Gonzales Hill Observatory
By Danda Humphreys
Every time I wonder why the weatherman got it wrong again, I think of the fellow who once lived in the white-domed weather station on Gonzales Hill. He designed that observatory, and even lived there for a while. But where did he come from? What brought him to these wind-swept shores? And what made him stay?
Francis (Frank) Napier Denison hailed from Ontario, where he was born in 1866. He studied at Upper Canada College, and worked at the Toronto Observatory. Two years of study in Massachusetts qualified him for a new position on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. He worked in the weather observing station at the Government Street side of the Inner Harbour, and on November 1, 1889, the Daily Colonist published Victoria’s very first weather report.
Denison helped design a new weather station on the top of Gonzales Hill. There was no road up there in those days—building materials and supplies had to be brought around the coastline and hoisted up the 68-metre incline. By the end of 1914, the Pacific Coast Station of the Dominion Meteorological Service was working full-tilt. The reinforced concrete building, its distinctive dome housing a 12.7-cm telescope, could be seen from just about anywhere in Victoria. It recorded weather, star sightings and seismic readings, and was rated the best weather office in the West.
Denison provided special summaries and weather forecasts for shipping within a 5,000-km range, and advanced his theories of seven-year weather cycles. Along the way, he gathered evidence to support his belief—supported by scientists to this day—that the cyclical occurrence of earthquakes coincided with stresses produced by the Earth tilting on its axis. His research brought him international recognition, and he published several scientific papers and articles.
With its panoramic views of Victoria, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Sooke Hills, the observatory was an ideal place to work—and to live. The dapper, dashing Denison had married local daughter Ethel Walbran. They lived in James Bay for a while, but then decided to move to the little square building on Gonzales Hill. They occupied its simple accommodations for over 20 years.
By 1918, Denison’s simple structure had been eclipsed by a grand new edifice some distance to the north—the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory on West Saanich Road, home to (at that time) the largest telescope in the world. Unperturbed, Denison continued his calculations at his little weather station. A confirmed workaholic before the term was even coined, he didn’t take a holiday in over 20 years.
Eventually, poor health hastened his retirement. Ethel died in 1945. A year later her husband too was gone, dead at the age of 79 and buried at Royal Oak Cemetery beside his wife. Thirty-two years later, weather reporting was transferred to Vancouver, but Gonzales station, now automated, still provides meteorological data—and an unparallelled view of the city we know so well.
Decades ago, they laughed at him because his forecasts were frequently wrong. Today, despite sophisticated equipment, satellites and highly qualified meteorologists, the forecasts are still frequently wrong! I grit my teeth at the terminally cheerful weatherperson on my TV, knowing that in his Royal Oak resting place, Frank Denison is probably permitting himself the ghost of a smile.
Danda Humphreys is an author, speaker and fair-weather outdoors enthusiast. Her latest book, Building Victoria, is available in your local bookstore. www.dandahumphreys.com.
This story was published in the January 2006 edition of Focus Magazine.