Unknown Victoria

Victoria: The Unknown City is a guidebook to an eccentric town on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. This is the author's blog. Look here for Victoria lore, updates and additions to the book, and hate mail.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Paving Paradise

There are two seasons in Canada, some say: winter, and roadwork. Since we’re enjoying the latter, it’s time to consider the history of roads – without which summer vacations, countless pop songs, and much of our contemporary economy would not exist.

Several of Victoria’s earliest roads originated as trails, cut by the Songhees natives to reach their seasonal hunting grounds. When canoeing back from the north, the Songhees sometimes landed at Cordova Bay to avoid the rough water at Ten Mile Point, and hiked past Cedar Hill (today’s Mount Douglas) along a trail to the Inner Harbour. That trail later became Cedar Hill Road. Another trail split off and ran to their village at Cadboro Bay, where they launched canoes for salmon fishing. Today, that trail is Cedar Hill X Road.

Colonial officials commissioned other early roads. Governor James Douglas requested a trail to Sooke in 1851, which became a rough version of today’s Sooke Road in the 1870s. After three sailors drowned trying to row from the Esquimalt naval base to Fort Victoria, an admiral ordered his men to cut and pave a gravel road to the fort in 1852 – thus building the first true roadway in British Columbia, now known as Old Esquimalt Road. (That’s part of it in the photo above, behind the Songhees settlement on the Inner Harbour.) In 1854, the colony commissioned a road to Craigflower farm, which provided much of Fort Victoria’s food, and that route today is Craigflower Road.

It became a challenge to finance a rapidly-expanding road system, however. In 1860, Douglas passed a law requiring landowners to donate six days of labour per year to road construction; when they howled with outrage, he imposed a property tax instead. Many Vancouver Islanders also opposed merging their colony with British Columbia in 1866 because they didn’t want to be saddled with the mainland’s huge road-building expenses – a problem Douglas solved by charging tolls on the mainland’s busiest routes.

Further pressure came from owners of the new vehicles that started appearing in town. Victorians got caught up in the cycling mania that swept North America in the 1890s, and city cycling clubs fed up with muddy streets joined a continent-wide “Good Roads” lobbying movement, which intensified after the arrival of the first automobiles in Victoria in 1899. Businessmen, doctors, and church ministers bought many of the city’s first cars – at left is a photo of a few members of the city elite, motoring in Beacon Hill Park in 1906 – and they insisted that better roads would expand the local economy.

Indeed, some sectors of the economy quickly made use of cars and improved roads. As G.W. Taylor noted in his book, The Automobile Saga of British Columbia, 1864-1914, “The real estate industry was the leading business in Victoria at this time; practically the whole male population being preoccupied in the buying and selling of land. The firms engaged in this business in Victoria totalled over two hundred and fifty, and many were possessors of automobiles.”

Sometimes the political pressure was personal, and direct. Major J.F.L. MacFarlane, fed up with the 1864-built wagon trail he had to take over the Malahat to get to his farm in Mill Bay, decided in 1903 to survey his own route through Goldstream (photo right), and then gathered Victorians’ signatures on a petition – the sheet grew over nine feet long – demanding a proper road. The provincial government, anticipating an election, agreed to build the Malahat Drive along MacFarlane’s route. When the road officially opened in 1911, he was the first to drive upon it.

By this time, the principles of road engineering had been well-established, mainly based upon the work of J.L. McAdam, a Scot who demonstrated early in the 19th century a method for building durable roads, using bits of stone jigsawed together and filled in with gravel. Such “macadamised” roads couldn’t stand up to heavy downtown traffic, however, and the city began experimenting with other surfaces. It paved Wharf Street with vitrified brick, but many complained that the noise of iron cart wheels upon the surface was unbearable. So in 1899, the city began paving with blocks of wood.

The early trials were a disaster. Even though many cities like Toronto and Vancouver already had wood-block pavements, Victoria didn’t study their work and used blocks of untreated fir that rotted away after a few years. In 1907 the city built a huge creosote plant to preserve the wood, and began paving on a massive scale. In January of 1908, labourers paved Government Street with 330,000 pieces of fir, and in April the city ordered a million more. By the end of that year, nearly all downtown streets west of Douglas and south of Herald were paved with wood blocks – including Waddington Alley (photo left), the only place in the city where you can still see them today.

What replaced them, of course, was asphalt. This sandy petroleum goo, which naturally occurs in rare asphalt lakes, was first used for paving roads in the ancient city of Babylon. At the end of the 19th century, however, inventors came up with ways to produce asphalt from oil, and it quickly became the pavement of choice – smooth, durable, and easily applied with a few men and a steamroller. In 1909, property owners voted to have Douglas Street covered with asphalt instead of wood. By 1917, the city had 89 kilometres of asphalt streets.

After World War II, asphalt conquered the planet – in the United States some 61,000 square miles of land are now under pavement, an area the size of Wisconsin. But perhaps we are beginning to recognize limits to such growth. Following the oil price shocks of the 1970s, some cities started recycling their road surfaces – in 1984, Victoria became the first town in Canada to have its own asphalt recycling plant – and since then, community groups like Portland’s Depave have sprung up, dedicated to “the removal of unnecessary concrete and asphalt.” Sometimes, all people really want is a footpath through the bush.

PS Many thanks to Janis Ringuette for providing research materials for this article, and City of Victoria streets manager Hector Furtado for answering my questions.


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