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, March 18, 2010

The Sands of Time

“I’m quite emotional about this place,” Eric McMorran, 84, says over a bowl of clam chowder (the best in Victoria) in the restaurant at McMorran’s Beach House, a business that’s been in his family since 1919, and will close forever this Easter weekend. “I grew up here, and I would like to see it go on. But that’s not up to me.”

It’s hard to imagine Cordova Bay without the McMorrans. Eric’s father, George McMorran, arrived here from Ontario in 1890, when his family took a job managing the Rithet farm (now the Broadmead district), and they spent their summers camping down on the sands of the vast bay, crossing paths with a few Songhees natives hunting for deer and digging for clams. (A shell midden near today’s Agate Park marks the site of a Songhees village dating back 1,000 years.)

That idyllic scene began to change in the late 1890s, when the British Columbia government paid a farmer $60 to clear a roadway from Cedar Hill Road around the north side of Mount Douglas, creating today’s Cordova Bay Road. The newly accessible bay started to become popular with city dwellers travelling by stagecoach and bicycle, and by 1902 the Colonist was calling Cordova Bay “Victoria’s Brighton Beach”, populated by hundreds of summertime campers, playing baseball and lacrosse on the sand, and gathering for nightly singalongs around bonfires.

To capitalize on the traffic, George and his friend Fred Dougall subdivided some land near the beach in 1909, naming Doumac Avenue after their real-estate company. The McMorrans built an official campsite on Agate Lane in 1910. Thanks to the growing popularity of automobiles – the car-dealing Plimley family had property at Cordova Bay too – and the opening of a nearby station for the Canadian Northern Pacific Railway, which ran from the city to Sidney and Patricia Bay along today’s Lochside Trail, the campground was always full.

George served as a gunner during World War I, and when he returned, the real-estate business was flat. Taking a friend’s suggestion, he opened a shop to sell ice cream and cigars to beachgoers. He rented a waterfront lot for $5, and erected a 6 x 12 building in four days, opening it on May 24, 1919. On his first day, he did $4.65 in sales.

McMorran’s tea room became the hub of Cordova Bay. In 1926, George added a post office. A few years later, he had the neighbourhood’s first telephone, and pressed his sons into service, delivering messages for customers. In 1928, he built a motor court across the street, renting out cabins for $50 for the summer.

By the 1920s, as many as 10,000 people would come to Cordova Bay to watch the diving contests and hydroplane races of the summer regattas (photo right) that George helped organize. But his greatest ongoing success came from hosting dances. In 1922, he started hiring live bands to play on his terrace. In 1927, he added a ballroom, packing in the crowds several nights a week. Booze helped, too: B.C. prohibited alcohol in venues with live music, but everyone knew you could BYOB at McMorran’s, if you were discreet.

After World War II, Eric and his brother Bruce started running McMorran’s. The consummate host, Eric wore a tuxedo, and greeted every one of his guests at the door. He had a special sprung floor built for the ballroom, with intersecting maple planks so the dancers could spin with the grain of the wood. (“Even today, I insist that anyone coming from the beach wipe their shoes so they don’t grind up that floor,” Eric says.) McMorran’s on a Saturday night was the most romantic spot in town, especially when they’d turn off the house lights, and let moonlight flood the dance floor.

Cordova Bay was changing, though. During WWII, military servicemen started renting cottages on the bay year-round – their children had school classes in McMorran’s ballroom – creating a permanent community, and limiting the space for summer visitors. (The war came close in other ways, too. In 1942, a plane from the Pat Bay air station accidentally dropped five practice bombs on Cordova Bay, and one ended up in the kitchen of a house three doors south of McMorran’s.) After the war, road crews completed Claremont Avenue, connecting Cordova Bay directly to the highway, and it became just another suburb.

McMorran’s dance nights remained popular for decades. But as entertainments multiplied and the population aged, the dances couldn’t sustain the business. In 1994, Eric’s son Wallace returned from 20 years managing Canadian Pacific hotels, and the family poured a fortune into seismically upgrading the building and adding the Charters restaurant. Cordova Bay was no longer an exotic, must-visit destination, however, and the surrounding suburbs didn’t provide many regular customers. Last fall, Wallace decided to put the property up for sale.

“Things change, but whatever happens to it, we hope that it continues to contribute to the village of Cordova Bay,” says Wallace. In commemoration of all they have contributed already, on Saturday, April 3, the McMorrans will hold one last open house. Vintage cars will fill the parking lot, a swing band will play in the ballroom, and Eric McMorran will be there, to greet visitors for one last spin on that maple dance floor.

(Thanks to the Saanich Archives for use of the above photos.)

PS Many tourists passed through Cordova Bay in the 1960s and '70s to see Fable Cottage, an oddball house a few blocks north of McMorran’s. Bernie and “Billie” Rogers designed and built the house themselves, intending to use it as their private residence, but they were so plagued by uninvited visitors that they decided to fill the grounds with kitschy animatronic gnomes and sell tickets. Fable Cottage closed in 1992, and was barged to Denman Island the following year. What does it look like today? Check out this A-News report from December 2008:

UPDATE (March 11, 2011): The McMorran’s building will be revived this summer as the Beach House. Read the news here.


At 10:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for this, Ross. I guess it's a sign of incipient aging when the phrase that comes to mind is, "end of an era..." My parents danced at McMorran's in the fifties. I went there for lunch-breaks in the early 1970s when I was a student at Claremont Secondary up on the hill above Cordova Bay. And my daughter, who lived for a time just along the beach from McMorran's went there for a few special meals with my parents. A pleasure to read your piece.
Theresa Kishkan

At 1:50 PM, Anonymous Sayward Hill said...

Thank you so much for this lovely story. It's so great to hear about the history of our local community at Cordova Bay. We will miss our close neighbours, McMorran's, as many of our golfers, condo owners, residents and tenants frequent this place of local heritage. I have recently added you to our Sayward Hill Blog and look forward to our future Blogs and Comments - Ingrid Jarisz, Sayward Hill, Jawl Dev. Corp.

At 1:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a brilliant little piece of local history. McMorran's is not a part of "my" Victoria, which is pretty limited, admittedly. The dude who trucked the Fable Cottage to Denman Island is something I understand completely, however...

At 10:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for this re the Fable Cottage. My uncle, Brock Robertson, put the original roof on it.

And, as for McMorran's, my family once owned it as "The Little Arctic," and I have photos with the name atop the building. I'm not sure if this was prior to McMorran's purchasing it, but it would have been in the early 1920s, as far as I can tell from the photos I have.


At 10:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just found this story, and I love it. Thank you so much for this. I am sad to see it go being a McMorran is very important to me and its allways nice to read about my family history. And reading about my dad`s grandfather and all the things that they have done. And I loved seeing all the old photos, I was deffinitly given some old menus from my grandfather :)

Chelsea McMorran


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