The Causeway Garage
By Danda Humphreys
From 1930’s gas station to visitor information centre, the Inner Harbour beacon still shines bright.
The Causeway Garage tower.
It’s tall, it’s timely, and it lights up at night. What is it? If you guessed the tower on top of the Visitor Information Centre, you’re headed for the top of the class. But what is it doing there, you might ask? Architecture-wise, the building on the north side of the harbour can’t hold a candle to the stately structures on the south and west sides. Didn’t Francis Rattenbury, designer of the Legislature and the Empress Hotel, consider gracing the north side of the harbour with another of his dashing designs?
The answer, of course, is yes, but Rattenbury, his reputation in tatters, had moved back to England by the time a building unlike any he could have dreamed of appeared at the north end of the Causeway. The latest addition to our shoreline was purely practical. It was a gas station.
The year was 1931. The city was struggling through the Depression that followed the First World War. That war had changed just about everything, including how business was conducted and how goods were moved from place to place. Major technological advances had produced aircraft that could fly over land and water, carrying letters and pack- ages farther and faster than ships and trains could ever hope to do.
Charles Lindbergh’s recent epic New York-to-Paris flight had captured everyone’s imagination. Long held ransom by shipping and rail companies, businessmen jumped on the bandwagon. There was only one snag: in order to beat trains and ships at their own game, you had to operate at night. Radio beacons were yet to come. Meanwhile, how could you guide a small airplane to its destination in the dark?
Enter Elmer Ambrose Sperry. Born in Cortland, New York in 1860, and blessed with technical abilities that he chose to channel into research and development, Sperry became one of the most prolific and capable inventors in American history. Among his successes were a gyrocompass, arc lighting, and a stabilizer and automatic pilot for airplanes. He adapted many of his war-time inventions to peace-time use. One—a searchlight invented for anti-aircraft warfare—was used as a beacon for the new airmail service that was changing the face of business.
Sperry’s beacons, spaced so that pilots flying at low altitudes could see them flashing just above the horizon, marked flight paths. Now, small, flimsy-looking airplanes could fly at night.
Let’s put Victoria on the world map, said local businessmen, by establishing a sea-plane base in our Inner Harbour! And what better location for a guiding light than the top of the new Imperial Oil garage?
In contrast to Rattenbury’s elegant edifices, the latest addition to our waterfront, designed by architects Townley & Matheson, was a practical, no-nonsense affair. Handily close to both CPR and CNR steamship wharves, its lower level served as a repair shop. The middle level provided storage for a total of 120 cars. The upper, street level was a service station, its California-style pan tiled roof over the main building and the pump islands fitting Victoria’s tourist image as a Palm Springs-type “land of the sun” resort. Above the building, a 24-metre, Art Deco-style stepped tower sported a beacon at its peak. The 10,000,000 candlepower light, revolving anti-clockwise once every 30 seconds, could be seen 100 kilometres away.
Alas, the beacon mechanism was obsolete almost before it was switched on. Not that it really mattered. The seaplane base was a non-starter; sea captains saw it as a threat and campaigned against it. Long before the 1930s came to an end, the man making the most money at the Causeway Garage was William Wilbey. Born on Store Street in 1862, the year Victoria was incorporated as a city, Wilbey ran a taxi service out of that garage until he died in 1940. The service station closed in 1974. In 1975, the building was acquired by the province. Soon after, it was converted into the Causeway Restaurant and Coffee Shop, wryly referred to by locals as “[Dave] Barrett’s Beanery.”
Today, the garage and its gas pumps are but a distant memory. Most people who push through the Visitor Information Centre’s doors or Milestone’s Grill and Bar don’t even notice the tower above them, or the light that adorns it. But if you stand outside on the deck and look up at the tower, below the clock (a gift from Morioka, Victoria’s sister city in Japan) you’ll see beneath the paint, letters running down the tower spell out “Imperial Oil.” And on the pinnacle’s peak, a modern-day version of Elmer Sperry’s beacon lights the skies every evening, just as it did for the very first time over 78 years ago.
Many thanks to Bill Ramsbottom, Provincial Capital Commission property manager and re-designer of the beacon tower project, for information included in this story.
Danda Humphreys has written several books about Victoria’s early history and heritage buildings. www.dandahumphreys.com.
This story was published in the December 2009 edition of Focus Magazine.