For thousands of years prior to the arrival of Europeans, Esquimalt Harbour was the home of Lekwungen-speaking people, ancestors of present day Esquimalt Nation people. There was a winter village site where the Esquimalt Nation village is today, near Ashe Head in Plumper Bay. The surrounding harbour was an important source of food including clams, ducks, geese and fish. Schools of herring came into the harbour to spawn, and the eggs were harvested. Millstream Creek to the northwest was an important source of freshwater for the village, and migrating salmon were harvested from nearby reefs using reef nets. After 1911, the Songhees people moved from Victoria Harbour and established a settlement adjacent to the Esquimalt Nation village, where they continue to reside today.

The first Europeans to see Esquimalt Harbour were the Spanish who made three exploratory visits in the 1790s and named the harbour Puerto de Cordova. The British later laid claim to Vancouver Island, and in 1843 the Hudson’s Bay Company established a fort in Victoria Harbour. James Douglas, the HBC factor, recognized the agricultural potential of Esquimalt Harbour area, and three farms were soon established there to grow food for Fort Victoria and other HBC forts in the region.

The first industrial operations in the harbour were established in 1848-49, when a sawmill and gristmill were built at Millstream Falls.
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Map of Victoria area, 1854 (large PDF version of map)



The British Royal Navy began using the natural protected harbour at Esquimalt as a west coast naval base in the 1840s. The first land-based buildings were built in 1855, on seven acres of land on Duntze Head, the eastern side of the harbour entrance. For many decades starting in 1860, Cole Is. near the estuary of Millstream Cr. was used as a powder magazine (ammunition depot).

During this period, roads to Victoria were constructed, large coal storage sheds were built on Thetis Is. at the south end of Constance Cove, and Fisgard Light was built to mark the entrance to this strategic harbour. By 1883 the naval base had expanded onto Duntze Head, and included about 58 buildings.

In the following decades many different industrial activities took place in Esquimalt Harbour: shipbuilding and repair; coal storage and shipping, which later gave way to storage and transportation of oil and other fuels; masonry, foundries, blacksmith and machine shops; lime kiln; log booming, saw mills and plywood mills; canneries and railway lines servicing the industries there.
 
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Key locations in and around Esquimalt Harbour, Image from Bright and Reimer, 1993 (large PDF version of map)


The historical use of the harbour that has probably had the longest-lasting effects on water and habitat quality in Esquimalt Harbour are the prolonged and extensive use of much of the area, especially Plumper Bay and Thetis Cove, for log storage to feed the sawmills in the harbour. Throughout several decades from the 1930 through to the 1990s there were log booms covering over 50% of the area of Plumper Bay, where logs were stored to feed the mills around the harbour. By the 1992, saw mills were no longer in production and there was a concurrent reduction in log storage. As late as 1997, however, air photos of Esquimalt Harbour show 10-20% of Plumper Bay covered with log booms. This has resulted in a deep layer of bark and wood debris that blankets much of the seafloor in Esquimalt Harbour. Subtidal surveys have shown that in some areas the depth of wood waste averages 0.43m and is up to 6m deep in some areas. In addition there are an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 sunken logs in the former booming grounds, as well as logging debris such as cable and chain.

The single largest contributor to metal contamination in the harbour was from the graving dock. In particular sandblasting operations to remove rust and paint from ship hulls, has caused metals and other toxic components of paints to enter the water and sediments of the harbour. Today, the environmental risks of these known contaminated sites are being managed by Department of National Defense and Public Works and Services Canada, and best management practices are used at the graving dock and other fleet maintenance facilities. For example, sandblasting grit no longer enters the harbour.

Another significant historical source of contamination in Esquimalt Harbour was the extensive use of chemicals used in the manufacturing, shipbuilding, transportation and other industrial activities that occurred around the harbour. There were many storage tanks in use at various times and locations around the harbour for fuel, oil and chemicals. Most of these were dismantled or decommissioned before there were environmental regulations in place to ensure safe handling of residual chemicals. Since then, DND has initiated an extensive contaminated sites remediation and monitoring program, and many of the historically contaminated sites have now been remediated and managed.

Brief Historical Timeline of Esquimalt Harbour since the 1840s:

For thousands of years, the ancestors of the Esquimalt Nation people have inhabited the lands surrounding Esquimalt Harbour, depending on the abundant resources found on land and in the sea. The Esquimalt Nation today continues to occupy its ancestral village site on the shores of Esquimalt Harbour.
1846: First hydrographic survey done of Esquimalt Harbour
1855: First land-based buildings established: three naval hospital huts in expectation of casualties from the Crimean War
1858- 1864: Four jetties built west of Signal Hill
1859: Coal Is. in Esquimalt Harbour chosen as site for naval ammunition depot
1860: Fisgard Light Station built, the first permanent lighthouse on Canada's west coast
1865: British Admiralty officially made Esquimalt the headquarters of the Royal Navy’s Pacific Squadron, replacing Valparaiso, Chile
1876: Construction of graving dock started on south shore of Constance Cove, completed in 1887; fit to serve naval and commercial ships. This is the oldest operating dry dock on the west coast of North America
1880s- present Shipbuilding and repairs continue
1893: Esquimalt Marine Railway Company, later the B.C. Marine Railway Co., established adjacent to the dry dock, locally known as “the Bullen yard” where ship building, ship repair and engineering were the primary activities for many decades. In 1914 the Bullen yard was sold to Alfred Yarrow of Scotland. Yarrow’s Ltd. continued to expand, repairing and building ships for customers all over the world. During peak production in WWII, Yarrow’s employed 4,300 people.
1910: Naval base transferred from British Royal Navy to Royal Canadian Navy
1911: Songhees people moved from Victoria Harbour to lands adjacent to Esquimalt Nation in Esquimalt Harbour
1912: Township of Esquimalt officially established, sewer system installed in Esquimalt Harbour
1924: Large new federal graving dock completed, owned and operated by Public Works and Government Services Canada. The Esquimalt Graving Dock continues to be a world class facility able to accommodate about 90% of the world's ships.
1940s: Causeway built across Dunn’s Nook on the west shore of Esquimalt Harbour
1940s- 1980s: Intensive log booming activities, concentrated in Plumper Bay
1955: DND ammunition depot moved from Patterson Pt. to Rocky Pt
1966: Naval base renamed Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Esquimalt, part of organizational changes integrating Canada’s navy, army, and air force.
1970- 1980s: Boom in residential developments along View Royal area of harbour
1994: Yarrow’s ship yard closed, and the graving dock and property are now part of CFB Esquimalt and the naval dockyard
1995: Esquimalt Naval Sites National Historic Site of Canada officially designated. This district incorporates four naval station sites around Esquimalt Harbour: Her Majesty’s Canadian (HMC) Dockyard, the former Royal Navy Hospital, the Veterans’ Cemetery and the Cole Island Magazine.
2010: Centennial celebrations at CFB Esquimalt as Royal Canadian Navy turned 100.

Esquimalt Harbour Environment

Esquimalt Harbour Watersheds

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