1858 engraving of Victoria

Colonial History Vancouver Island

Maureen Duffus - Author and Historian


Vancouver Island History

Cole Island Naval Magazine
(Condensed from Craigflower Country)

Cole Island naval magazine

The Royal Navy played a large role in the life of Colonial Vancouver Island, both for charting coastal waters and protection against enemies (Russia and the United States at different times) and for its influence on the social life in the Colony. Its Pacific Base was moved from Valparaiso, Chile, to Esquimalt in 1865. Six years earlier the little island, 400 feet long by 200 feet wide, at the western end of Esquimalt Harbour had been chosen as the site of the naval ammunition depot.

Cole Island was named after Edmund Picoti Cole, master of HMS Fisgard when Admiralty surveys were conducted in 1846. Orders for the construction of the first two powder magazines were given by Colonel Richard Clement Moody of the Royal Engineers and Admiral Sir Robert Baynes in 1859. The original 30' by 50' guardhouse was completed later that year.

More buildings were planned in 1862. Tenders were invited for "chopping, burning off and thoroughly cleaning all the trees, underbrush and etc., on Cole Island, at the head of Esquimalt Harbour." Trees were to be cut "at chopping height" and underbrush cut to the ground. No trees or brush would be allowed to fall into the water, and the shoreline "is to be carefully cleared of all timber and logs to low water mark, and the work was to be completed within 14 days of acceptance."

That was the year the Admiralty thought it prudent to secure ownership of the rocky islet. The Hudson's Bay Company was requested to place Cole Island at Colonel Moody's disposal "to preserve the island from sale or pre-emption." Polite letters passed between the colonial secretary, the surveyor general for the colony and Colonel Moody. "I have the honor," wrote the colonial surveyor, "to report to you, that I have received His Excellency's instructions ... to hand over the Island to you officially, which order you will be pleased to consider carried into effect from and after the 10th of March, 1862."

At the height of its importance, from the first visit of the magnificent Flying Squadron in 1871 to the departure of the British fleet in 1905, it has had as many as 16 solidly constructed buildings connected by wooden walkways for safe storage and transport of powder and ammunition. It was transferred to the Canadian Navy on November 9, 1910, and was replaced before World War II by large concrete magazines at a safer location on the south shore of the Harbour.

A few of the old buildings were used for ships' stores and some army field artillery as late as 1944.

Aerial view of Cole Island
Aerial view of Cole Island shows two of the remaining buildings on the Royal Navy's 19th century ammunition depot. The Friends of Cole Island Society is working with several levels of government to have the remaining structures stabilized and preserved on this historic site. (Photo courtesy View Royal Archives)

Now Cole Island has lost most of its unique heritage buildings, the only examples of their kind in western Canada. Lack of interest in Ottawa and bureaucratic buck-passing between provincial and federal governments have combined to allow destruction or dismantling of most of the buildings.

It could have been worse. The original directive to "preserve the island from sale or pre-emption" was forgotten in 1958 when the island was declared surplus and handed over to Crown Assets for disposal. This misguided attempt to sell part of Canada's naval heritage did not sit well, even in Ottawa. A memorandum from naval historian E.C. Russel recommended that the federal Department of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources consider Cole Island a national historic site.

"It is doubtful if any of the [surviving] buildings in the dockyard proper go back as far as some of the buildings of Cole Island ... It will be noted that the Cole Island buildings date from as early as 1859 and all of these pre-date the formal establishment of Esquimalt Naval Base ... by Imperial Order in Council dated 19 June 1865."

Cole Island

The island was taken off the market. But not before some View Royal residents put in bids ranging from $1 to $5000, all promising loving care and attention. Other hopeful purchasers just wanted knock down the buildings and sell the old bricks.

Then the Historic Sites and Monuments Board came into the picture, Jack Rippengale, superintendent of Fort Rodd Hill in 1962, explained how the bungling came about. The army establishment at Fort Rodd and Fisgard lighthouse were declared national historic sites, but as Cole Island was a naval establishment and not historically related to Fort Rodd Hill, which had its own magazine, it was left out of the equation.

"The question should have been whether or not the Island and its buildings were of historic significance in their own right. Parks Canada, by then the caretaker of Fort Rodd Hill, didn't consider this, so the Island became a poor relative, and that's a shame."

Cole Island ruins

Several buildings were considered unsafe so Parks Canada, fearful of lawsuits in case of accidents, took them down instead of repairing them. A team of articles spent several months making detailed records and drawings of the buildings as they were then, so some sort of reconstruction might still be possible. Thousands of bricks from the dismantled buildings were cleaned and stored, but vandals have since visited the abandoned site to collect bricks - and inflict more damage.

Lloyd Brooks, former deputy minister of the BC parks ministry, adds: "The excuse given that Fort Rodd Hill was basically an armoury, and that the naval magazine was incompatible with the Army establishment, was feeble. The finger points at members of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board, all but one Easterners, who called the shots. They decreed that the buildings, a mere 100 years old, did not warrant historic preservation."

The Island then came under the protection of British Columbia Heritage Properties as an undeveloped historic site. The Branch did what it could to protect the island's unique naval heritage, but looters, vandals and thieves are still thoughtlessly carrying on the destruction.

The latest attempt to save the few remaining buildings has come from a citizen's group who have formed the Friends of Cole Island Society. The Society is approaching municipal, provincial and federal governments to explore ways of protecting the historic Island.

Visit the Friends of Cole Island Society website.

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