A Little Town and a Little Girl

Grown Up

Victoria’s top grandness was the Driard Hotel; all important visitors stayed at the Driard. To sit in crimson plush armchairs in enormous front windows and gaze rigid and blank at the dull walls of the opposite side of View Street so close to the Driard Hotel that they squinted the gazer’s eyes, to be stared at by Victoria’s inhabitants as they squeezed up and down narrow View Street which had no view at all, was surely worth a visit to the capital city.

The Driard was a brick building with big doors that swung and squeaked. It was red inside and out. It had soft red carpets, sofas and chairs upholstered in red plush and rep curtains, red also. All its red softness sopped up and hugged noises and smells. Its whole inside was a jumble of stuffiness which pushed itself into your face as you opened the outer door, licking the outside freshness off you greedily, making a dash for the open. But the Driard door squawked and slammed to before the stuffiness could escape and hit back smotheringly onto you. When you came out of the hotel you were so soaked with its heaviness you might have been a Driard sofa. Even the hotel bus had the Driard odor, although it did not actually live inside the hotel. It was a long, jolty two-horse bus with “Driard” painted on both its sides and a man shouting “Driard” from the back step. Stow-away Driard smells hid in the cushions of the bus and drove to the wharf ready to pounce on visitors.

The Driard visitors came mostly from San Francisco; Vancouver and the Sound cities were too busy growing to waste time on visiting.

Victoria and Vancouver were always rivals and made jealous faces at one another. Vancouver had a finer harbour and grew faster; she was the easier to reach, being the end of the rail. Victoria had the Queen’s name, was the capital of British Columbia and had the Esquimalt Naval Station.

When the East and West were linked by the Canadian Pacific Railway, Vancouver said, “Ha! I am the end of the rail; nobody will now bother about that little Victoria town on her island. Settlers and visitors will get off the train and stay here with me.”

So she built factories, lumber mills, wharves and swelled herself furiously; but no matter how she swelled she could not help Victoria’s being the capital of British Columbia or having the Naval Station. The navy men’s wives came from England direct to Victoria to live while their husbands’ ships were stationed at Esquimalt a mile or so out of the city.

Victoria kept in closer touch with England. She got more and more “Old Country”; Vancouver got more and more new-world. Vancouver coveted Victoria’s gentility; Victoria coveted Vancouver’s business.

These two cities made Canada’s West, her far Pacific edge which lured pioneers on and on till they came to the rim of the ocean, earth bent to the world’s roundness—land and water circling the West back to the East again.

Pioneers slid across Canada’s vastness on the C.P.R. trains and were so comfortable in doing it that they did not get off till they had to. Often the first Canadian land their feet touched was British Columbia. The stark West snarled a little when they touched her first but she was really nearer to England in her ways and feelings than the East was, although the West was some four thousand miles farther away in space. By and by the English forgave the West her uncouth vastness and the West forgave them their narrow littleness.

The C.P.R. watched the West grow. She saw Victoria’s squatty little old red brick Parliament Buildings give place to magnificent stone structures—domes, copper roofs—everything befitting a Capital City. Facing the Parliament Buildings across James’ Bay arose a sedate stone and cement Post Office. Little old knock-kneed wooden James’ Bay bridge still straddled the mud flats between the two. The C.P.R. pillowed their heads upon the mud flats and dreamed a dream. First they tore down the old wooden bridge and built in its place a wide concrete causeway, damming the Bay waters back from the flats. The sea was furious and dashed, but the concrete wall hurled it back. Smells got frantic and stank to high Heaven until engineers came and drained the seepage slough.

Pendray’s soap works and Kanaka Row could not endure life without smells,—so they just faded out of existence. The soap-fat refuse from the soap works stopped playing glorious iridescent colours across the mud when the sun shone. No tide came in to sweep away Kanaka Row’s refuse: their back doors were heaped round with it and were disgusting. The yellow clay of the mud flats parched and cracked. The marsh grass, through which the Indian canoes had slithered so caressingly, turned harsh and brittle.

The City bartered with the Songhees Indians giving them money and a new reserve at Esquimalt in exchange for their fine harbour properties, which the City wanted for industrial purposes. All around Victoria’s little harbour there was change. Even our dumpy little concept of Queen Victoria, drawn from the Illustrated London News changed when a swarthy stone amazon rose on a pedestal in front of the Parliament Buildings. Except for the crown and sceptre we would never have recognized this as our civic godmother.

While these changes were wrecking Victoria’s calm, the C.P.R. were still dreaming their mud-flat dream and architects were making blue prints of it. To be private and undisturbed during their dreaming they built a huge hoarding the entire length of the causeway shutting the dream into the mud. A citizen’s eye was applied to every knot-hole in the hoarding but they could make neither head nor tail of what was going on. The pile-driver gawked over the top of the hoarding. Thud, thud, thud! Her fearful weight obeyed the squeaky little whistle of her engine, driving mighty logs, each one a complete tree-bole, end down into the mud. There they stood shoulder to shoulder, a headless wooden army tramping the old mud-smells clean through to China. When the flats were a solid wooden pack the harbour bottom was dredged and the liquid mud pumped in between the standing logs. Thousands of men wheeled millions of barrowloads of earth and rocks for hundreds of weeks—dumping, dumping till solid ground was made on which the C.P.R. could found their dream.

The dream took shape in reality. The hoarding came down at last and there stood the beautiful Empress Hotel. It never looked crude and new because, while the back was building, the finished front was already given over to creepers and shrubs, and gardens were set the moment workmen’s feet had stopped trampling. Beautiful conservatories sat right on top of where the city garbage dump had once been. Under their glass roofs bloomed rare flowers from all parts of the world, but none were more sweet, more lovely than the little wild briar roses that had so graciously soothed our noses over the old mud-flat smells.

The Driard Hotel could not blush herself any redder than she already was when confronted by her rival so she withered entirely away. No visitors wanted to sit enthroned on red plush, to stare at brick two feet from their noses when they could sit behind plate glass and look out over Victoria’s lovely little harbour. Beautiful steamers snuggled up to the wharf, almost to the very door of the Hotel. From London dock to Empress Hotel door was one uninterrupted slither of easy travel.

Victoria ceased to be an English naval station: Canada navied herself. Esquimalt Harbour now had a huge dry-dock and a cannery. A few Indian dugout canoes stole in and out to the new reservation but most of the Indians now came and went in their new gas fishing-boats.

Victoria knew a little boom—a little bustle—but it was not her nature to boom and bustle; she slumped, settling to slow easy development—reticent, calm, deliberate.

These enormous happenings—the building of the Parliament Buildings, Empress Hotel and Causeway, the establishing of a first class boat service between the Island and the mainland stirred the heart of Victoria and sent lesser happenings quivering through her outskirts.

The narrow, three-mile strip of warm, inland sea opening out of the harbour and called the Gorge because of a narrow pass half-way up its course, one of Victoria’s beauty spots where her people had bathed, and where regattas had been held on the Queen’s birthday, became infested with booms of logs and saw-mills. Bathers protested. They did not like sawdusty skins after bathing in the Gorge waters so went to the swimming tanks in the Y.M.C.A. and in the Crystal Pool of the new Empress Hotel. The Gorge that had once been so fine a residential district went unfashionable. The beautiful homes on its banks sold for a mere song. Canoes and row-boats ceased carrying pleasure parties up its protected waters to picnic. The fleet of sailing schooners still stuck to their winter quarters just below the Point Ellice bridge, where the harbour ended and the Gorge began, coming back to its safeness every winter like homing birds. A hideous railway bridge now spanned the Harbour and carried trains from “up-island” into the city. Spanning the upper harbour this bridge hoisted a section of itself for the sealers to pass under and then shut them safe in shelter.

Cedar Hill lying to the north of the town went “snooty”; elevating her name to Mount Douglas, she became a Public Park, smug with tameness. Little Saanich Mountain hatted her crown with an observatory the white dome of which looked for all the world like an inverted white pudding basin.

Because there was no more English Navy stationed at Esquimalt there were no more navy balls and no sham battles between the soldiers and sailors on Beacon Hill. There were no more road-house saloons with lovely flower-boxes and cages of wild animals and horses’ drinking troughs—there were no more driving horses. Automobiles purred over oiled and paved highways and there was no dust to make people and horses thirsty.

From the top of Church Hill the Cathedral stepped one block back. Instead of dominating the city she now dominated the old Quadra Street cemetery long since replaced by the new Ross Bay burying ground. Brambles no longer overran the dead Pioneers. Victoria’s early settlers slept tidily under well mown lawns. The old headstones and name-boards had been huddled into a corner, glowering morosely from their pale names, resenting the nakedness of being without the clinging vines and the riot of undergrowth that had protected their dead and themselves. On benches the public sat on top of the dead. Children scampered over them—jangle of the new cathedral bells quivered the dead’s stillness.

James’ Bay is James’ Bay still. The smart forsook her long ago. First they moved to Upper Fort Street, then to Rockland Avenue, then on to Oak Bay, finally to the Uplands where they could not keep a cow or hang out a wash or have too many children. The entire shoreline of greater Victoria is now spread with beautiful homes.

Victoria’s inner land being higher than her shore, every aspect is lovely, North, South, East and West—blue sea, purple hills, snow-capped Olympic mountains bounding her southern horizon, little bays and beaches heaped with storm-tossed drift, pine trees everywhere, oak and maple in plenty.

So stands tranquil Victoria in her Island setting—Western as West can be before earth’s gentle rounding pulls West east again.


Icon for the Public Domain license

This work (The Book of Small by Emily Carr) is free of known copyright restrictions.