mining camps in Cumberland, Ladysmith and Nanaimo had been colonized by Europeans since the 1850s, however treacherous waters often meant long delays, or supplies and support never arriving. Thousands of lives were lost at sea in the early years due to the rugged and remote coastline, cold waters, primitive navigation, and basic or non-existent safety equipment. This led to countless substantial shipwrecks in and around Vancouver Island’s waters.
With the introduction of Canadian Pacific Railway’s Princess Victoria Steamliner in 1902, residents could be in Vancouver in less than four hours. As additional steamships also began traveling up and down the coast supplying numerous logging and mining operations, the concept of Vancouver Island tourism took root. Carriage houses, pubs and outfitters soon dotted the rudimentary road system that was slowly connecting various camps, hamlets, and villages. By train, ship, automobile, and horse early settlers enjoyed the splendours of Vancouver Island from the newly formed Strathcona Park, to the modern amenities of Victoria’s grand colonial buildings, gardens and social venues.
Today, nearly 150 years after joining Canada, Vancouver Island is known as one of the world’s top destinations. Modern infrastructure and technology, have transformed once remote locales into accessible getaways. From Canada’s surf capital, Tofino with its stormy shores, to the “Napa of the North”, the Cowichan Valley wine region, this land once exploited primarily for its earthly resources has become a place celebrated for its natural beauty, temperate climate, and historic charm.