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.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Past The Post?

In this era of satellites, WiFi and smartphones, it’s hard for us to imagine how people communicated over long distances 150 years ago, and yet they did. Global civilization thrived – and it was principally thanks to the postal service.

In the early days of Fort Victoria, it took an average of four months for mail from England to get here on Hudson’s Bay Company ships. But after the 1849 California gold rush, the U.S. government started sending mail to America’s west coast by routing it overland at the isthmus of Panama, then sailing it up to San Francisco and settlements on Puget Sound. The HBC began routing its mail through Olympia (today’s Washington state capital), sending bags of letters back and forth to Fort Victoria by native war canoe. Soon Victoria was busy enough that express companies like Wells Fargo had offices here, providing banking and courier services to travellers.

The mails were vital to the governance and economy of early Vancouver Island, but they weren’t always handled with care. Fort Victoria’s treasurer, Roderick Finlayson, sorted the colony’s mail in a corner of his office, prompting the legislative committee to complain in 1857 that “letters are exposed under conditions which the committee does not deem safe.” In response, governor James Douglas erected a separate cabin inside the fort, and appointed James Sangster, a former ship’s captain, as postmaster. Unfortunately for Sangster, a quiet man who liked his drink, the 1858 Fraser River gold rush flooded his office with demanding miners, and later that year he committed suicide. Several more postmasters quickly came and went, including John D’Ewes, a disgraced magistrate from Australia’s gold fields who talked his way into the Victoria job – and then disappeared with a £300 advance on his salary plus £280 in postal revenue.

Douglas found steadier men, and took greater interest in using the mails to develop his young colony. In 1862, his government created a dedicated postal service on Vancouver Island, and chartered a steamship to carry mail regularly to San Francisco. In 1865, Vancouver Island printed its own stamps, in denominations of five and 10 cents, displaying a cameo of a young Queen Victoria. Most of these stamps were destroyed after B.C. joined Confederation, and the national postal system, in 1871. But a few survived, and became collectors’ items – so valuable, in fact, that they were later duplicated by such notorious forgers as the Spiro brothers of Hamburg, and Jean de Sperati (photo left), “the Rubens of philately,” whose superb copies are now worth as much as the originals. In 2006, a single five-cent Vancouver Island stamp sold for $86,000 at an auction in New York.

Transporting mail became much easier once the Canadian Pacific Railway finished its national railroad in 1886, and established its Empress steamships to the Orient. In 1894, to reflect Victoria’s maritime importance, the federal government commissioned a handsome post office (right) at the northwest corner of Humboldt and Government streets, built of granite blocks weighing as much as four tons, and adorned with a copper roof, an interior finished in cedar and oak, and (the Colonist reported) “an elevator and all the best modern conveniences.” It opened in 1898, complementing the city’s new Parliament Buildings, and providing a grand entrance to Government Street. Sadly, the feds demolished the post office in 1956, replacing it with the drab customs and immigration offices at the corner today.

In 1952, Victoria’s main post office moved up the street to the modernist Federal Building at the southwest corner of Government and Yates, designed by Percy Leonard James, who also created the Crystal Gardens and CPR steamship terminal (today’s wax museum) with Francis Rattenbury. The feds outfitted the post office’s imposing main hall with marble counters and writing desks, and – in keeping with the Cold War paranoia of the time – installed hidden catwalks over the sorting area, so investigators could watch for mail tampering.

In Victoria’s early days, you had to queue up at the post office to collect your letters, or pay someone to hold your place in line. Household delivery didn’t begin here until 1888, with four carriers delivering mail to homes twice daily. Other services appeared: in 1919, an airplane carried mail for the first time in B.C. on a flight from Victoria to Nanaimo, and in 1920, Eddie Hubbard (at left in photo right, with William Boeing) started the first scheduled airmail route between Canada and the U.S., flying sacks of letters between Victoria’s Inner Harbour and Seattle’s Lake Union, a route that survived until 1937.

With the postwar rise in electronic communications, the demand for postal service flattened. In 1954, Victoria’s household delivery was reduced to once a day, and in 1969, the city lost Saturday delivery. After Canada Post became a Crown corporation in 1981, it began opening franchise outlets in drug stores, reducing the need for big central post offices. Victoria’s downtown post office moved to its current location on Yates in 1991.

With 71,000 employees, Canada Post remains one of the largest companies in the country, delivering 11 billion pieces of mail to 15 million addresses. But its recent annual report identified 2009 as “one of the most challenging years in its history,” forcing the company to cut costs – which may include the loss of as many 60 workers from Victoria, if some mail sorting is sent to Vancouver. Last year, the volume of lettermail declined 4.2%, and the parcel service dropped 6.9%, although it’s popular year-round now and not just at Christmas, thanks to online shopping. (The Canada Postal Guide provides a comprehensive list of what can be shipped: no-nos include batteries, perfume, and cigarettes, but cremated human remains and animal carcasses are OK, as are live bees – not by airmail – and day-old baby chickens.)

Such changes have renewed calls from right-wingers to eliminate Canada Post’s monopoly on mail service – as all 27 countries of the European Union plan to do next year with their own state-owned postal companies – or privatize it outright, in the name of greater efficiency. But that could be a mistake.

“In many smaller communities, the postal service is really the only federal presence,” notes Bill Bartlett, a retired Saanichton postmaster, historian, stamp collector, and passionate defender of Canada Post. Arguably, our postal service binds this country together as much does the CBC or RCMP. It covers the largest area in the world – Russia does not provide mail to most of Siberia – and rates will skyrocket in remote places like Quatsino or Zeballos if their residents have to rely on private companies. Vancouver Island may be getting more electronically connected all the time, but physically it’s just as vast as it was 150 years ago.


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