Victoria Harbour is part of the traditional territory used and inhabited for thousands of years by First Nations. The descendants of the main groups of people that lived in this area are known today as the Esquimalt and Songhees Nations. Before European settlement, extended family groups lived in various locations around Victoria, including James Bay, the Inner Harbour, McNeil Bay, Cadboro Bay and Discovery Island. The land adjacent to Victoria Harbour was valued for camas bulbs, a major food and trading staple and Pacific willow, used for making fishing nets and lines.
Capital Planing Mills, Rock Bay, Victoria 1920s
In order to maintain the camas meadows, First Nations people practiced prescribed burning to clear the underbrush and small trees around the mature Garry oaks. This created the park-like landscape that so enamored early European visitors, and prompted James Douglas to select Victoria Harbour as the site for the Hudson’s Bay Company fort. As well as an excellent protected harbour, the open meadows were easier to clear for farming than the dense forest in the surrounding areas.
In 1843, a crew of Hudson’s Bay Company men, led by James Douglas and assisted by Songhees people, built a trading post in a clearing among Garry oaks where Bastion Square stands today. The track that ran through the centre of the trading post later became Fort Street. The original purpose of the post was to serve as a trade depot for whaling ships, and to supply Russian fur trading expeditions in Alaska. The post also helped to solidify British claims to the west coast.
After the fort was built, the Songhees established a village close to the fort near present day Johnson Street. In 1844 they moved across to the west side of the harbour. The village remained there until 1911, when the provincial and federal governments bought the land from the Songhees, who then moved to a reserve next to the Esquimalt Indian Reserve on the southeast shore of Esquimalt Harbour.
Sketch of Fort Victoria, 1854
In 1858, tens of thousands of gold seekers came through Victoria on their way to the Fraser River. Following that and for the next 40 years, Victoria was the most active port north of San Francisco.
Over the course of its history, industries around Victoria Harbour have included ship building and repair, sawmilling and log booming, machine manufacturing, coal gasification, paint manufacturing, a tannery, a propane tank farm, a concrete batch plant and an asphalt plant. Pollution from these industries, along with sewage contamination, substances disposed of in storm drains, and chemicals washed off impervious surfaces
, has caused serious degradation of the marine environment in the harbour.
Many small bays in the harbour were filled in with rock, rubble and sometimes contaminated materials, in order to create more land along the waterfront. For instance, Rock Bay was once about three times its current size, and probably had intertidal mud flats and salt marsh habitat. During the late 1800s, Rock Bay was developed as an industrial site where many early industrial practices have left a toxic legacy. When a coal gasification plant was built there in the 1860s, it was considered state of the art, but by the time it ceased operating in the 1950s, much of the surrounding land and marine sediments in the bay were full of toxic contaminants, including coal tar. BC Hydro later became the landowner, and undertook a major remediation project
in partnership with Transport Canada. Between 1996 and 2006, more than 125,000 tonnes of contaminated and hazardous waste soils were remediated from upland soils. The last stage of the project will involve removal of some of the most contaminated marine sediments in all of Victoria Harbour.