James Bay’s Irving Park
By Danda Humphreys
A small park in James Bay once hosted a colourful mansion built for an ambitious steamboat captain.
Irving Park in August 2009
The jewel of James Bay nestles under tall California redwoods and beech trees at the corner of Menzies and Michigan. This is Irving Park, named after the dashing steamboat captain who built a home there for his family 125 years ago.
John Irving, born in 1854, was the latest in a long line of Scottish adventurers. His father, William, had journeyed from Scotland to the Pacific Northwest and made his money as a steamboat owner and master during the Fraser River gold rush, carrying gold miners up the Lower Fraser from Yale to Hope.
Young John grew up around boats. He developed such a knack for sailing that by the age of 18, he was navigating the Fraser River’s twists and turns with ease. At 20, he was a full captain—the youngest in the province. When his father died, soon afterward, John took over the Irving Pioneer Line and added more ships. From buying, he graduated to building. His fleet included the William Irving and the Elizabeth Irving, named after his parents.
In 1882 Irving became manager of the Canadian Steamship Navigation Company. He was one of Victoria’s most eligible bachelors—until he married Jane Munro in 1883. Jane’s father, Alexander Munro, held an important position with the Hudson’s Bay Company. The Munros had a large home on Michigan Street, where the South Park School playing field is today.
John Irving built a home for himself and his new bride just a few blocks away. At that time, much of the central part of James Bay—covered with pine trees and known as Beckley Farm— was still undeveloped. Governor James Douglas’s house stood close to the government buildings known as the Birdcages. Water lapped onto the beach below them until Belleville Street replaced the rough trail that hugged the shoreline. The James Bay Bridge, a fragile- looking wooden structure that connected the downtown area with the legislative buildings, was perfectly adequate for the light horse- drawn carriages of the day.
James Bay was Victoria’s first residential area, and somewhat exclusive in those days. The grandest homes on Menzies Street flanked the Parliament Buildings. Close to the Inner Harbour was “Fairview,” built for an American sea captain and destined to be a temporary home for the Dunsmuirs. A few blocks south, “Irving Place” stood at the corner of Menzies and Michigan, its bay-windowed corners and porches guarded by California redwoods that stood, sentry-like, at either end of the cres- cent-shaped driveway.
Irving Place, at the southwest corner of Menzies and Michigan (Photo courtesy of the City of Victoria Archives)
The mansion was a sight to behold—not just because if its size, but also because of its colours. The brickwork on the lower sections was painted in four shades of red. The upper portion was a mix of olive and seven other shades of green. The roof copings, mouldings, and ornamental railings were painted a rich brown. From the basement to the roof, imaginative paintwork picked out every cornice and cranny.
In 1891, the Irvings were the talk of the town again with their new phaeton carriage, built to order for the captain’s wife. Jane and her children were much admired as they rode around the town, visited the children’s grand- parents a few blocks away, or went to Ogden Point to welcome their father back from one of his many sojourns at sea.
Running a successful business from behind a desk didn’t appeal to the dashing Captain Irving; he wanted to be in the thick of things. He set up a Victoria-New Westminster steam- boat service in direct competition with the Hudson’s Bay Company, eventually buying out the HBC line. Soon, his Canadian Pacific Navigation Company was joined by the Yukon Navigation Company, created to profit from the Yukon Gold Rush, and the Columbia-Kootenay Navigation Company, which serviced the Kootenay River and adjoining Interior lakes.
The CP Navigation Company and Interior lake operations, sold to the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1901, were destined to form the basis of the latter’s famous Princess line. The terms of the sale included a lifetime pass on CPR ships for Captain Irving, a privilege much enjoyed by him in later years.
In retirement, Irving started to spend more time in Vancouver, and died there in 1936, aged 82. Jane went to England, and died there in 1950. Daughters Genevieve and Elizabeth survived her. A son, William, had been killed during World War I.
Today, the house is long gone, but Irving Park is much loved by locals who relax on the grass, dine at the picnic tables, or walk the labyrinth. Like the Irving children before them, James Bay youngsters play hide-and-seek among the huge trees that remind us of the father and son who made their fortunes in those early steamboat days.
Danda Humphreys has written several books about the early history of Victoria. www.dandahumphreys.com
This story was first published in the August 2009 edition of Focus Magazine.