Then and Now: Empress Hotel

Then and Now: Empress Hotel

By Ted Ross


Two hundred years ago, the site of the Empress Hotel was called Whosaykum. The name meant “clay” or “muddy” place. It was an area where clams and crabs thrived on the nutrients flowing down the creek from east of today's Cook Street. The shellfish were harvested by the Lekwungen people. Along the drier shore area camps were made for housing the folks tending the camas fields of Meegan (Beacon Hill) or gathering rushes for mats in James Bay.

An inland freshwater route, in the rainier seasons, allowed travel between the Inner Harbour and Ross Bay when storm winds made a sea passage impossible. That route took off from exactly where the Empress sits today.

Above the bridge between James Bay and Victoria prior to the building of the Empress looking toward the future site of the legislature in James Bay.Photo A-00377 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives.

Above the bridge between James Bay and Victoria prior to the building of the Empress looking toward the future site of the legislature in James Bay.Photo A-00377 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives.

James Douglas arrived to found Fort Victoria in 1842 for the Hudson's Bay Company. From that day forward all things changed for landholding in the region around the new fort. Agreements saw the land become the property of HBC, which in turn sold pieces to people to develop the area. The bay into which the creek flowed was named James Bay in honour of Douglas. In 1862 the City of Victoria was incorporated; its boundaries included the mudflats of James Bay.

In 1875 William Joseph Pendray established the Pendray Soap Works on the north shore of the mudflats along Humboldt Street. Waste products from that factory were dumped into the tidal waters of the flats. Primarily animal fats and tallows, this effluent sat and rotted, giving a horrendous odour in the area, which sickened local residents.

Looking from James Bay towards Victoria prior to filling in for the Empress construction. Photo A-00252 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives.

Looking from James Bay towards Victoria prior to filling in for the Empress construction. Photo A-00252 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives.

In 1899 Pendray added the British American Paint Company to his operations on Humboldt Street. This soon became the household name Bapco Paints.

Over the years three bridges were built over the mudflats as the area south of the Inner Harbour was farmed, then settled. The last carried streetcars on their routes to the Outer Harbour and Beacon Hill, those lines having been established in 1890 and 1892.

In 1887 the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railroad arrived in Victoria via a newly constructed swing-bridge across the narrows where today's Johnson Street Bridge is found. Soon most of Victoria's supplies arrived on Vancouver Island by barge in boxcars at Nanaimo. They were then freighted in 50 car trains to Victoria by the E&N. It was Victoria's rail connection north. As well, the line carried coal mined in Nanaimo and Wellington south to Victoria. It was used in the city and shipped from a wharf in Victoria West to various sites.

In 1901 the E&N was purchased by the Canadian Pacific Railroad. The CPR had also purchased an aging fleet of 14 vessels from the Canadian Pacific Navigation Company in January 1901. The CPR intended to upgrade its transportation network, including a passenger run between Vancouver and Victoria. The company strongly denied they had any plans to construct a tourist hotel in Victoria.

Construction of the Humboldt Street wing of the Empress Hotel. Image G-03999 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives.

Construction of the Humboldt Street wing of the Empress Hotel. Image G-03999 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives.

Two Victoria businessmen had a grand vision of building a hotel. One was Capt. J.W. Troup, a former sternwheeler master from the Columbia River. The other was a lawyer, George Henry Barnard, who was son of the man who ran the Barnard Express to the Cariboo during the gold rush of the 1860s. Troup went to Montreal to sell the idea to the CPR. Barnard stayed in Victoria and faced 'howls of derision' at his plan to build a causeway across the mudflats, then dredge the harbour to fill the land behind the embankment, with a fair measure of gravel added, so that piles could be driven on which to build a hotel on the reclaimed land.

Construction of a causeway, to replace the bridge built in in 1869, began in 1902. Stone, quarried on Nelson Island, was used for the new construction. The work was complete by 1904, but its shape was in place from 1902 as construction progressed.

In June 1902 CPR president Sir Thomas Shaughnessy visited Victoria. Local businessmen fawned over the man, with various hotel proposals. Shaughnessy returned to Montreal without making any decision.

Shaughnessy came back to Victoria in May 1903. After much negotiating, he made a proposal regarding the causeway lands: "If the city will supply the site and exempt us from taxation and give us free water for 20 years, we will build a hotel to cost not less than $300,000," he pronounced. The city jumped at the demands. On July 7, 1904, citizens voted 1,205 to 46 in favour of granting certain tax exemptions to the CPR.

Within two weeks work commenced. The first project was to fill the mudflats behind the causeway with dredged harbour muck and gravel. Then the piling foundation for the hotel was put in place. 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 the 125-foot piles as close together as possible until they reached bedrock." 

2,853 timber piles of 50 ft (15m) long, 500 piles 20 ft (16m) long for cofferdams, 60,500 board feet of planking and timber, and 9000 cu. yds (6880 m3) of concrete were used in foundation construction.

The hotel was designed by Francis Mawsom Rattenbury. He was a Victoria architect who had designed many structures in the city, including the Parliament Buildings. Rattenbury had first unveiled plans for a grand seven-storey hotel, reminiscent of the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City, in December 1903.

The Empress did not rise overnight. In that era of hand labour and horse-drawn wagons, it took four years for contractor J.L. Skene to erect the stately hostelry. The walls at the ground floor were 30 inches (76cm) thick. Great wood beams criss-crossed under the roof to give the apex of the original building the appearance of a fortress.

In 1906 CPR purchased the Humboldt Street site of Pendray's Soap Works. The soap and paint operations were moved to the former site of the Sehl Furniture factory at Laurel Point, just west of the Pendray Mansion. Bapco Paints remained at the site until 1974.

The first phase of the Empress Hotel near completion. Image B-04739 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives.

The first phase of the Empress Hotel near completion. Image B-04739 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives.

The Daily Colonist, January 21, 1908, had a headline reading, "Empress Hotel Open To Public." The accompanying article read, "The opening of the Empress hotel yesterday constitutes a distinct and important landmark in Victoria's onward progress to her rightful position as Queen of the Pacific." High praise for a new and beautful building now opened in Victoria, crowning the east side of the Inner Harbour.

Two more wings were added in 1909 and 1914. Piling foundations for this additional construction had been driven in the original pile-driving of 1905. Engineers had advised in July 1904 that piles for the building, and any proposed future additions, must be put in at the same time. The report said, "It would not be advisable to drive piles...after this building is erected."

In 1912 a ballroom was considered necessary. The portion of the ballroom between the north and south additions was carried on the 1905 foundations for those wings. The portion projecting beyond them was carried on foundations built in 1914, one at each corner, both with 25 timber piles.

The north wing extension opened in 1929 on Humboldt Street. It is generally on good foundation material. Engineers reported, "Piles driven 5 to 7 feet (1.5 to 2.1 m) into the fine gravel sand strata will carry an equal load as those driven to bedrock." In addition to the piles, eight caissons 6 ft (1.8 m) in diameter and two 7 ft (2.1 m) in diameter were drilled to bedrock. The original north wing served as access to this new north wing. In a 1989 renovation the entire old north wing became the hotel's point of entry and lobby area.

From its opening in 1908 the Empress was a favourite of Victorians and visitors alike. Situated just a block from the CPR's steamship terminal, where ships arrived regularly from Vancouver, Seattle, Port Angeles, the Gulf Islands, and Vancouver Island's west coast, the hotel was popular with tourists and business people. Also a short distance away was the E&N terminal with arrivals from up the island, the CPR having extended its rails to Courtenay.

The Empress catered to many special guests over the years. In September 1919 the Prince of Wales danced until past midnight in the hotel's Crystal Ballroom. Rudyard Kipling's visit inspired the creation of the Bengal Lounge, six decades ago. Bob Hope had his own suite. Celebrity visitors range from Rita Hayworth to Harrison Ford and a host of others.

In 1939 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth stayed at the Empress. It was the first time in history that reigning monarchs had visited Victoria. In 2002 HRH Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip visited. Prince Charles and Camille were there in 2009. The Emperor and Empress of Japan visited in 2010.

Over its many years of service the hotel eventually began to show its age. Some even said it looked worn and dowdy. Around 1965 there was serious consideration to demolish the building and replace it with an up-to-date hostelry in this choice spot. One local newspaper was quick to opine that, "Without this splendid relic of the Edwardian era, tens of thousands of tourists will never return." In the end CPR chose not to demolish the hotel but to embark on a $6 million dollar renovation and restoration called 'Operation Teacup.'

Join us in the June issue for the conclusion of intriguing story of The Empress - Then and Now

The Victoria Times, "...And 60 Years Ago It Was Nothing But Mud," by Norman Cribbens, July 22, 1961; The Daily Colonist, "Tea and Crumpets at the Van Horne," May 13, 1979; C.B. Crawford and J.G. sutherland, "The Empress Hotel, Victoria, British Columbia. sixty-five Years of Foundation Settlements," Montreal, 1970; "The Empress of Victoria," by Godfrey Holloway, pacifica Productions, 1980; Times-Colonist, "Empress facelift, expansion worth $32 million," by Judith Lavoie, December 3, 1987; Times-Colonist, "10-million surprise for Empress face-lift," by Grania Litwin, December 2, 1988; Amazing Stories, "Rattenbury,The Life and Tragic End of B.C.'s Greatest Architect," by Stan Sauerwein, 2003; "Lost Streams of Victoria; A Legacy Lost," Large map with information Panels, City of Victoria Archives, May 2003; James Bay Beacon, "Then and Now - The Pendray Family," by Ted Ross, September 2014; Times-Colonist, "Victoria's iconic Empress Hotel bought by Vancouver's Nat and Flora bosa," by Carla Wilson, August 19, 2014; CBC Nes, "Victoria's Empress Hotel wrapped in scaffolding for renovations," by Megan Thomas, October 18, 2015; The Seattle Times, "After 61 yars, the Empress Hotel's Bengal Lounge may serve its last drink," January 22, 2016; James Bay Beacon, "Then and Now - Fresh Water Canoe Route from Inner Harbour ro Ross Bay," June, 2017; Wikipedia, "Songhees," 2018; Victoria Harbour History, "E&N Railway's Victoria Terminus," Rocket Science Design, 2017; Victoria Harbour History, "James Bay," Rocket Science Design, 2017; Fairmont Hotels, "Fairmont Empress Hotel History," 2018; Fairmont Empress Victoria, "The Bob Hope Suite 330," by The Fairmont Empress, July 18, 2011; Business in Vancouver, "Empress Hotel owner responds to petition that alleges he is destroying heritage," by Glen Korstrom, January 18, 2016; Fairmont Empress, Accor Hotels, "Welcome to the Fairmont Empress," 2018; Wikipedis, "The Empress Hotel, 2018.


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