William Parsons Sayward (1818 – 1905) was born to English parents in the state of Maine. He left school at 17 to apprentice as a house carpenter. Circuitously, Sayward found himself in San Francisco as the California gold rush waned and news of discovery of gold along the Fraser River hit. Sayward, along with hundreds of other prospectors arrived at Esquimalt in the summer of 1858.
Sayward could see a steady supply of lumber would be needed as Victoria was on the brink of a boom. Although surrounded by tall, mature trees, there were no facilities for cutting and milling wood in the little town. Redwood was still being imported from California and oak from England. Sayward subsequently opened a sawmill on the shore of the Inner Harbour on Wharf Street at the foot of Courtney Street.
In 1861 he married Ann, a widow who had been living with her small son Walter on View Street west of Blanshard (now the site of a city parkade). He built the farm Woodvine Cottage for his new family on nearby Collinson St. with barns, stables, a creamery and a root house. Their son, Joseph Austin, was born there in 1862. Ann died when Joseph was eight years old. Some years later, Sayward moved to a mansion on the north side of then Upper Fort Street. Also in 1861, Sayward purchased Sam Shepard’s Mill Bay mill that had been feeding lumber to the Courtney Street mill.
In 1878, construction of the Old Customs House (the Malahat Building) forced Sayward to move his mill. He built a much larger one in Rock Bay, then the heart of Victoria’s industrial district. Rock Bay Saw Mills was located at the north end of Store Street and dealt exclusively in Douglas fir and cedar from the island’s east coast.
The 1885 completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway allowed Sayward to earn significant profits from helping satisfy eastern Canada’s – and the world’s – huge demand for lumber. In 1889, Sayward’s mills, lumber camps, scows and his steamer employed 50 workers. By 1891, the Rock Bay mill alone employed more than 100 and was producing up to 70,000 board feet of lumber per day. Sayward’s lumber empire expanded up-island then onto the mainland. By 1894 it was reported he owned some 30,000 acres of timberland.
By the time W.P. retired to San Francisco in 1896, Sayward’s son Joseph had taken over the day-to-day running of the business.
In 1911 Joseph responded to the need for commercial space in Victoria’s pre-First World War economic boom by building the city’s first commercial skyscraper. At a cost of $200,000 – a fortune in those days, the Sayward Building owed its rational Chicago School features to local architect George Mesher. The lobby featured marble floors and panelling, a marble-walled staircase with metal balustrades and newel posts. The Sayward Building still stands on the northeast corner of Douglas and View, a monument to the pioneering entrepreneurs who built Victoria.