History hunting in Victoria

I arrived in Victoria on Sunday afternoon and took off my Yukon jacket under the warm sun. The air was redolent with the thick perfume from the blossoms and the scent of the sea air as I set out on a walk through this most charming of Canadian cities.

I arrived in Victoria on Sunday afternoon and took off my Yukon jacket under the warm sun. The air was redolent with the thick perfume from the blossoms and the scent of the sea air as I set out on a walk through this most charming of Canadian cities.

The streets were crowded with tourists from every corner of the planet; the shop doors in the downtown shopping section were open wide to lure visitors in for a look. Walking around the inner harbour, I admired several imposing buildings including the B.C. legislature, the Empress Hotel, the Crystal Garden and the old CPR Steamship Terminal.

All these buildings were designed by architect Francis Rattenbury, whose Yukon connection includes a joint venture with Pat Burns of Calgary, to bring a herd of cattle to the hungry gold rush miners, and the construction of a small fleet of Yukon River steamers – the Ora, the Nora and the Flora.

I am here not to enjoy a seductive preview of spring in Lotus Land, but to ferret out more Yukon history. One of the collections that I am here to explore is that of the Sisters of St. Ann. This order of nuns played an important role in Yukon history, particularly in Dawson City, where for 65 years, they operated a hospital, as well as a school and a home for aging miners who remained in the Yukon after the gold rush subsided.

Another target of my investigation is the British Columbia Archives, which houses some Yukon material, including, I hope, more material about Yukon politician George Black.

George Black convinced 225 fellow Yukoners in 1916 to volunteer for service in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. He was commissioned as an officer with the rank of captain – and, along with his comrades, headed for France, where they distinguished themselves on the battlefields. Every officer from the Yukon is said to have been decorated for bravery, although the only medal Black himself received was a piece of German shrapnel in the early hours of the battle of Amiens.

That, of course, did not happen until Black reached the theatre of combat, more than a year after his arrival in Victoria. My quest is specifically to find the vestiges of his stay in the capital city. His wife, Martha, was a constant and steady companion during the war years, and accompanied him to Victoria and then England, where, while George was stationed in the trenches of France, she tended to the wounded and homesick Yukon soldiers who passed through London.

The party of volunteers left Dawson City with much fanfare aboard the Casca on October 9, 1916. Black and 120 men arrived in Victoria aboard the Prince Rupert the evening of October 16 and were whisked away to the Dominion Hotel for the evening and then into temporary quarters in the old drill hall on Menzies Street the following day. They later joined the rest of the volunteers at the Willows Camp in Oak Bay, an area that is today occupied by housing, but at the time consisted of neat rows of conical tents arranged on the open space of a race track. There, they received their medical examinations and began their basic training.

Upon arriving in Victoria, George spoke to the press about the productivity and opportunities found in the Yukon. Martha joined in this campaign of public education by speaking to the Women’s Canadian Club, where she told the ladies present that the Yukon had contributed $165,000 to the patriotic fund since the beginning of the war, and sent 500 volunteers to fight in Europe. These were numbers that, on a per capita basis, could not be equalled anywhere else in Canada.

Martha remained at the Angela Hotel while George bivouacked with his men at Willows Camp until January 16, when the Yukon Infantry Company marched down to the waterfront and boarded a boat. Thus began a long journey to France, from which 65 Yukoners never returned. George and Martha both served the nation and the Yukon well during the year that remained of the Great War.

The collections of both the Sister of St. Ann Archives and the Royal British Columbia Archives have started to yield their mysteries to me. The photograph collections have already revealed to me that populated areas of modern-day Victoria were then just open parklands. Military exercises were conducted in a treeless Beacon Hill Park. Men were camped on an open field now filled with streets and avenues of houses.

Did George get to visit Martha very often while posted at Willows Camp? Did he stay with her? What did the men do while stationed in Victoria? Did they drill and march, or were they trained in other skills of war? There are so many questions to answer, and so little time here to find them. For me, the frustration will be leaving Victoria without having answered all of the questions for which I seek answers.

History hunting is also about talking – to archivists and historians. Those conversations will produce information and provide answers to questions that I hadn’t even thought of asking. I always try to think laterally while doing research because I never know where the basis of another historical person, place or event will suddenly emerge.

Take as an example, George Clark. Clark was a Klondike miner who remained after the gold rush. It is said that for 40 years he manoeuvred around his claim and in Dawson City on his hands and knees. No one can be certain what medical affliction caused this problem – possibly inner ear difficulties. It would be a challenge to deal with this in any big city, but to do this on a claim on Bonanza Creek, on his own, is nothing short of remarkable. The Sisters’ collection revealed a photograph of this hardy northerner.

I scanned finding aids and identified material to be copied. To try to read all of these documents during my short stay in Victoria would be a waste of precious time. But that is something to look forward to: what other remarkable secrets of history will I discover when, upon returning to Whitehorse, I read all of the material I have had copied and mailed home?

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is now available in stores. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net