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.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Strange Case of a Century-Old Movie

On May 4, 1907, William Harbeck set up his tripod and hand-cranked movie camera at the corner of Government and Humboldt streets. He knew he’d already created a stir in town: the Daily Colonist bragged that the film he was shooting in Victoria would be shown “in all the four corners of the earth.” But he certainly never could have guessed the strange route his movie would take to be seen here in the Garden City a century later.

Superficially, the 600 feet of silver nitrate that passed through Harbeck’s camera is as simple as a movie gets. There is a shot from the front of a boat travelling up the Gorge, and under the Tillicum bridge. There’s another as the boat passes under the Johnson Street bridge and a steam locomotive chugs overhead. At the downtown corner, Harbeck’s camera slowly pans from the Empress Hotel – nearing completion for its January 1908 opening – to the new Inner Harbour causeway, travelled by a streetcar, bicycles, and horse-drawn wagons. (Thanks to Jason Vanderhill for letting me use his above pano-collage from Harbeck's film.)

Simple, yet fascinating to an amateur historian. Harbeck’s movie brings 1907 alive, in a way that dozens of archival photographs cannot: the harbour and the Gorge teem with boats, reminding viewers of how much more Victoria depended on the water for its livelihood back then, and Francis Rattenbury’s Parliament Buildings seem even more fabulous and unlikely, surrounded by dirt roads. But what’s equally as fascinating is Harbeck’s own story, which is as curious and as well-travelled as his little film.

Born in Ohio in 1863 (or 1866), Harbeck held various jobs around the United States as an accountant, steam-laundry operator, baker, and book agent; by 1899 he was the editor of a newspaper in a Colorado gold-mining town. Eventually he picked up a movie camera, and was the first to film the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. He quickly got contracts to make travelogue movies, and by early 1907 he had a studio and film-printing plant in Seattle.

Hale’s Tours, a company based in Portland, hired Harbeck to film Victoria for its “Scenes of The World” series; on the same assignment, he also shot from the front of a streetcar rolling through downtown Vancouver. (His Vancouver footage is posted here on YouTube.) After that, the Canadian Pacific Railway’s “Department of Colonization” hired him to produce a series of promotional shorts to attract Europeans to Canada, and The Ship’s Husband, a comedy feature about two couples that accidentally swap partners aboard a CPR ferry. These movies were so successful that the CPR renewed Harbeck’s contract, and early in 1912 sent him to Paris to study with Leon Gaumont, the pioneer of outdoor cinematography.

Unfortunately, Harbeck booked his return to North America on the Titanic. According to the Encyclopedia Titanica website, Harbeck’s circumstances at the time were themselves worthy of a Hollywood movie: he was on the ship because he’d been hired to the film its maiden voyage – even though, a year earlier, he’d made a documentary depicting a controversial “land grab” in Alaska by the Titanic’s owner, the railroad tycoon J.P. Morgan. (Suspiciously, Morgan cancelled his own reservation on the ship just before it sailed.) Harbeck also told the company he was travelling with his wife – but was actually accompanied by a 24-year-old model he’d met in Paris. Both the model and Harbeck drowned on the Titanic, and when Harbeck’s real wife came to Halifax to claim his body, the authorities treated her as an impostor because they thought Mrs. Harbeck had perished with her husband.

But Harbeck’s film of Victoria survived. It did indeed travel to the four corners of the Earth: a print ended up in Australia, where it was found by a collector; in the early 1980s, after he died, it went to an Australian museum, and eventually was transferred to Library and Archives Canada, which issued it on DVD a few years ago.

Today you can see the DVD here for free, any day of the week – although in a rather unexpected location. On the fourth floor of the downtown Hudson’s Bay Company store, behind the furniture department, sits a small gallery dedicated to the HBC’s history; when the gallery opened several years ago, it housed 17th-century portraits of Prince Rupert and King Charles II (worth $250,000 apiece), along with original paintings commissioned for 1950s HBC calendars. The paintings have since been replaced with copies, but on a wide-screen TV in one corner you can watch Harbeck’s silent panoramas of 1907 Victoria, intercut with scenes from the old downtown Bay and his streetcar travels of Vancouver, in all their digitally restored glory.

UPDATE (January 20, 2008): I finally obtained the DVD of Harbeck's film, so you can watch it online – complete and uncut! Go to my post here.


At 8:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


there are alot of people who do not like you because of what you do but someone has to do it. I admire what you are doing in exposing the underbelly of victoria's past. There are certain people who want to keep this under wraps for good reason, but you leave out information which could harm the places you mention. Keep on pulling the ground out from underneath the 'old money'


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