1862: a year of change

A harsh winter and a new gold rush heralded a turning point for Victoria: the city's incorporation

In August 1862, Fort Victoria had the grand title of "city" bestowed upon it, and the days of the Hudson's Bay Company's supreme reign were finally over.

It also happened to be one of the most significant years in Victoria's history for other reasons. To begin with, it was ushered in by one of the worst winters on record. On the mainland, the Fraser River froze from bank to bank and, as the ice grew thicker, cattle and carts were able to travel across it. Steamers were unable to penetrate the ice for weeks.

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South of the border, the American Civil War continued to rage, while here in Victoria, the First Nations community waged its own war against the ravages of a smallpox epidemic that ultimately wiped out about one-third of the native population of British Columbia.

Four years earlier, gold had been discovered on the Fraser, leading to a period often described as "the golden years." By 1862, things were still looking good in Victoria, as by then, British Columbia was experiencing a second gold rush - this one in the Cariboo. Fortunes were still being made, and lost, overnight.

The dreamers continued to believe that the streets of Victoria were paved with gold, and the economy flourished.

However, there were very few brick buildings in the new city and the wooden structures still had a temporary look about them. Sidewalks were also made of wood and the roads were often rivers of mud.

Wharf Street was littered with animal droppings. Beyond Wharf, Courtney, Douglas and Johnson Streets, there were few buildings at all.

In fact, the city encompassed only some 200 hectares - beyond that lay marshland and forest with an abundance of deer, grouse, pheasant and ducks roaming free.

The city still had a distinctly Wild West look about it, with numerous saloons adding to the ambience - although unlike in other western towns, there were plenty of men dressed in the uniforms of the Royal Marines or Royal Navy.

A particularly exciting event that year was the Sept. 17 arrival in Esquimalt of the SS Tynemouth, bringing a cargo of marriageable young women, previously lacking in the colony. The 62 young women had been recruited by the Female Emigration Society in London, whose goal was to increase the population by finding partners for the predominantly male colonists.

The women - some as young as 14 - were brought on the gunboat SS Forward to the Inner Harbour, where a crowd had gathered to watch the proceedings. According to a British Colonist report, most appeared to have been "well raised and generally they seem a superior lot to the women usually met with on emigrant vessels."

The year 1862 also saw the first gas lights on the streets of Victoria, along with the establishment of a public bath next to W.J. Wilson on Government Street.

The baths must have been a welcome addition. For many transients and inhabitants, it would be their first hot bath since arriving in Victoria - up to 20 years before.

One of the most important events of 1862 was the fortification of nearby Esquimalt Harbour. The Admiralty had decided that it was necessary in view of Esquimalt's importance as a naval base.

Meanwhile, a library with 160 members was opened on Government Street, near Yates Street, under the direction of Henry Heisterman. The first branch of the Bank of British Columbia also opened, with James D. Walker and his three assistants as staff members, following the incorporation of a new colonial bank in Britain in the spring.

The year is still best remembered, however, because of Victoria's incorporation as a city on Aug. 16, thanks in large part to Dr. John Sebastian Helmcken, Victoria's popular and kindly doctor, who had been prodding Governor James Douglas since 1859 to do something about an enfranchisement bill to make Victoria independent of the Hudson's Bay Company.

The bill had been sponsored by Joseph Despard Pemberton even earlier, and despite Douglas's procrastination, it finally became law in 1862.

Victoria's first mayor, Thomas Harris, was a colourful and large man, both in character and size. He weighed in at 300 pounds when elected and the mayoralty chair was said to have collapsed beneath him at the first council meeting.

The first council meetings were held in the police barracks at Bastion Square, which also contained a courtroom and a lock-up. Later, the council obtained quarters at the corner of Broad Street and Trounce Alley, but it would be another 16 years before $10,000 was borrowed to build a city hall on the west side of Douglas between Pandora and Cormorant.

The year 1862 was a year of change for Victoria. The old ways of the HBC were gone, giving way to private enterprise. Stores such as W.J. Wilson on Government Street, founded that year, were flourishing. In the Cariboo, Billy Barker had proved that some, if not all, of those dreams of fortunes being made overnight could actually come true. One of British Columbia's greatest pioneers, Simon Fraser, died that year.

Meanwhile, advertisements were appearing in the newspapers offering jobs for more than 1,000 labourers for the construction of a 500-kilometre wagon road from the Lower Fraser to the Cariboo. Camels were reportedly seen in Victoria on their way to the gold fields, and a woman was spotted on the streets wearing trousers. Change was most definitely in the air.

In its year-end report to readers, the Colonist wrote: "Everything shows a rapid and healthy growth. Everything tends to inspire confidence in the progress of the Colony."

Valerie Green is the author of more than 15 books on the history of Victoria and British Columbia, the most recent being Mysterious British Columbia: Myths, Murders, Mysteries and Legends and a newly published edition of Above Stairs: Social Life in Upper Class Victoria (1843-1918). Her latest book, to be released by Hancock House Publishers this Fall, is Vanished!: The Michael Dunahee Story.

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