When The Last Train To Town Was 10pm

When 90 stalwart citizens gathered at city hall on a damp February evening in 1906 to consider a proposal that Victoria, British Columbia was now ready and willing to form a branch of the burgeoning Canadian Club, it was a group in a hurry.

Not because there was any desperate need to get Victoria draped in new Canadian national finery, but because as the chairman for the evening explained as he called the meeting to order … “many in attendance had already purchased tickets for a Victoria Musical Society concert scheduled that same evening at the Victoria Theatre with famed violinist Arthur Hartman,” the featured attraction being accompanied by Adolphe Borshke on piano.

I mentioned that concert in my blog a short time ago quoting The Daily Colonist review of Hartman’s performance. It is worth repeating with the added information that the crowd of 90, having elected a club president and executive, then rushed over to the theatre to hear Mr. Hartman “playing selections from the wailing melodies of the Russian steppes and the strangely similar folk songs of the Indians (East or West not known) … all perfectly interpreted to a large audience whose enthusiasm increased with each number. The audience was held in breathless attention and accorded applause of a volume that has not been exceeded in the history of this city.”

There was a wonderful footnote to the review. It read: “Adolphe Borschke showed an almost equal command of the piano.” Yes, well, what’s the old saying about faint praise?

Tickets, by the way, were 50 cents and $1.50 – the same price as tickets for the next Victoria Theatre production of “Susan In Search of a Husband” and a week later, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” – a musical extravaganza featuring two brass bands, ponies, bloodhounds, wagons drawn by handsome Shetland ponies, beautiful electrical effects PLUS EVE AND HER GOLDEN CHARIOT (capital letters in all the adverts). And, it could all be seen for free in a street parade before the show. I searched the files but never could find an explanation of the role EVE played in helping Eliza cross the ice.

The 90 founders of Victoria Canadian Club needed all the theatre entertainment they could afford in the winter of its birth. The Daily Colonist tells us the winter of 1906-07 was “bitter” with several feet of snow and severe delivery problems. No worries over still-to-be-invented, installed, toppled hydro power poles; no natural gas pipelines to be disturbed by landslides or protests.

With homes and businesses heated by wood stoves and furnaces, Victorians had wisely stockpiled enough wood and coal to keep themselves warm – but only as long as it could be delivered.

Once the snows climbed beyond a few inches in 1906-07, delivery failed. Ice bedded beneath snow made it impossible for natural horse-power to haul coal or wood, and the internal combustion automobile with all its evils was still a virtual unknown.

Victoria survived, as does still the Canadian Club. And, theatre and arts continue to entertain – not that we haven’t lost a few valuable qualities of life with the passage of the years. But this is not a lament for the loss of “the good old days” when some citizens had to occasionally break up and burn furniture to keep the kitchen stove generating warmth.

But it is to regret that, with all the comforts we expect and demand today, we have let slip away some comforts we once treasured –

lost by bad government decisions or our own carelessness.

We can read in the newspapers of the day that in the winter of 1906-07, “Colwood and Langford Lakes were deep frozen with special trains running from Victoria to Langford to accommodate the skaters, with the last train home at 10 p.m.” (Do I hear you whisper Colwood crawl?)

The Colonist waxed lyrical: “The scene in the late afternoon was exceedingly pretty, for the sunset, visible over the tall fir trees, almost equalled any to be seen in Italy and this all with the effect caused by the glow of many campfires against the dazzling white of the snow. Every rank of life from town was represented in the happy throng.”

When the snow disappeared, the people switched to special theatre entertainments and “BC Electric ran special trams to the Japanese Tea Gardens on the Gorge and doubled the schedule for the Gorge Festival.” Of the event, the Colonist reported, “the green foliage of the pine trees was lighted by numerous festoons of electric bulbs, here and there booths gaily illuminated with Chinese lanterns at which ladies – immaculately clad in white – dispensed flowers, candies and other commodities to eager buyers while in the background played the band of the Fifth Regiment.”

I wrote about the Gardens last week and the recent decision of Esquimalt Council to consider restoration of the Japanese Gardens as a future project. I hope they do and that I live long enough to catch a BC Transit bus out there and back.

2 comments

  1. If Victoria had continued to suffer winters as you’ve described it would not have become the country’s favourite retirement destination. I understand this winter has been a bit of a corker but, supposedly, an aberration.

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