Busy lunch crowd on the plaza
or centuries the Lekwungen harvested shellfish from the mud flats of the bay that, with the establishment of Fort Victoria in the 1840’s, became known as Major Bay. Today Fisherman’s Wharf occupies the foreshore of that site.
Victoria’s First Shipyard
In 1859, Robert Laing, a Scottish shipwright, founded one of Victoria’s earliest shipyards in the bay, Laing’s Ways. For over the half a century following the demise of the shipyard Major Bay became heavily overgrown.
The bay’s quiet waters became a free use home for day-fishing boats, transient barges that moored to pilings beyond the low tide line, and to float-home dwellers. By the end of 1947, free use gave way to the establishment of today’s Fisherman’s Wharf facility.
Fisherman’s Wharf with Major Bay in the foreground. Courtesy of BC Archives Dd-07496
Fishing became increasingly important to Victoria’s economy after World War II. The over burdened single finger float at the foot of Johnson Street was replaced by the $100,000 federally-funded facility called Fisherman’s Wharf at the foot of Erie Street. It was built to accommodate the larger fishing vessels then beginning to dominate the industry. The wharf had moorings for up to 60 large fish-packing vessels. Opened on March 31, 1948, the facility’s 390-feet long main float ran parallel to the shore with six finger floats stretching into the harbour at right-angles to the shore. In the winter of 1965 infill was undertaken from Major’s Bay west to the rocky point of land had been called ‘Shipyard Point in the 1880’s. In those early years Fisherman’s Wharf was part of a largely industrial waterfront. Hundreds of trollers made Fisherman’s Wharf home until the 1990s.
Float Homes and Life on the Wharf
Henrik Lindstrom’s BC homestead afloat on drift logs. Courtesy of The Tyee
Fishing vessels were tied to every dock, except for two docks at the east end. These two “live aboard” docks were home to a diverse, and often eccentric, community from the 1970s right up until 2000. Early BC float homes were built on log rafts to house coastal logging workers while Victoria harbour’s float homes followed the same structure, they provided affordable housing for some of Victoria’s citizens.
Many colourful characters roamed the docks and rubbed shoulders with the fishermen. People would appear from nowhere to make the wharf their new home. Suddenly, they would move on and quickly be replaced by other, equally eccentric types. This meant there was never a dull moment on the wharf. Local police were often kept busy breaking up fights and cross-checking their list of outstanding arrest warrants with the roster of wharf inhabitants.
The wharf was bookended by two floating fuel barges, with Esso at the west end and Texaco at the east end. The Texaco float had showers, though some wharf dwellers resented having to pay Texaco for showers. The shower had to be discontinued when people began to receive large electrical shocks during their ablutions. A community effort on Dock One produced a floating shower with its own hot water tank that all were welcome to use. For a while, the Texaco float even had a hamburger joint called Vinnie’s Eats (“Dine afloat or Dinah Shore”).
Today’s Fisherman’s Wharf float homes
Photo Chris Coleman
There were a handful of float homes during this era, but the main occupants lived mostly on boats of all descriptions. Trimarans jostled with Chinese junks and people living in floating boat molds. The long suffering wharfinger was everyone’s enemy and hardly anybody actually paid their moorage (the author included, I am afraid to say). The wharfinger’s revenge was to sneak down very early and unplug all the boats, especially in cold weather. As he went back up the dock, people would crawl out of their bunks, plug their boats back in and return to sleep.
Over the years, the fishing fleet began to shrink and more dock space was allocated to live-aboards. As the power and sail boats moved to the western fingers, new float homes began to take their place. A new sheriff came to town in the form of an efficient wharfinger. In addition to collecting the rent, they began to bring some order to the place.
It may be different than it used to be, but Fisherman’s Wharf is even a more vibrant and colourful place to visit.