by Ted Ross
Between 15,000 and 29,000 years ago Shoal Point, and the rest of Victoria harbour were under the massive weight of the Fraser Glaciation. Land was depressed below the present sea level. As the glaciers retreated, thick deposits of sand, gravel, stony-sandy-loam till, and marine clay were left behind on the dry land.
Post-glacial rebound exposed the present-day terrain to air, raising beach and mud deposits well above sea level. Loamy topsoils were found around the harbour. Thick dark topsoils had a high level of fertility, making them valuable for agriculture. These lands were farmed until urbanization took the acreages out of production, replaced with homes.
Shoal Point was to the west of the agricultural lands. Soil deposits along that shore were not of farming quality. Emptying into the sea, west of Shoal Point, was a creek with shellfish beds at its mouth. These beds provided a food source in ancient times. The stream was midway between Shoal Point and Ogden Point, in the neighbourhood of today's HeliJet terminal.
Shoal Point was so named as it was there that the harbour waters shoaled (i.e. shallowed), preventing deep-sea ships from entering the Inner Harbour.
Robert Paterson Rithet arrived in Victoria in 1862. This son of the Scottish Enlightenment came to find gold in the Cariboo, but soon he was involved in other enterprises. An intelligent and industrious man, by 1870 he was working for J. Robertson Stewart in his commercial merchandise and import agency on Wharf Street. In 1871 Rithet took over operation of the business. He was vice-president of Albion Iron Works, owned flour mills in the Okanagan, had several large farms, and invested in real estate. Among activities in other businesses, he became president of the California and Hawaiian Sugar Refining Company.
Being involved in the business of importing, especially in the sugar trade, Rithet sorely felt the lack of a good harbour in Victoria for deep-sea ships. Anchoring a ship outside the Inner Harbour and transferring goods by small craft into the harbour was time-consuming and inefficient. He studied the waters at Shoal Point where the nearest deep-sea ships could come to land. He knew the solution to his problem would be found if he constructed wharves at the limit of deep water at Shoal Point, even though the location was relatively remote to downtown Victoria, with no good road connections at the time.
In 1883 a complex of wharves opened at Shoal Point. Originally dubbed "Rithet's folly", the wharves turned out to be a huge success. They became the nucleus of the Outer Harbour, which would develop between Shoal Point and Ogden Point to the south.
An article in the Victoria Times on February 1, 1890, referred to an addition being made to the Rithet’s Piers. It read, "By the first of the month, Mr. Rithet said, work will be begun on the new pier at the outer wharf, and construction will be pushed to completion. The extension will cost over $50,000."
Over the years a bakery, flour mill, grain elevator, fish processing plant, rail ferry slip, and a shipyard were all in operation in the Outer Wharves area.
As well as the import/export trade, Rithet's Piers served the passenger deep-sea service to and from Victoria. From 1887 until 1941 Canadian Pacific's Empress liners sailed from Rithet's Piers to Honolulu, Manila, China, Japan, and Hong Kong. Other lines used the piers as well. The Hotel Dallas, a beautiful building of brick construction, appeared in 1891 to serve passengers. The Immigration Hospital was constructed of brick alongside the Dallas in 1909 for incoming immigrants.
National Electric Tramway & Lighting Co. Ltd. began a streetcar route from Fort and Government via the James Bay Bridge to Superior Street, then west along Superior to St. Lawrence, then Erie Street to Rithet's Piers. This improved access from downtown, which previously had been by horse-drawn vehicles.
The farmlands of James Bay were subdivided and houses built throughout the area to accommodate the industrial workers, and their families. In 1891 streetcar service was extended to Beacon Hill via Menzies and Niagara Streets.
Although Rithet never lived in James Bay, his works had a huge influence on the development of the peninsula. Rithet Street was named in his honour. The wharves at Shoal Point were his.
Rithet died in 1919. His piers, and the two more built behind a new breakwater at Ogden Point during the First World War, served Victoria well during the 1920s. In 1928 the Dallas Hotel, having been out-of-business for a year, was demolished, with nothing to replace it. Business was much slower during the years of the Great Depression, but still the wharves survived.
In 1941 Victoria Machinery Depot (VMD), a shipbuilding enterprise located in the Inner Harbour, purchased the Rithet's Piers and several hectares of land to the south to establish a new shipbuilding yard. Three huge ways (inclined structures upon which a ship is built for launching) were constructed immediately south of the piers, giving the shipyard capacity to build three vessels at a time. This was part of an American and Canadian project to build merchant carriers to one basic plan to replace those lost in the Battle of the Atlantic, when so many Allied ships had been sunk by the wolf packs of German submarines.
By 1945 some 26 cargo ships had been launched from the ways at Shoal Point. With yards all over maritime North America involved, all building the same ships from the same parts, VMD was part of the endeavour to replace lost cargo vessels as quickly as possible.
The yard remained in business after the war's end. Many BC Ferries were constructed there in the 1960s, the first being the Queen of Sidney, originally named the Sidney. Built at Shoal Point, and still sailing today, is the Queen of New Westminster. The vacant land where the Dallas Hotel had stood became a parking lot for VMD employees.
VMD's final project was construction of a huge offshore oil rig. On its completion in 1967, with the order book empty, the Shoal Point shipyard was closed. VMD remained only in the Inner Harbour.
The Immigration building closed its doors in 1958. After standing vacant for twenty years, the building was finally demolished and its bricks reclaimed in 1978.
When VMD left its Shoal Point property the land was purchased by the Government of Canada. Construction of a Regional Operations Centre, Pacific Region, by the Canadian Coast Guard was soon underway. The base at 25 Huron Street now looks after the Pacific Region Fleet, ensuring optimum use of available resources for best program delivery, as well as during "emergency situations". The fleet includes seven ships, seven cutters, six helicopters, one airplane and ten Coast Guard station boats working various locations along the West Coast of British Columbia.
What was vacant land across Dallas Road from the old VMD site changed in 2007. That year The Break Water, 50 Dallas Road, was constructed on the land where the Immigration Hospital and the Dallas Hotel had once been. In this condominium, 19 units of three-level brownstone homes are situated on one of Victoria's most scenic streets. These large 177 m2 (1900 sq. ft.) town houses, with private front yards and seaside location, are among the most desirable in Victoria.
From being a stepping-off point for international ocean travel by people from Vancouver Island, the transfer point for imports and exports from the same area and a shipbuilding industry in the middle decades of the 20th Century, Shoal Point has become a headquarters for marine safety on our coast. Across Dallas Road today are found quality residences, amongst the finest in the city.
Victoria Harbour History, "Geology," 2017; Greater Victoria Harbour Authority, "History: History of Victoria Harbour," 2015; Wikipedia, "Robert Paterson Rithet," 2017; Wikipedia, "Scottish Enlightment," 2018; Victoria City Directory, Fourth Edition, 1871; BC Archives, Item D-01658 - Interior of Rithet's Pier No. 2, Outer Docks, Victoria, 1930; James Bay Beacon, "Then and Now - Rithet's Piers,"Ted Ross, November 2015; Victoria Harbour History, "Rithet Piers: A Big Idea Benifits All," 2017; pier21.ca, "Facilities at Victoria, BC/Pier 21: The Immigration Hospital," 2018; The Story of the B.C. Electric Railway Company, Henry Ewert, 1986; Wikipedia, "Victoria Machinery Depot," 2017; rarehistoricalphotos.com, "Building Liberty Ships for the War Effort, 1941," 2017; archivesvictoria, "New Ferry Queen of Victoria at Victoria Machinery Depot," 1961; Victoria Times, "The City We Live In: Extension of the Outer Wharf," January 2, 1890; Victoria Harbour History, "Victoria Machinery Depot (VMD)," 2017; Victoria Times-Colonist, "Our Past: Victoria Machinery Depot showed off Island's manufacturing prowess," Dave Obee, January 6, 2006; Government of Canada, Canadian Coast Guard, "Regional Operations Centre (ROC)," 2017; Victoria Real Estate, "The Break Water: 50 Dallas Road," 2018; City of Victoria, "Victoria Harbour Plan," 2001 rev 2012.