By Danda Humphreys
New Government Street streetlights remind us of days gone by.
New streetlights along Government Street.
Funny how we take things for granted. Take streetlights, for example. City electricians have been hard at work installing new lampposts along Government Street between Belleville and Yates. Few of us notice. Focused straight ahead as we fulfill the functions of our day, we’re not much interested in looking up. If we did, we’d be pleasantly surprised. Those new poles aren’t just there to light our way. The turn-of-the-century-style streetlights are designed to remind us of the Government Street of days gone by.
Government Street takes its name from the Governor’s Mansion that, in the early 1850s, stood near the northeast corner of Fort Victoria. It was the far-from-grand office and residence built for Richard Blanshard, the first governor of Vancouver Island. Blanshard soon went back to England, leaving a delighted James Douglas to take his place as the second governor of this Island colony.
A few years later, the Fraser River gold rush brought fortune-seekers from afar. Goldminers came and went, some with pockets full of gold dust, most without. The lucky ones stayed to start commercial ventures on and around the site of the fort, which was now being demolished. In 1862, the same year Victoria was incorporated as a city, gas lighting was installed in the business district. Eventually, an incandescent electric light station—the first in Canada—was built, and in 1887 electric lights were turned on for the first time.
One hundred years ago, Alfred Morley, a farseeing fellow who served three separate terms as Victoria’s mayor, lobbied to have cluster lights installed downtown. The city, he pointed out, was not just a commercial centre; it was fast becoming a popular place to visit. Victoria needed something different. Distinctive streetlights, he decided, would do the trick.
They called them “Morley’s Follies” but they put them up anyway, mostly to humour Mayor Morley, a man of vision who was making his mark on our city in more ways than one. These were exciting times. The pioneering days of the 1800s were over. The 1900s promised unprecedented growth. Already a grand new legislature dominated the Inner Harbour.
By 1910, the wooden James Bay bridge was gone, the bay’s muddy waters drained and replaced by landfill. Many of the passen- gers arriving on Canadian Pacific steamships stayed at CP’s Empress Hotel and shopped till they dropped on a Government Street very similar to the one we walk along today.
Granted, the road surface was a little rough and scored by streetcar tracks, but traffic moved so sedately that a street sweeper could meander safely along the middle of the road, sweeping dust, dirt and debris over to the curb. Occasionally the peace was shattered by the insistent clanging of bells, as horse- drawn fire trucks clattered down the street. One needed to watch out for pedestrians, who wandered willy-nilly across from one sidewalk to the other. There were lots of bicy- cles, and automobiles which—like all traffic prior to 1922—proceeded purposefully on the left-hand side of the road.
For a fascinating glimpse of Government Street in those early days, go to The Hallmark Society’s web site. It features a fascinating 1907 movie of Victoria, shot by William Harbeck, a travelling photographer. Harbeck borrowed a streetcar from the British Columbia Electric Railway Company, fixed his box camera to the front of it, then hand-cranked the camera continuously as the car ran from City Hall south on Douglas, west on Yates, and south along Government. Transfixed by the sight of the soon-to-be-completed Empress Hotel, Harbeck shot a sweeping panorama of the Inner Harbour. Then he boarded a launch that took him under the Johnson Street bridge (forerunner of the bridge we are working to save today) and up the Gorge as far as the reversing falls at Tillicum. Harbeck never returned to Victoria, but his Victoria “cinematograph” still makes for remarkable viewing at www.hallmarksociety.ca.
Amazingly, thanks in large part to the Society and other concerned citizens who, in the 1970s, fought to preserve and protect our downtown heritage buildings, Government Street has changed little since Harbeck was here. Many original structures survive, some with updated façades, almost all with new names and business ventures. A few have stood the test of time, looking like they did on the Government Street of days gone by, when clusters of streetlights cast their eerie glow over late shoppers on the sidewalks.
Everything old is new again. Each of our 20 new streetlights features an ornamental turn-of-the-century-style lamp at the top with the now-familiar globe shapes nestled underneath. If Alfred Morley were alive today, he’d be thrilled to see that cluster lights still line our downtown streets, just as he intended they should, 100 years ago.
Danda Humphreys has written several books about Victoria’s early history, and knows that you have to look up, down and sideways to appreciate all of our unique heritage. www.dandahumphreys.com.
This story was published in the February 2010 edition of Focus Magazine.