Ogden Point Breakwater and docks
By Danda Humphreys
The light at the end of the Ogden Point Breakwater in 1998
Nothing smacks of summer more than ice creams and cruise ships at Ogden Point. Was there ever a time when the world didn’t sail right to our doorstep? Sure there was. But only the 90-plus crowd would remember the pre-breakwater days. And even they would have a tough time telling you who it was named after.
The fact is, while many of the points along Victoria’s waterfront—and particularly around the harbour—are named for explorers, navigators, early residents and suchlike, Peter Skene Ogden is a notable exception. Although his name has been around for more than a century, he didn’t work here, he didn’t live here, and likely didn’t even visit.
During the first official surveys of Victoria’s harbour, in 1843, various points of land were named after high-ranking Hudson’s Bay Company men. Ogden certainly qualified for that honour. Born in Montreal in 1794, descended from an old Scottish family, he joined the North West Company at age 17. Apprenticing in the fur trade in Saskatchewan, he worked his way west across the Rockies and into the Columbia Territory, as the Pacific Northwest was called.
When the two companies merged, in 1821, Ogden became a chief trader for the HBC. Described by a colleague as “short, dark-skinned, rather rough in manner, but lively and a firm favourite with everybody,” he was respected by the Natives. They called the prematurely grey-haired trader “Old Whitehead.”
In the early 1830s, Dr. John McLoughlin, chief factor at Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River, sent Ogden to seek out and establish new coastal posts. By 1835, he was in charge of all the posts in New Caledonia (now British Columbia). His headquarters was in the north, at Fort St. James. Each spring, he led the fur brigade south to Fort Vancouver. The trappers travelled by canoe and pack-horse, taking several weeks to make the exciting but dangerous run through the rapids to the Columbia River post.
When John McLoughlin retired, in 1845, direction of HBC affairs was turned over to his three top men—James Douglas, John Work and Peter Skene Ogden. Douglas established Fort Victoria on the southern tip of Vancouver Island in 1843. In 1849, it became the Company’s new northern headquarters. John Work retired here, and established Hillside Farm, north of the fort.
Ogden, meanwhile, was kept busy on the Columbia. Immigrants flooded to the area from all over the U.S. Outbreaks of disease amongst the Natives decimated their numbers. A missionary couple was murdered and 50 white men were captured in a massacre that caused widespread fear. Speaking to the Natives in their own language, Ogden persuaded them to give up their captives. It was one of his final triumphs. He died in 1854, at the age of 60.
The Ogden Point Breakwater and Docks were constructed a full 60 years later—between 1914 and 1917—as a measure to protect Canada’s trade routes.
Over one million tons of rock, 10,000 granite blocks, 53 concrete caissons and over one million cubic yards of dredged fill were required to complete the breakwater and docks.
The Ogden Point Breakwater under construction in 1916
With its long, double-jointed finger pointing across the harbour mouth, the breakwater has since shielded the inner reaches of Victoria’s harbour from fierce winter gales. And those massive granite blocks support a walkway enjoyed by residents and visitors, including cruise ship passengers and tall ship watchers, who walk on the point of land that still bears Peter Skene Ogden’s name.
Danda Humphreys is a Victoria author, speaker and tour guide. Her latest book, Building Victoria, is available in your local bookstore. www.dandahumphreys.com.
This story was published in the June 2005 edition of Focus Magazine.