Daily Colonist, February 28, 1971.
By Archie H. Wills
BOOZE AND BULLETS FLEW IN DAYS OF CLIFF HOUSE.
Clover Point is a delightful spot and would unquestionably have
appealed to a stranger attempting a landing on these uncivilized
shores in 1843. Douglas noted the patches of clover as he and
his party trudged across the Fairfield and Quadra sections on
the way to the site of Fort Victoria on Wharf Street.
He may have even noted many four-leaf clovers which may
have accounted for the fine run of good luck which, added to
his undoubted courage, vision and determination, aided him in
his stupendous task opening up and settling this Golden
Province of Canada.
Before Douglas landed at Clover Point at 4 PM, March 14, 1843, the Hudson’s Bay Company had carried out surveys of this area as far back as 1837. It was apparent to the company that the westward movement of settlers from the middle and eastern United States to Oregon territory would raise questions which could, conceivably, lead to war with Great Britain, and that wisdom suggested an alternative site to Fort Vancouver, on the Columbia River, be found.
The Chief Factor of the Company, John Work, used the company’s steamer Beaver to explore the south end of what is now known as Vancouver Island. He had an able assistant in Capt. William McNeill, Master of the Beaver. They poked into the harbours of Sooke, Victoria and Esquimalt and reported that “Victoria has a fine harbour, accessible at all seasons, but not suitable for our purposes.”
Sir George Simpson, the Governor, decided to have a look for himself and, accompanied by Douglas, completed a six-week tour in 1841. The following year Simpson dispatched Douglas on another survey trip, and he reported that “the port of Camosack, including Victoria Harbour and the Gorge, is not faultless, but I despair of finding anything better.”
Simpson then handed to Douglas the important assignment of setting up the new base here and, with a party of fifteen men, he made his historic landing at Clover Point.
Douglas was Victoria’s first planner and, despite the fact that he didn’t have a university education, a prime requisite for such a job today, he acquitted himself very well. His pronounced initiative and resourcefulness, and a willingness to take the great risks, resulted in surprising achievements. Not only did he pioneer unusual developments for that period, but his desire to provide open spaces for future generations was almost a century ahead of his time.
For instance, in 1858, the year of the Fraser River gold rush, he reserved Beacon Hill Park for park purposes and prevented grasping hands from using it for farming. This reserve included not only what we now regard as the park bounded by Cook and Douglas streets and the waterfront and Haywood Avenue, but also the 10 acres extending along the waterfront from Cook to Clover Point. This section was leased from the Crown by the city of Victoria in 1947 for ninety-nine years and converted from an ugly mess into the fine open land which pedestrians now enjoy.
One of the four famous road houses in Victoria, the Cliff House, was constructed on a site overlooking Clover Point in 1857. These road houses for the benefit of the “boys,” who, even in those days, like to have a boisterous evening on their own.
The other road houses were The Colonist, at the corner of Douglas and Simcoe Streets where the Emily Carr Apartment now stands, the Halfway House on Esquimalt Road and the Willows Hotel, at the corner of Eastdown and Cadboro Bay Road. They were interesting places and featured mainly beer, with hard liquor, if desired. They were situated at strategic points.
In the early days the Caledonia Grounds were located on the level land on the western side of Beacon Hill Park, where today baseball and football are played and large displays like the presentation of the King’s colours to the Royal Canadian Navy in 1939 took place.
The Caledonia Grounds were fenced and admission charged, which would shock present-day defenders of no intrusion within the sacred precincts of Beacon Hill Park. Many hectic lacrosse games were played here between Vancouver, Victoria and New Westminster teams. These were games in which the blood flowed freely and the free for all’s outclassed anything we see today in the hockey feuds.
At halftime, or intervals between bicycle races and other sports events, the Colonist saloon was swamped by fans who wanted to cool their ardor and thirst with real schooners of beer, which aided not only cooling them but also stimulating their wrath for the remainder of the events.
The Willows roadhouse adjoined the Willows Exhibition and half mile race track and was well patronized by the droves of people who took in these events, as well as satisfying the wants of those who worked in the dairy farms in Oak Bay and the Willows.
The Half-Way House was a natural and did a roaring trade with the sailors, especially before the Royal Navy departed from here in 1905. When the Navy built the road from Esquimalt to Victoria, and prior to the construction in 1894 of the BC Electric’s tram line between these points, the blue jackets walked the distance, no hitchhiking then. It was a four-mile walk and although there were plenty of saloons in Victoria and several on Pioneer Street in Esquimalt, there were many thirsty throats by the time the walkers had completed half the distance and the Half-Way House became a necessity.The Cliff House had a character of its own. Sometimes it was good, sometimes bad and sometimes it was just so-so. It stood on the outskirts of the farms in Fairfield and between what is now Dallas Road, between May and Howe Streets. It had a variety of owners and on them depended the moral status of Cliff House, the name derived from the cliff leading to the long, shaley beach.
Cliff House had hitching posts and stables and there were always horses and vehicles parked outside while the owners were yarning and drinking inside. It was two stories in height and often questions were raised as to what went on in the rooms upstairs, because Victoria was a rough-and-tumble place in the early days and sailors, sealers, smugglers, white slavers, drug peddlers, breweries, opium manufacturers, (quite legal) and Indians provided plenty of high-jinks, which would be frowned upon today.
Cliff House took on added importance in 1900 when the Victoria Rifle Association launched a campaign to adapt Clover Point, from Cook Street eastward, to a rifle range.
This brought stern opposition from many quarters.
“It would look very much out of place in a park, the opponents cried.
At this time Canada was getting its first taste of what it meant to be a member of the British Empire. A contingent of volunteers from Victoria, the first to participate in a foreign war, was then in South Africa fighting the Boers and the supporters of the new range said: “we must be prepared for future trouble. We must teach our youth to shoot straight.”
This argument carried much weight because at that time the rifle was the main weapon, machine guns being quite primitive. So the warriors won.
On October 16, 1900, work started on the new range. The 10 acres required, were fenced off and butts constructed, starting at 300 yards and stretching out to 1000 yards, which was almost to Cook Street. Extensive earthworks were built for the target areas, the highest and largest pile of dirt acting as a receptacle for spent bullets. Not all bullets ended up in the bank, straight ones carrying on, well over the water, which caused boatmen to give the place a wide berth.
Cliff House took on a new lease of life when the range was opened and Dallas Road was continued from Cook Street east to Ross Bay Cemetery. After a shoot the rifleman gathered in the roadhouse and drank and gossiped, which cause them to vent their feelings on the trickiness of shooting, especially from the 1000 yard butts, as the bullets had to wing their way to targets over the water and through heavy updrafts.
“They might have found a better spot, none bothered by prevailing winds,” they exclaimed.
It was not a satisfactory site for real target shooting but it was a challenge for men trained for war. They had to use their initiative in allowing for the wind, the mirages, which settled over the targets, and the angle of sight.
By 1907 the Victoria Rifle Association was on the warpath again, complaining about the advantages which the Vancouver Rifle Association held when it came to staging competitions. Vancouver had sixteen targets, whereas Victoria had half the number, eight. Vancouver also complained about the weather conditions at Clover Point, because their scores suffered horribly and they always lost to Victoria.
Nothing was done to satisfy these complaints because the rendezvous for the critics was destroyed by fire. At 1:30 AM, on November 24, 1905, fire was observed at the rear of the Cliff House. The horse drawn fire Department responded, but there was no water supply for the engines and the aging building was destroyed. The firemen and their helpers managed to save the stables and outhouses, but later these were destroyed.
My first association with Clover point was as a bugler in the Victoria High School Cadets Corps. We held our shooting practice each Saturday morning, usually from the 300 yard butts. We walked or rode our bikes out Cook Street, which was a rotted, muddy roadway with a large pear tree in the centre of it. This tree was quite an attraction when the fruit was right, and vehicles moved on either side of it.
The custom was to fire our regulation number of rounds, then proceed to the target area and act as markers for the other shooters. It was a strange place and meant keeping your head down and becoming used to the whine of the bullets as they passed overhead. This came in useful when most of us went overseas in the First World War.
The targets were four-feet square and affixed to iron frames which moved up and down. We watched for a hole to appear on the target and hauled it down to place on a sticker and, to signal to the butts its position, using a four sided block on the end of a long pole, with one side painted black to indicate a bull’s-eye, and red for an inner, black and white for a magpie, and white for an outer.
Just before joining the Army in 1915 for overseas service I had been intrigued with the beauty of the streets and the Olympic Mountains and, as I was then a newspaperman and hoped to become a writer, I thought it would be nice to live on Dallas Road. The real estate boom had collapsed and there were some good property buys. I found that Cliff Denham, long-time manager of the Royal Victoria Theatre, was offering a lot he owned on Dallas Road and for which he had paid $3500, for sale at $1500. I bought it and soon after was in uniform.
On my return from the war, and with marriage uppermost in my mind, I looked over my lot, which was between Howe and Moss Street and discovered that upon it had stood the historic roadhouse, Cliff House. I decided to build upon the site and the house still stands and was sold for $18,500 last year. I had sold it in 1929 for $4500, when the house was too small for our growing family.
As part of the contract for building the house I had undertaken, in order to keep the cost down, to excavate the basement, fence the place, clear the grounds and put in the cement walks and basement floor. This proved rather rugged work as it all had to be done with pick and shovel.
The ground on which the Cliff House stood was easy to handle but when I tackled the site of the stables it was a different story. The switchgrass and other growth had covered the floor of the stables which I found consisted of large smooth rocks. Once removed they came in handy for a wall. There were countless bundles of bailing wire, which had come from the bales hay, and pieces of a harness.
I unearthed a large bundle and imagined it might contain a mummy or a skeleton, but, after much effort I found it to be but a six-foot bundle of linoleum. I did open up a series of tunnels, but did not penetrate too far due to the weakness of the supporting timbers. I have often wondered what these tunnels were for and where they might have led to.
During the time troops were stationed at the Willows during the 1914–18 war, including the 11th C.M.R’s, the 88th Battalion, 67th Battalion, the 103rd Battalion and, later, the Siberian Expedition of 1918, trenches were dug throughout the rifle range. To the consternation of many residents live bullets were used to teach the boys the first principle of warfare: “Keep your head down.”
Lieut. Col. Lorne Ross had considerable experience on the Western Front in the early days of the war and was sent here to organize the 67th Battalion, better known as the Western Scots. Ross introduced live ammunition in his training program, which horrified the sensitive souls here.
By 1923, Fairfield was becoming more settled and, the racket caused by the rapid fire on the Clover Point Range, proved annoying to residents who had lost sons in the war and, also, to veterans like myself, who had been through so much gunfire that they wanted a respite from it.
We started agitating against the practice, especially when the permanent forces, stationed at Work Point did all their firing there and of the danger to which children were exposed. The defense department had by this time equipped the fine new range at Heal’s in Saanich and we felt the troops should go there.
This didn’t meet with the approval of the Brigader in charge at Work Point. He said they didn’t have enough lorries to transport the men to Heal’s, which brought a testy reply from us, in effect: “Let them march there.”
This type of argument went on until Ottawa finally closed Clover Point range, demolished the fences and the red building at the foot of Linden Avenue, which was the caretaker’s residence.
This made it possible for residents to get to the beach at Clover Point and cut up the great piles of driftwood which had accumulated. It was the time when millwood was the main fuel in Victoria and some people cut all their requirements on the beach. Introduction of automatic furnaces ended that form of physical effort.
When the city of Victoria took over the rifle range in 1947 on a 99-year lease upon payment of $77 to compensate for the dollar-a-year payment, the trenches were filled in, the barbed wire and sagging fences removed, the masses of broom bushes were ripped out and the whole area levelled off and equipped with foot paths.
Today, it is an exhilarating walk, where you can listen to the surge of the sea, watch the boats, the bobbing kelp and the birds.
One of the most interesting sights I can recall at Clover Point occurred years ago, soon after the Hindus arrived. They brought with them the custom of publicly cremating their kin who died. This required considerable wood. On occasion bodies were cremated on the beach where ample wood was available, but sometimes the ceremony was carried out on the range itself.
After the six-foot lengths of wood were criss-crossed to form the funeral pyre, the body, wrapped in white sheets and a white turban on the head, was placed gently on the wood. Flowers were placed close to the body and the last rites were conducted according to the Sikh faith, outlined by Guru Nanak and promulgated in British Colombia by the Khalsa Diwan Society, which has temples in Victoria, Vancouver and other settlements where the Hindus live.
Friends of the departed watched as the wood was saturated with kerosene and the match struck, creating an intense fire which consumed the body and the wood.
When the targets were dismantled by the city, Parks Department faced the task of removing the huge earth banks behind them. It proved to be a lead mine. Large sieves were set up and the earth sifted through them and hundreds of thousands of bullets were recovered and sold.
Clover Point itself was restored to its former status as war property when the Second War broke out in 1939 and became an important cog in approaches to Victoria and Puget Sound after the defensive system which blocked the Japanese made their move on Pearl Harbor and entered the conflict.
A huge searchlight was mounted on what is now the road which circles the point and each night is penetrating and blinding beam scanned the waters out to Race Rocks. Any craft picked up by the beam had to be identified by the patrol vessels. Crews, which manned the searchlight, were housed in barracks nearby. These were later used to house families on relief.
The entire waterfront was blacked out. There were no streetlights and all windows were covered with plywood and black drapes. The air raid wardens patrolled the streets and, if they found a chink of light, they ordered the householder to subdue it.
After a freighter had been torpedoed just off of Race Rocks and a Japanese submarine shelled the Estevan lighthouse on the West Coast of our Island, everyone became super-cautious in obeying air raid orders, even to driving cars without lights, except for a quarter-inch slit on each headlight.
Today, the open spaces at Clover Point are used mainly for kite flying, frolicking and walking. The well-placed benches on the cliff are of great benefit to the older folk who love to sit there and discuss their pensions, their ailments and the “good old days” of their youth.