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 www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca

Helmecken House in 1935; photo from http://www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca

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 www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca

The view of Helmcken house from the street. Photo via http://www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca

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 www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca

A slightly later photo of the Helmcken house dating to 1971. Image from http://www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca

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 www.flickr.com

A more modern view of Helmcken house. Image from http://www.flickr.com

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.

The HBC – Fort Langley

This former trading post of the Hudson’s Bay Company was constructed in 1827, 4 km to the northwest of where the historic site of Fort Langley is located today; the original site was renamed ‘Derby’ in 1858 and is now used as farmland.

Fur Trade

In a surprising urn from most HBC forts, and despite having several first nations members on the team which originally travelled to the site and established the fort, the occupants of Fort Langley were weary of the local indigenous people and would only allow those who were actually visibly carrying furs in through the gate.  Even those who worked exclusively with the HBC and Fort Langley were required to live in a camp located a short distance away which was established for this purpose.  When it came to trading itself, this particular fort’s main interaction was with the Sto:lo peoples and, for the first couple of years anyway, their trading numbers were very low when taken in consideration against the norms of the Hudson Bay Company.  There have been several theories put forward as to why this might have been:

  1. Boston traders controlled most of the Maritime fur trade in the southern costal British Columbia region which kept the price of furs much higher than the HBC was paying elsewhere
  2. The First Nations in this area weren’t particularly interested in hunting and trapping as the lived predominantly on salmon and didn’t have to accommodate the colder temperatures found in the more northern and eastern regions of the province.
  3. The suspicious treatment of the indigenous people by the Europeans at Fort Langley may have also (understandably) made them less eager to trade.

Although, regardless of the actual cause of these lower numbers, trade did pick up over time with 1829-1831 being this fort’s most profitable years.

Fort Langley as it looked in 1862. Image from www.fortlangley.ca.

Fort Langley as it looked in 1862. Image from http://www.fortlangley.ca.

Birthplace of B.C.

Fort Langley became known as the ‘Birthplace of B.C.’ for several reasons but the most predominant of these is based around its location.  Since it was located on the northern boundary of the Oregon Territory in the United States and in direct path of the Fraser Canyon gold rush, it quickly became the staging point for prospectors as they began heading up the canyon towards the gold fields and, as a result, saw a drastic amount of growth.  Its positioning within the region in combination with its size would also go on to play a key role in the establishment of the border between the U.S. and British Columbia at the 49th parallel.


During the height of the gold rush, the future of Fort Langley seemed secure and, with talk by some of it becoming the capital of the province as it became a British colony, it appeared that it was going to be a significant future at that.  However, it wasn’t meant to be and there are typically three key reasons given for the decline of this fort:

  1. The introduction of paddle wheelers on the Fraser River meant that river traffic could be extended to Fort Hope and Fort Yale.
  2. The Capital was instead established at New Westminster as it was deemed to be a more defensible location.
  3. The further introduction of competition for goods and services would undercut the monopoly that the HBC held on the region Fort Langley would cease to be a company post in 1886.