Fort Victoria Well

Early 1900's sailing ship in a bottle

A Sailing ship in a bottle, from early 1900’s

Fort Victoria had a number of places from which they could get the water they needed for the new post. However, the first summer they were there was a summer of drought, and the original well went dry almost immediately. So, let’s tell the story of the Fort Victoria well.

Chief Factor James Douglas arrived at the new site of Fort Victoria in March, 1843, and the first thing he had done was to have his men dig a well for the fort. “Put six men to build a well,” he wrote in his journal, “and 6 others to square building timber.” By Saturday March 18, he wrote that “the well is now about 11 feet deep,” but he does not mention whether water is appearing in it. This well still exists, by the way, and it is found inside a building on Wharf Street, as you will see in this article: http://focusonvictoria.ca/victoria-mapping-project/ history/wharf-street-water-well/

But this first well did go dry as summer proceeded. In September, 1843, the HBC ship, Cadboro, arrived at Fort Albert (that is the temporary name that the HBC men of this time gave to Fort Victoria.) Interestingly, although the summer had been dry there seemed to be no problem with the Cadboro’s getting water at the fort, until September. When they came this time, however, they arrived in the middle of “thick rainy weather,” but discovered, to their dismay, that there was “No water to be got all about here. We shall have to get the Fort cart to supply us.”

On September 23, the captain “Dispatched Joly with the carpenter and crew to Grace’s Run, for Fresh water, at 8.30 A.M. The Boat returned and Reported that Grace’s Run was dry. Mr. Charles Ross, the Gentleman in charge of Fort Albert, Sent his water cart to fetch a supply of water for the vessel, say two Puncheons, which was bad, being swamp water.” Clearly at this time the Fort Victoria men were collecting water from the swampland along an almost dried stream bed that ran from the intersection of modern-day Cook and Vancouver, down Yates Street, and eventually out of the ravine that is beneath today’s Market Square — which would have been to the north of Fort Victoria itself and likely somewhere where the Songhees village stood in 1843. As the Captain of the Cadboro wrote: “We finished taking it on board after sun down, the Watering place being about two miles from the fort to the N.E. At 4 PM unmoored and hove short. Sunset calm.”

I do not know where Grace’s Run was, but it also sounds like a creek of some sort that may have run into the harbour or the Arm to the north of Fort Victoria. I know that a stream flowed into the part of the mud-filled harbour that they called James Bay, and that it still exists underneath the Empress Hotel (I’ve seen it) — I suppose that might have been Grace’s Run. I will probably be taking a look at early maps of Victoria, to see if I can find the place.

So we go back to Fort Victoria and its trouble with finding water enough for the men to drink and cook their food. Good clean water was definitely in short supply at Fort Victoria, and it would have been a priority — no HBC fort can exist for long without a good water supply. Fortunately Thomas Lowe, who had helped the build the fort before he was transferred down to Fort Vancouver, wrote in his “Private Journal Kept at Fort Vancouver, Columbia River,” on Friday, September 20, 1844, that

Mr. Roderick Finlayson, who is in charge of Fort Victoria, has succeeded in procuring a good supply of water from the well there. 

This new supply of water was discovered, seemingly in spring or summer of 1844, on what the HBC men now called “Spring Ridge,” in the modern-day community of Fernwood, north east of Fort Victoria and on the ridge that stood above the swamplands where the first employees collected water in 1843. The spring — for it is a spring and not a well, as such — flowed from gravel deposits, or I suppose, aquifers, left behind from the last ice age, and Spring Ridge, or Fountain Ridge, was an area rich with natural springs. The HBC men likely built a well in which to collect the water that flowed from the springs, and the water was then delivered to the fort by bucket, or as you can see above, by water cart (which might in fact be little more than a cart that carried buckets and barrels of water down the hill to the fort).

And so, in 1844 (and not before), Fort Victoria had a reliable supply of drinking water for their own use. As far as I can see, there was no awareness of this spring-water supply before summer 1844, and James Douglas does not seem to have been aware of the springs when he first came to establish Fort Victoria. Nor did Charles Ross appear to be aware of the springs: otherwise he would have delivered spring water to the Cadboro, instead of gathering muddy water from the swampland below (and south of) Spring Ridge.

In later years, some of the new colonists tried to claim the well for themselves, and to charge the residents of Victoria for the water that had always belonged to them. This did not go down well: the neighbours pulled down the fences the new settler had built around the well, and he took them to court, and lost. The springs remained public property: the colonists built water pipes that delivered the spring water down to what was now the growing town of Victoria. And in August 1866, Governor James Douglas ensured that the water well on Spring Ridge remained in the public realm; when the Company surrendered its land, it surrendered all except for “one well set apart and appropriated to public use.” For the next thirty years or so, this well served to supply water to all the residents of Victoria who did not have their own well.

And then the well was forgotten. Lost. In the 1870s the city began to bring in their water supply from Beaver Lake, and much of the HBC men’s Spring Ridge was turned into a quarry.

As it happens, I learned about Spring Ridge some years ago, as Bill Goers, who re-activated the history of the wells, also built my orthotics. I didn’t think I’d write about it (but here I am), and here is that story.

Bill Goers arrived in Victoria in 1979, and while talking over a fence with a neighbour learned that Fernwood’s Spring Ridge had once been the main water source for Victoria. This story piqued his curiosity. He learned that the water well that was built over the springs was a gathering place for the first settlers who lived on Spring Ridge. Then, twenty years later, a friend of his was doing research in the Uvic Law Library, and found evidence of the 1866 land conveyance that set the wells on Spring Ridge aside, dedicated forever to the residents of Victoria. Goers continued his research, and discovered that historical maps placed the well just north of William Stevenson Park, and near to the Fernwood Community Centre. He gathered together some members of the Fernwood community, along with local dowser Ron Welch, and started planning. Welch dowsed the neighbourhood and found water in a corner of William Stevenson Park — and the Fernwood Community Well project was born! The group obtained grants, and worked with Victoria’s Parks Department to gain permission to drill a shallow well 25 feet deep. They hit water immediately, and a few years later drilled a deeper well of 150 feet. The well-dedication took place in October 2008. 

However, the water in the well is iron-rich, and because of the minerals, the well remains locked, for liability reasons — “Officially it is not for drinking,” Goers said, although it will serve as an emergency water supply if we ever get hit by an earthquake (which is, of course, likely to happen). It has become a community meeting place once again: once a month (on the third Saturday of every month) Goers meets interested persons at the well head, and distributes water to the people who want to use it in their garden or on their tomato plants.

And if you want to read more about this story, go here: http://www.focusonvictoria.ca/focus-magazine-jan-feb-2020/drawing-from-the-well-bill-goers’-inspriration-r2/ 

UPDATE: I said I was going out in the afternoon to collect a picture of the well. I didn’t make it the first day, of course, because I had to research where William Stevenson Park was. Its not the easiest place to find, being a little out of the way — but by the time I had finished the research I learned a fair bit about the quarry and where the stone all went — it is all part of the original Empress Hotel, built, I believe, in 1905!

But I did get out on a beautiful but cold winter day, and found my way to Pembroke Street, which would lead me east to “William Stevenson Park.” I found Spring Street, to my left, and to my right was a grassy space that had no identifying name on it. I asked some people where the Fort Victoria well was, and no one knew — one told me he thought he saw a well-head “over there,” but I, of course, couldn’t see it (My eyes are definitely not as good as his, and at that point I was still looking for a well, not a well-head!) So I walked through the small absolutely-unidentified park and found the Fernwood Community Centre, which was closed, and also Vic High School — I knew I was in the right neighbourhood. 

But where is the well? No one I asked knew where it was.

After an hour or so’s walk in the neighbourhood, I found it. I had thought it was restored, and that it looked like the original well — but it isn’t, and it doesn’t. After walking around the block once again, I discovered the “well-head” that the man I had first talked to saw in the distance. There was a plaque nearby that indicated that this WAS the Fort Victoria well! But the historic old well is little more than a slab of concrete with a well-head that stands maybe a foot high — nothing worth taking a picture of for posterity, I’m afraid.

So I am afraid the ship will remain as illustration for this story.

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2022. All rights reserved.

 

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3 thoughts on “Fort Victoria Well

  1. Kees van Weel

    The quote from the captain of the Cadboro intrigued me, where he writes “Dispatched Joly with the carpenter and crew….” I believe that would be the jolly boat, one of the ship’s boats for ferrying people to and from the ship (per Wikipedia), not one of the crew members he calls out by name.

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      You may be right. There was no one named Joly at Fort Victoria at that time, according to Bruce Watson (Lives Lived West of the Divide). There was a man named Jean-Baptiste Jollibois, but he was at Fort Nisqually. This is a transcript: the original is not available to me, I think, and so it becomes whatever the transcriber says it is. But with this information, I can correct the quote if it makes it into the book. So, thank you! It is wonderful that I have so many knowledgable people following me, who can correct me or give me additional information.

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