Hailed as one of the world’s most beautiful ports, the Victoria Harbour has a rich and complex cultural history. The harbour has long been an important hub for fishing and travel, and the bay in which it sits has a history that includes multiple cultures. Home to a number of significant historical landmarks, the harbour has seen many developments since its construction in the middle of the 19th century.
Previous to the port’s construction, the land had been populated for around 4000 years, inhabited by the Coast Salish Songhees living to the east of what is now the Victoria Harbour, and by the Esquimalt people, living to the west, in what is now Esquimalt. While “Victoria Harbour” reflects the British colonial government under Queen Victoria, the first European settlers who arrived were, in fact, from Spain, and in 1790 they dubbed the area “Puerto de Córdova.”
After the port fell under British rule, the construction of what is today the Victoria Harbour was initiated when James Douglas sought an outpost for the Hudson’s Bay Company on Vancouver Island. Over more than a century and a half, the harbour evolved to become the modern port it is today. In 1859-60, the harbour’s two lighthouses, the Fisgard Light and Race Rocks Light, were the first to be built on the West Coast of Canada (and they are still active today). With the Fraser River Canyon Gold Rush, a number of steamships were built in the 1850s and 60s, and in 1859 a ferry service was created between New Westminster––then the province’s capital––and Victoria. By 1888, the E and N Railway constructed the first bridge to span the harbour, one that was replaced in 1924 by the Victoria-Courtenay train that crossed what is now the Johnson Street Bridge. The harbour’s appearance changed considerably by the construction of the Parliament Buildings, finished in 1898. In 1908, the iconic Empress Hotel joined the harbour’s face.
Today, the Victoria Harbour houses landmarks that speak to the diverse history of its development. As a stop for cruise ships, seaplanes, and ferries between Vancouver Island and the Olympic Peninsula, its shows itself as the 21st-century harbour that it has become. As the heart of the city’s culture, is also a hub for festivals and concerts. The city’s beautiful Parliament Buildings, in their Baroque Revival style, commemorate the transfer of British Columbia’s capital to Victoria. Thunderbird Park, next to the Royal BC Museum, remembers the First Nations peoples who inhabited the land prior to the arrival of European settlers with its rich collection of brightly painted totem poles.