Wharf Street water well
By Danda Humphreys
What is believed to be the original Fort Victoria water well in the Rithet Building on Wharf Street
Other Canadian cities have Main Streets and Front Streets and Esplanades. Victoria has Wharf Street. No wharves along there these days—just parking lots and floating docks. But back in the 1800s, the waterfront bustled with boats and barges from hither and yon.
Business was booming. Three years of gold rush traffic en route to the Fraser River had transformed what was once a sleepy settlement into a thriving commercial centre. The land once occupied by the Hudson’s Bay fort had been snapped up by eager entrepreneurs. One—Robert Burnaby—bought a parcel of land on the western perimeter of the fort, facing the harbour, from the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1861.
Burnaby was 33 years old when he arrived in New Westminster on British Columbia’s mainland in 1858. He was hired by Col. Richard C. Moody, whose Royal Engineers were surveying the area. Burnaby Lake and the municipality that surrounded it were named after Moody’s new private secretary.
By 1861, Burnaby had left Moody’s employ and moved to Victoria. He built a one-storey brick warehouse on his parcel of Inner Harbour land. Over the next two decades, the building was extended along Wharf Street, and two more storeys were added. By 1889, the building looked pretty much the way it looks today, though by that time, Burnaby was long gone. He had returned to England in 1874, and died there a few years later.
The newest owner of the building—Robert Paterson Rithet—was pleased with his purchase. He had arrived in Victoria from Scotland in 1862, at the age of 18. Astute in business matters, Rithet worked his way up through several companies, ending up in partnership with one Andrew Welch. When Welch died, in 1888, Rithet bought out his interest. The wide-fronted building on Wharf Street now bore, in big letters, the words “R.P. Rithet & Company Limited…Wholesale Merchants, Shipping and Insurance Agents.”
Rithet expanded his business empire. He built a wharf at Ogden Point (north of today’s breakwater) that made Victoria accessible to travellers aboard Canadian Pacific’s ocean-going Empress liners. He plowed the money he made back into local business ventures and became a very wealthy man, as well as a respected local politician.
Rithet was 75 years old when he died in 1919. His company stayed in business until 1948, then the building was taken over by one of its tenants. Twenty years later, the city bought the building and designated it a heritage site, then in 1974 sold it to the provincial government. The façade could not be touched because of its heritage status. The interior, however, was extensively renovated.
When the old ground-level floor was removed, a well was discovered. It’s believed to be the original Fort Victoria well, with pipes leading directly to the wharf across the street, probably designed to carry fresh water to the ships unloading cargo there.
Next time you’re downtown, open one of the tall, latch-and-handle doors at 1117 Wharf Street and go inside. At the back of the lobby, the water well’s brick surround and mechanism (photo, below) are clearly visible. This is where fur traders once sheltered behind the palisades that protected Fort Victoria, and where in later years men like R.P. Rithet featured prominently on our city’s business scene.
Danda Humphreys is a Victoria author, speaker, storyteller and guide. Her latest book, Building Victoria, is available in your local bookstore. www.dandahumphreys.com.
This story was published in the April 2005 edition of Focus Magazine.