Lighthouse in Bastion Square
By Danda Humphreys
The Maritime Museum and light in Bastion Square in 2006
Have you ever wondered why there’s a lighthouse in the middle of Bastion Square? Or considered the connection between it and an island off Oak Bay? Nor did I, for the longest time. But there’s an invisible thread that stitches those locations and two others in the struggle for survival by early sailors along our coast.
Fast-flashback to the mid-1800s. The gold rush on British Columbia’s mainland is in full swing. Interest in the fur trade declines, and the former Hudson’s Bay Company settlement named after the British Queen Victoria gradually grows into a commercial centre.
There is no route across Canada for any but those brave enough to follow the waterways and portages—and such a journey from east to west can take upwards of a year. But the sea journey around Cape Horn is hazardous, and the coastline north of California continues to claim its share of shipwrecks. Moreover, the entrance to our harbour was notoriously difficult to see in the dark.
Eventually the colonial government got the message and decided to build a lighthouse or two. First to flash its warning to sailors along our shores was Fisgard Light at the entrance to Esquimalt Harbour. It was named for Royal Navy frigate HMS Fisgard, which served on the Pacific Station in the mid-1840s.
Simultaneously, the lighthouse at Race Rocks was being built, using massive stones shipped from Scotland, barged from the harbour to Race Rocks and assembled using timber derricks and scaffolding. The workers struggled with the construction project through the spring, summer and fall of 1860.
The first full-time lighthouse-keeper on Canada’s West Coast was 28-year-old Englishman George Davies, who, with his young family, started at the Fisgard Light, then, when Race Rocks was operable, moved there. His first job at Race Rocks was to haul himself up the outside and paint its distinctive black-and-white horizontal stripes.
A few years later, there was a tragic accident at Race Rocks. It was Christmas Eve, 1865, and the Davies family eagerly awaited the arrival of George’s wife Rosina’s brother, his wife and three male friends. But their boat was caught in a riptide and capsized. The station’s lifeboat had been lost in a recent storm, and amazingly, there was no rope or lifebuoy. In full view of their horrified relatives and friends, all the sailboat’s passengers were drowned. Lightkeeper Davies, overcome by the tragedy, died himself two years later.
Forty years after the Race Rocks tragedy, a lighthouse was built on a small island off Oak Bay, a destination for ships undergoing sea trials after refit and repair at Esquimalt. Trial Island, named in the mid-1800s, was long the unofficial home of a hermit and a bootlegger named “Liverpool Jack.” But once the light was up and running, keeper Harrold O’Kell made a home for his family there.
Although most lighthouses are now automated, Trial Island is still manned, if only to keep a weather eye out for luckless, careless canoeists and kayakers who can’t resist the lure of those sun-soaked rocks and churning waves.
In 1970, a new tower was built on the island. The top of the original lighthouse, containing the lens and the lantern room, were carefully dismantled and moved to the southeast corner of the Maritime Museum.
So next time someone asks you, “Why is there a lighthouse in the middle of Bastion Square?” you’ll know exactly what to say. “It’s the top of the old Trial Island light—a reminder of our maritime history in days gone by.”
Danda Humphreys, who as a child always dreamed of living in a lighthouse, included the story of the Davies family’s tragedy at Race Rocks in one of her four books about Victoria’s early history. www.dandahumphreys.com.
This story was published in the August 2006 edition of Focus Magazine.