Waddington Alley’s wood blocks
By Danda Humphreys
Waddington Alley in 2005
You can knock on wood for good luck anywhere in the world, but here in Victoria you can walk on wood, to get a feeling for what life was like in days gone by. Where? In Waddington Alley, between Yates and Johnson streets.
This little-explored connection between two major downtown thoroughfares was the brainwave of businessman Alfred Penderill Waddington. Born in London, England in 1801, and educated in Paris and Germany, he came to California to seek his fortune. By 1850, he was profiting from the gold rush there. Eight years later, he followed the gold trail north.
In early April 1858, when Waddington arrived in Victoria, it was still a small, sleepy settlement surrounding a Hudson’s Bay fort. But at the end of April, the first boatload of eager prospectors arrived, followed by another…and another…and another. Over the next few months, the peace was shattered by the shouts of more than 20,000 miners en route to the Fraser River goldfields.
Waddington was ready for them. He had purchased, in anticipation, several parcels of land north of the fort. He intended to lease out premises on all four sides. Then came the brainwave—a short, narrow lane cut through the middle of his property, creating a direct route from Yates to Johnson Street, as well as extra access for businesses along the way.
Before long, Waddington’s alley was as busy as a beehive. It had a butcher and a baker and a bowling alley. The stage was set for his financial success.
By the fall of 1858, however, everything had changed. Disappointed miners, finding no fortune on the Fraser, left the area as fast as they had arrived. Waddington was appalled! Quickly he produced a book entitled The Fraser Mines Vindicated. It included an inaccurate but immensely popular map to show miners the road to golden opportunity. Then he turned his attentions to political matters closer to home.
His fellow citizens, impressed by his eloquence and conviction, elected the short, stocky Englishman to the House of the Assembly for Victoria District. He became a champion of lost causes, an outspoken critic of autocratic rule, and a prolific writer.
When gold was discovered in the Cariboo, he persuaded Governor James Douglas to give him permission to build a wagon road east from the head of Bute Inlet, and resigned from the legislature to focus his energies on this new enterprise.
Work started in the spring of 1862, but a series of natural and man-made disasters conspired to thwart him. Waddington, who had disposed of his Victoria property to provide continued financing for the project, was forced to admit defeat.
In the late 1860s, Waddington suggested the Bute Inlet area as the western terminus for the proposed cross-continent railroad. Burrard Inlet was chosen instead. His ideas for a bridge-and-ferry link to Vancouver Island fell on deaf ears. Success had eluded him for the last time. In Ottawa, in February 1872, single, single-minded and 70 years old, he contracted smallpox and died.
Decades later, his alley was wood-blocked to quiet the clatter of cart-wheels. Eventually, all of Victoria’s downtown streets were “paved” with Douglas fir. Now only the blocks in Waddington Alley remain.
Danda Humphreys is an author, conference speaker and tour guide. Her latest book, Building Victoria, is available in your local bookstore. www.dandahumphreys.com.
This story was published in the August 2005 edition of Focus Magazine.