The Fisgard Lighthouse

At the entrance of Esquimalt harbour near Victoria on Vancouver Island, stands a red and white brick structure which once acted as a beacon for the British Royal Navy’s Pacific Squadron known as the Fisgard Lighthouse National Historical Site.

The Fisgard Lighthouse National Historic Site. Image from

The Fisgard Lighthouse National Historic Site. Image from

Built by the British in 1860 this was the first lighthouse on Canada’s west coast and, although it hasn’t had a keeper since it became automatic in 1929, it is still in operation today.  At the time of its construction, the Fisgard Lighthouse worked in conjunction with the Race Rocks Light which was constructed within the same year in order to assist naval ships into Esquimalt harbour and merchant  vessels to Victoria harbour. Furthermore, the construction of these lighthouse stations were viewed by the European inhabitants as a significant indication of the British government’s commitment to the Colony of Vancouver Island.  They also sent a similar message to the roughly 25,000 American gold miners who had travelled into the region of British Columbia throughout 1858 heading to the Fraser Valley gold rush.

The light itself is a white isophase light that shines out at 21.6 meters above the mean sea level from the 14.6 meter tower of the lighthouse.  While a legend has persisted that the bricks used for the construction of the structure came from Britain the materials were in fact obtained from local quarries and brick yards. Although, it is true that the lens, lamp, and lantern room were brought from England by the first keeper of the lighthouse, Mr. George Davies, and the iron staircase which runs up the building was actually made down south in San Francisco.

A beautiful shot of the Fisgard with a full moon. Photo by

A beautiful shot of the Fisgard lighthouse with a full moon. Photo by

While the lighthouse is still used for its original purpose today, both in its capacity of lighthouse and in its position as acting home base for the Royal Canadian Navy, it is also now utilized as a historical site.  Inside the building are two exhibition floors containing information and artifacts relating to shipwrecks, storms, and the everyday equipment which would have been used to run the lighthouse a century age.  Possibly the most captivating part of this exhibit is a video which captures the isolation that would have been experienced by the lighthouse keeper back when it was still manually run.

The building was designated a National Historical Site in 1958 and it has also been classified as a Federal Heritage building which, when combined with the fact that it is a stunning site that lends itself to some spectacular photographs, means that this is a site that should definitely be visited if you ever get the chance.

Seriously; it doesn't even look like a real place. Photo from

Seriously; it doesn’t even look like a real place. Photo from

Keepers of the Lighthouse:

George Davies, 1860-1861
John Watson, 1861
W.H. Bevis, 1861-1879 *he actually died at the lighthouse
Amelia Bevis, 1879-1880
Henry Cogan. 1880-1884
Joseph Dare, 1884-1898 *his death was due to drowning in Esquimalt harbour
W. Cormack, 1898
John Davies, 1898
Douglas MacKenzie, 1898-1900
Andrew Deacon, 1900-1901
George Johnson, 1901-1909
Josiah Gosse, 1909–1928


Helmcken House

Now known as the Helmcken House Historic Site the Helmcken house, which was originally built and owned by John Helmcken, is the oldest house in Victoria.  The house is considered to be significant for two reasons the first being its illustrious first inhabitant John Sebastian Helmcken and the second being its proviing an excellent example of the evolution of wooden houses in the British Columbia of the late 1800’s.

Helmecken House in 1935; photo from

Helmecken House in 1935; photo from

As discussed in Tuesday’s post, John Helmcken was a British-born physician who travelled to Vancouver Island in the late 1800’s as an employee of the HBC where he eventually setled in Victoria and went on to be a major player in both the establishment of British Columbia as a province of the Canadian Confederacy as well as the establishment of many of B.C.’s longest serving medical institutions.

When Helmcken liven in this house, between the years of 1853 and 1920, it was a one story squared-log house covered in shingles and it remains one of the few surviving samples of piece-sur-piece building in the province.  Piece sur piece construction is the method of building small houses which are made of heavy rectangulas shaped timbers where each timber is laided horizontally with a dovetail notch at both ends in order to form an interlocking grid.

The view of Helmcken house from the street. Photo via

The view of Helmcken house from the street. Photo via

Somewhere around 1856 the building’s dining room was added on which is clad in cedar shingles and provides an excellent example of vernacular post and beam construction.  This building method is unique in that it uses heavy timbers rather than a type of dimensional lumber (such as 2”x4”) and was typically used in situations where a structure is constructed out of logs or tree trunks without the avaliablity of high tech saws.

A slightly later photo of the Helmcken house dating to 1971. Image from

A slightly later photo of the Helmcken house dating to 1971. Image from

Another addition added in 1889 saw the building further modified for the youngest daughter of John Helmcken with the construction of a two-story frame complete with the home’s front verandah.  Unlike the pervious aspects of this building, this latest addition was built professionally out of mass produced drop siding.


At the time of its original construction, the home was built directly next to Helmcken’s in-laws and while James Douglas’ home has since been demolished these two homes were important as they were some of the first to be built outside of the HBC’s Fort Victoria and marked the beginning of the area of James Bay as Victorias’s earliest residential area.

A more modern view of Helmcken house. Image from

A more modern view of Helmcken house. Image from

Helmcken House was bought by the provincial government of British Columbia in 1939 marking it as the first provincially owned historical site in B.C.

B.C. History Overview – Prior to European Contact

If broken down into the broadest and generalized divisions, the history of British Columbia can be separated into four key periods of time; its history before the arrival of Europeans, the time of the early European explorers, the province’s time as a colony of Britain, and its modern existence as a member of the country of Canada.  Clearly, within each of these four periods, there were many significant dates, events, and people but this is meant to provide, as the title suggests, an overview of the first division; British Columbia prior to European contact.

From the northern village of Kayung

This time period dates from the first arrival of human ancestors in North America 10,000-12,000 years ago up until the the first European explorers made an appearance approximately 400 years ago.  This time span produces somewhere between 11,500-9,500 years during which time the small band of adventurous ancient humans who initially arrived on this continent expanded, divided, adapted, and created in order to form the First Nations societies and their distinctive cultural traditions which were so uniquely experienced by the first European arrivals and which have struggled to continue existing to the present day.

A Lummi Woman

The struggle with gaining an understanding of this period in British Colombian history, including what was occurring within specific groups as well as the province as a whole, is that the First Nations cultures were (and still predominantly are) based around an oral tradition with their beliefs, cultures, and traditions are passed down from generation to generation through verbal accounts and stories.  The only written accounts available on these people were produced by European immigrants who typically saw these groups as being quaint at best and inferior, in need of civilizing, at worst.  This has resulted in accounts which are less of an accurate record of the traditions, customs, histories, and languages of the First Nations people and more of a dismissive recording designed to highlight what the newcomers saw as different and/or inferior qualities.  In addition to this (as previously mentioned in this earlier post), the climate of British Columbia, combined with many of the most common materials used by First Nations cultures, has resulted in a far more limited archaeological record then that which can be found in other parts of the world.

Boy of the Twana Band

However, despite these limitations, it is known that there were a minimum of 30 separate language groups and that there was frequent contact between various groups and villages including relatively frequent trips across bodies of water which included the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Strait of Georgia.  Due to a high quantity of natural resources of the area (particularly an abundance of cedar and salmon which were central to most likely all of the groups in this region) these people were able to focus a great deal of their time on other pursuits the most recognizable of these to today’s world being their artwork which includes totem poles, boxes, masks, and weavings that still captivate today.

Woman from an Unidentified Tribe

Despite the limitations in gaining a clear picture of this time in history for the province, North America is fortunate that there are still a number of First Nations groups practicing their traditions, speaking their languages, producing art, and maintaining their cultures which provides insights that are unavailable for most of the cultures and civilizations who existed alongside theirs 11,000 years age.  Luckily, despite some rough patches in history, many of these individuals continuing to practice First Nations traditions are happy to share their cultures, stories, and oral histories with the world.

***Please note that none of the images for this post are my own; all images for this post come from the BC Archives website .

On June 21st Celebrate National Aboriginal Day

This Saturday, June 21st, Canadians across the country will be celebrating National Aboriginal Day.  In addition to being its own celebration, the 21st is also the day which kicks off the 11 day Celebrate Canada! event.  Other events which will occur during this period include Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day (June 24), Canadian Multiculturalism Day (June 27), and, at the end on the 11th day, Canada Day (July 1).

But, getting back to Aboriginal Day; this is an annual event which dates back to 1996 and is used to highlight and celebrate the heritage, cultures, and achievements of First Nations, Inuit, and Metis peoples across Canada.  The predominant aboriginal groups in the British Columbia include (divided by language group):

  • Coast Salish
  • North Straits Salish-speaking
  • Tsimshianic
  • Haida
  • Southern Wakashan
  • Northern Wakashan
  •  Tsetsaut
  • Inland Tinglit
  • Athapaskan
  • Interior Salish
  • Ktunaxa

Obviously there are numerous smaller groups which self-identify within these larger clusters as well as small groups belonging to other language groups, but these are the predominant, over-encompassing, groups in British Columbia.

Totem poles from Stanley Park. Taken in 2013.

Totem poles from Stanley Park. Taken in 2013.

There are a huge number of events taking place across the whole of Canada in recognition of this day, but some of the ones in B.C. include:

  • the 15th annual National Aboriginal Day Celebration in Burns Lake
  • the 12th annual Aboriginal/Cultural Day Celebration in Campbell River
  • All Our Relations – Celebrating National Aboriginal Day in Kamloops
  • the 2014 Metis National Aboriginal Day Metis Celebration in Kelowna
  • National Aboriginal Day Celebration in Maple Ridge
  • Aboriginal Day Celebration Event in Nanaimo
  • Time to Celebrate-Hiellen Longhouse Village Totem Raising and Blowhole Boardwalk-Naikoon Provincial Park in the Old Massett Village
  • Honoring the Tsawwassen People in Tsawwassen
  • National Aboriginal Day Celebration in Vancouver

These are only a small handful of the events being offered this weekend.  In fact, most places have at least one while larger areas (like Vancouver) have a number to choose from.

For additional options, or for more information on the events listed above, please follow the link to the Government of Canada’s National Aboriginal Day Events Page.

Hope everyone has an excellent weekend!