The Poseidon venture
by Danda Humphreys
The CPR Terminal Building on Belleville Street in 2007.
With the first of this year’s cruise ships arriving soon at Ogden Point docks, it’s fun to figure out the connection between those docks and the man behind the face of the sea god Poseidon on the Greek temple-like building on Belleville Street.
The first outer harbour wharves were built by Robert Paterson Rithet, owner of a thriving downtown business back in the 1870s. Rithet’s wharves (just north of today’s Ogden Point) allowed ships to unload goods destined for his Wharf Street warehouse. (The bog at Broadmead is another reminder of our man Rithet – as is Broadmead itself, it is named after his hobby farm and his favourite racehorse. But I digress…)
By the time the Canadian Pacific Railway decided to establish a steamship terminal here at the end of the 1800s, Victoria was a favoured port of long standing. The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), based in London, England, had started a coastal steamship service way back in 1827 on the Columbia River.
In 1836, the side-wheeler Beaver steamed across the Atlantic to join the fleet. The Beaver was a mobile trading post and transport ship, carrying furs, merchandise, passengers and mail up and down the coast, calling at Fort Simpson on Chatham Sound, Fort Nisqually on Puget Sound, and Fort Victoria. (A full-size replica of the Beaver can be seen tied up at Fisherman’s Wharf.)
The 1858 Fraser River gold rush spurred expansion of Island-mainland service. In 1862, the HBC added the side-wheeler Enterprise to help compete with the many American vessels sailing up the coast from California. That same year, Capt. William Irving of Victoria founded the Pioneer Line, a riverboat service expanded over the years by his son, John.
In the mid-1880s, when the railway joining Canada’s east and west coasts neared completion, Capt. John Irving merged his line with the HBC’s to form the Canadian Pacific Navigation Company(CPNC). The combined fleet of side-wheelers, sternwheelers and steamships became a force to be reckoned with on the northwest coast.
Over the years, the CPNC successfully competed with other companies, acquiring more ships toward the end of the 1890s in order to carry passengers and supplies to the gold fields of the Yukon. In 1899, CPNC bought property on the Belleville Street waterfront, near the Legislature. In 1901, the Canadian Pacific Railroad (CPR) purchased controlling interests in the CPNC, and quickly absorbed the Victoria company into its own operations.
By the early 1900s, the CPR’s fleet of “Empress” ocean liners was augmented by steamships designed to bring tourists to the scenic West Coast. Francis Mawson Rattenbury – designer of Victoria’s legislature – was commissioned by the CPR to refurbish the interior of the company’s new luxury steamer, the Princess Victoria. Purpose-built on the Clyde in Scotland, the Princess arrived in 1902, and began the famous “triangle service” between Victoria, Seattle and Vancouver. Her speed – just three hours and nine minutes from Victoria to Vancouver – was a credit to her builders (and would be welcome today!).
The early 1920s saw the dawn of a new era for the CPR, as automobile traffic increased. By 1923, business on the company’s first car ferry, Motor Princess, was brisk enough to inspire the CPR to knock down its Rattenbury-designed half-timbered ticket office on Belleville Street, and invite the architect to design a new terminal on the same site.
Working with Percy L. James, his colleague of some years, Rattenbury actually had little to do with this project. It was James who prepared the drawings and specifications, and supervised construction. But it was Rattenbury who took the glory, later declaring the new terminal “… a handsome little building, as good as anything I have ever done.”
At 122 feet by 54 feet, it was a truly monumental effort, resembling a Greek temple with massive columns along its sides. Its four storeys were constructed around a reinforced concrete frame, with enclosing walls of masonry, and a finished surface of ground Newcastle Island stone mixed with white cement.
Likenesses of the sea god Poseidon graced the façade above its entrance. It contained the Port Steward’s Office, Pay Office and other offices, as well as a large lunchroom and kitchen. Street-level entrances on the south and east sides afforded access to a Waiting Room, Agent’s Room and Ticket Offices.
This was the heyday of the CPR’s BC Coast services. By 1963, the CPR had transferred its coast service operations to Vancouver. Within a few years, the company had leased the terminal’s two upper floors to a logging company, and the two lower floors to a wax museum.
By that time, Rattenbury was long gone, dead at the hand of his second wife’s younger lover, and buried in England. But on the south side of our Inner Harbour, his Greek Temple-like terminal remains. And the cruise ships bring their mixed-blessings bounty to us via Ogden Point.
Danda Humphreys, born on England’s northwest coast, draws life and energy from the salt water surrounding this city. In Building Victoria, she tells the stories of our Inner Harbour heritage structures. www.dandahumphreys.com.
This story was published in the April 2007 edition of Focus Magazine.