Rockland’s water tower
By Danda Humphreys
So what exactly is that funky, phallic-looking structure on top of the hill in Rockland? A landlocked lighthouse?
Townhouse for a very tall person? Victoria’s version of a space-shuttle launch-pad?
Believe it or not, it’s a water tower. And when it was built, 100 years ago, it performed a very important function for the folk who lived around it.
Hard to imagine Victoria without water— drinking water, that is. But way back in the early 1840s, when a group of men came here to build the Hudson’s Bay Company fort, water was their primary concern. This was an island, to be sure. But on the low-lying ground around the Inner Harbour it was—as the song said—water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.
The men found a fresh-water source in the fort compound, and dug a well. It provided water for the people at the fort, and replenished the company ships that tied up at the HBC wharf. The pipe to the waterfront ran under what is now Wharf Street, and the well itself—the only remaining physical evidence of Fort Victoria—can still be seen in the lobby of the building at #1117.
As the years went by, some citizens, like Richard Carr, were lucky enough to locate fresh water on the land they’d bought. Carr had his James Bay house designed so water could be pumped right up into the kitchen, and the second floor of his home eventually boasted an addition much envied by all— Victoria’s first indoor bathroom.
Others weren’t so fortunate. For those living around the fort, the nearest source of fresh water was a gravel-and-sand area they called Spring Ridge. (Aha! Now we know why we have a Spring Road and a Ridge Road in Fernwood!) Transported to the Inner Harbour in a horse-drawn tank-cart, the water cost 25 cents a bucket until the late 1850s, but once the Spring Ridge Water Company operations got under way, people paid up to $1000 a year for water. Imagine how much that would be worth in today’s dollars!
At long last, in the early 1870s permission was given to build a dam at the southern end of Beaver Lake, and in 1875 Elk Lake water flowed through long wooden pipes to Victoria. Houses were connected to the water mains. Suddenly, flush toilets were all the rage. The Spring Ridge Water Company, unable to compete, auctioned off its water carts and soon went out of business.
In the early 1900s, a 128-foot, round, white reinforced concrete structure appeared on the slope just above Terrace Avenue in Rockland. Built by contractor Henry Kaiser, it rose out of the rock like some super-sized digit, pointing out for all the world to see that the residents of Rockland Heights now had 93,000 gallons of water on hand for their personal use.
In August 1962, the City of Victoria celebrated its 100th birthday by topping the candle-shaped tower with a 22-foot tall “flame” fashioned from plastic neon tubes. It was visible from the other side of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
The “light” was extinguished 20 years ago, and the tower has been used less and less over the years as CRD water pressure to the area has increased. Two years ago, “the taps were turned off,” so to speak, and now the City of Victoria is mulling over the options for its future use.
In the meantime, what shall we do with it? Well, I have an idea for next Halloween. Forget the fireworks! Fire up Victoria’s very own “Roman candle”—the Rockland water tower!
Danda Humphreys got good and wet researching the highs and lows of Rockland for this story. www.dandahumphreys.com.
This story was published in the January 2007 edition of Focus Magazine.