Stonemason discovers secret room in 150-year-old rock wall on Wharf Street

A Victoria stonemason repairing a 150-year-old rock wall got an unexpected peek into Victoria’s past on Wednesday.

James Johnson, owner of Innovative Structural Preservation Ltd., was hired by the Provincial Capital Commission to shore up a rock wall between Wharf Street and a lower parking lot near the intersection with Fort Street.

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“We’re doing some repairs to the buttresses that help hold up the wall and we’re capping them to keep water from getting inside,” Johnson said Thursday.

Johnson’s crew noticed a hole about five metres up the wall, where the mortar had deteriorated.

“My guy put his [metal] measuring tape in there, and it kept going and going,” Johnson said.

The tape collapsed under its weight, but still didn’t hit anything, he said.

“We got a flashlight, and I said, ‘I see a wall in there,’ ” said Johnson, guessing it was 2.5 metres away.

They rigged a flashlight on the end of a long level and illuminated the space so they could take some photos.

The gap appears to be a corridor under Wharf Street, with rock walls on each side and a concrete ceiling with rusting steel reinforcements, Johnson said. There was rubble on the floor, along with bricks and sticks. It is not clear if the space was a room or passageway that had been sealed off.

“We love finding cool things, and this has to be one of the coolest things we’ve found,” he said.

The area was once home to a Hudson’s Bay store warehouse built about 1860, leading to speculation that two parallel walls may have been part of it.

Bruce Tanner, heritage resource officer for the Provincial Capital Commission, didn’t know the chamber existed. “It looks like a secret chamber of the pirates of the Caribbean,” he said. The space below the current sidewalk is hollow but the hidden spot may once have been the sidewalk, said Rick Crosby, CEO of the Provincial Capital Commission, which is responsible for the wall.

“Obviously, there was a retaining wall with a cobblestone street,” Crosby said. “Wharf Street has been built up over the years to its current grade level.”

He said the discovery shows “part of Victoria’s architectural history is hidden below the sidewalk.”

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