If you think land and house prices are at runaway record levels, you should have been around for the gold rush in 1858.
Recent percentage increases in property values have brought understandable laments from young wage earners that property values are now so high only young couples with rich and kindly parents can afford to buy even a modest starter house. That’s more or less what young couples were saying in Victoria in 1862 when property values skyrocketed an average 75 per cent in nine months – with even higher peaks to follow.
It all started in April 1858 when the good ship Commodore unloaded the first wave of Fraser River gold seekers at the docks on Wharf Street. In March, you could have bought an acre of raw land for one English pound (around five dollars). By the end of May, the same acre was selling for about 100 pounds – if you closed the deal quickly. A year later, “a lot 20 to 30 feet in breadth and 60 feet in length could be rented for one hundred pounds a month” and “a half lot bought pre-boom for five pounds sold for 600 pounds” a few weeks later.
The dollar and the decimal replaced the pound in 1862 – but the change did nothing to relieve depressed newlyweds or soon-to-be-weds aspiring to home ownership.
The gold seekers were transients, content to pitch tents wherever they could while waiting for the next ship to leave for the Fraser gold fields.
Victoria, the capital of the Colony of Vancouver Island, was, at the time, the only Canadian port of entry. To get to the Fraser gold fields you disembarked in Victoria then waited for a boat to get to the mainland and the Fraser goldfields, and later, the Cariboo, Barkerville, and the big one – the Yukon.
Victoria was their lone base supplier – their service industry centre – and that pushed development and land costs ever higher.
In 1858-59, the “the harbour shoreline was a sea of tents” and shanties erected on property rented for exorbitant prices – often by here-today-gone-tomorrow squatters. Three years later, in 1861-62, streets once knee-deep in mud on rainy days were paved, and sidewalks were in place. The “city” was boasting 56 brick buildings, warehouses to hold supplies, a hospital, a theatre – and a reading room.
And the young people fretted home ownership was forever beyond their grasp.
Before the gold seekers, Fort Victoria had been a busy but bucolic administrative centre for the Hudson’s Bay Company, the company that built the original fort and stockade to keep its servants and settlers safe from “the savages.” Ironically, it was these “savages,” the local Songhees, who led the fort builders to “the hill of cedars” – today’s Mount Douglas and Cedar Hill district. It was the Songhees who “harvested lengthy cedar planks from its forests to construct (the) palisades around Fort Victoria.”
Early descriptions tell us the fort was “a square enclosure, stockaded with poles about 20 feet high and eight to 10 inches in diameter, placed close together and secured with a cross-piece of nearly equal size. At the traverse corner of the square, there are strong octagonal towers mounted with four nine-pounder guns flanking each side so that an attack by savages would be out of the question …”
Ah, yes, the “savage” Songhees who helped build the fort to protect the white invaders from their “savagery.” One record states: “… Only one brush has the Company had with the Indians, but it ended in a day or two; the gates of the fort having been closed, a nine pounder fired several times to show what could be done – and judicious and conciliatory advances made to the chief. The peaceable intercourse – from which sprang blankets, hatchets, knives, fishhooks and harpoons – was speedily re-established.”
But even when cooperative, the Songhees remained a problem for white settlers anxious to save the natives from their ancient culture, their traditional language, their laws and their religion.
Not a major problem the white leaders reported; just “a great inconvenience rising from the existence of the Songhees Indian reservation in such close proximity to Victoria.” An inconvenience exacerbated by “northern Indians … in the habit of visiting Victoria and remaining for months at a time on this reserve, bartering for their furs, obtaining liquor, and seeing the sights of the capital. The ill effects of these conditions and their latent danger could not be concealed.”
Not at all considerate, those early Songhees, inconveniently hanging around what they had called home for a thousand years or more. And on top of that, they made welcome their cousins from the north (anywhere beyond the Saanich Peninsula was north) when they came to trade and spend at the fort, and gawk like country cousins at the high palisades built to protect the white folk.
They didn’t get any bargains from “the company” which, the press reported, offered “all the multifarious products of Sheffield, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds … at exorbitant prices … there being no competition, (the Hudson Bay) company has it all its own way.” And not just with the natives.
Its employees were also held in thrall, “receiving little pay” and forced to buy all life’s needs from the company store. They were “usually in debt to the company and therefore in its power.” But, as one observer cheerfully noted: “The work is hard, but with health and strength this is a blessing rather than otherwise.”
Yes, indeed, hard work unless, as Royal Navy Lieut. Mayne wrote in a letter to a friend in 1857, you were an officer and a gentleman and found Victoria a “very pleasant and society, as it is generally in a young colony, frank and agreeable … the half-dozen houses (outside the fort) that made up the town were open to us.
“In fine weather, riding parties … were formed, and we returned generally to high tea or a tea-dinner at Mr. Douglas’ or Mr. Work’s, winding up a pleasant evening with dance and song. We thought nothing of starting off to Victoria in sea boots, carrying others in our pockets, just to enjoy a pleasant evening by a good log fire. And, we cared as little for the weary tramp home to Esquimalt in the dark, although it happened sometimes that men lost their way and had to sleep in the bush all night.”
The fort vanished, as did “the company’s” stranglehold on rates of pay and living standards. And the young people survived, triumphed, bought houses, raised families, built cities, a province and a nation.
Today’s young couples, tomorrow’s pioneers, will do the same – or better.