Then and Now: Fresh Water Canoe Route from Inner Harbour to Ross Bay
By Ted Ross
The site of the Empress Hotel looked very different in 1840. Known as Whosaykum, meaning 'clay' or 'muddy' place, people camped there while they gathered camas root on Meegan (Beacon Hill) or rushes for mats in James Bay. A reedy wetland, it was waterfowl country. In later years people shot ducks there for sale to Victoria merchants.
An unnamed creek came to the salt water at the site. Today called Empress Creek. It still runs through the basement of the Empress Hotel. The creek rises in marsh lands to the east of Cook Street and south of Fairfield Road, flowing northwest to the Inner Harbour. In rainy, stormy weather the water became plentiful, filling the creek making it navigable by canoe.
Rising in that same marshy land was a creek which flowed southeast into Ross Bay. It too would fill with enough water in the rainy, stormy times to be navigable by local canoes.
The marshy land east of Cook Street would also fill with water when rainfall was heavy. It was available to the canoes for water passage, and connected a water route from the Inner Harbour to Ross Bay, totally sheltered from the storm winds which the canoes would have faced on the ocean route around Beacon Hill.
Writing in The Islander in the Times-Colonist on November 29, 1986, Charles Lillard commented, "The Indians used a trail to reach the fort for the simple reason that the weather, in October and November, when they did their travelling, made coasting next to impossible. Another waterborne method of reaching the Inner Harbor...was via Ross Bay through a chain of swamps and creeks that finally brought travellers to the swampy ground at the head of James Bay."
Lillard pointed out the canoes would still have had to travel to Ross Bay, which is wide-open to the southeast storm winds. As well, Ross Bay did not have a beach suitable for drawing up canoes, the shore being thick with pussy willow. They would have to have headed directly into the Ross Bay creek's mouth, which would have been tricky with a storm blowing into the bay. He concluded, sensibly, "It was much easier and much simpler -- and a great deal safer -- to hike."
Jennifer Sutherst, in her Lost Streams of Victoria; A Legacy Lost, wrote "The stream that the Empress hotel was built upon...flowed from a wetland in the vicinity of Cook and Moss Streets. This wetland was connected to another creek which ran into Ross Bay thus linking the bay with Victoria's inner harbour. First Nations would use this waterway as an alternate route during heavy winter storms. During wet winter periods when the tides were high they would be able to paddle from Ross Bay to the inner harbour thereby avoiding the heavy weather on the outer coast."
When the Empress Hotel was built, beginning in 1904, the muddy wetlands had to be dealt with to construct the edifice. Mud and silt from the Inner Harbour were dredged and placed as fill in the area to the east of the new Government Street Causeway. Formerly the Pendray Soap Works on Humboldt Street had dumped their effluent, primarily animal fats and tallows, into James Bay mudflats. There they rotted and produced terrible odours, commencing in the 1870s. Victorians were pleased the stinking flats were being filled in to build the hotel.
Godfrey Holloway in The Empress of Victoria related,"...they were laboring around the clock under what passed for floodlights. Bales and bales of straw were dumped into the morass to give some sort of footing for the workmen, while pile drivers thumped day and night driving 125-foot piles as close together as possible until they reached bedrock. They evidently succeeded because those piles can be seen today...where we have made special inspection cut-aways, and they are good as the day they were driven."
Jennifer Sutherst tells us, "The ambitious plans for the hotel included building a causeway across James Bay and filling in the flats behind with mud dredged from the harbour plus thousands of yards of gravel. Pilings were then driven 125 feet through this fill [to bedrock] in order to create the foundation on which to build the hotel. In 1929 a new wing was added...it was impossible to locate a footing where the new wing was to join the old, so a bridge was built that now arches between the two buildings over what once was a stream flowing to the inner harbour. This stream still flows through the sub-basement of the hotel."
Empress Creek enters the Inner Harbour after passing under the Empress Hotel. Following the creek upstream we find that we are charting a course north of Southgate Street crossing Blanshard Street and then Quadra Street. Our upstream course now lies north of Southgate and south of Fairfield Road until we cross Cook Street.
From Cook we are now in the area of the wetlands, where the creek rises. On today's map that area lies between Cook Street, May Street, Moss Street, and Oxford Avenue.
Around Oxford and Linden Street the Ross Bay creek began its trip southeast to that bay. Its course would have crossed the southwest portion of the cemetery.
Most of Victoria's wild streams are captured in culverts and other man-made waterways today. But the streams do still flow, even if they are now hidden to view. Those watercourses used by the indigenous people of old for hundreds of years are still there. They're just out of sight. The rain still falls, and must find its way to the sea.
"Lost Streams of Victoria; A Legacy Lost," Jennifer Sutherst, Large map with information panels, City of Victoria Archives, May 2003; "Songhees roamed Victoria region," Charles Lillard, Times-Colonist Islander, November 29, 1986; "The Empress of Victoria," Godfrey Holloway, Pacifica Productions Ltd., 1980; "Greater Victoria Watersheds; School Version," map, Capital Regional District, 2016.