From the Archives: The lagoon and spit

Jenny Seeman
From the Archives: The lagoon and spit

The lagoon at the shores of Hatley Park can be a peaceful spot to spend a moment’s reflection on a busy day. Like the land around Hatley Park, it also has a rich and varied history.

The lagoon was formed naturally when the last continental ice sheet retreated some 13,000 years ago. A large block of stagnant ice was left on this spot, insulated by overlying gravel. When the ice finally melted, it left a large depression that flooded with sea water and became what is now known as the Esquimalt Lagoon. Ocean currents deposited sand and gravel, forming the spit that exists today, known as the Coburg Peninsula.

Oral tradition that indicates the area has been used by First Nations for thousands of years. During falling tides, water rushes out at the east end of the lagoon depositing sand and gravel as it flows. The incoming tide then floods back into the lagoon bringing nutrient rich seawater to the gravel beds, which provides an ideal environment for many species of shellfish and marine plant life. These intertidal clam beds at the entrance to the lagoon were extensively harvested by ancestors of the Esquimalt and Songhees First Nations. Other abundant resources were fish, birds, mammals and other riches of the surrounding forest lands. Archaeological evidence around the lagoon also demonstrates that the area was used for habitation as well as resource gathering.

In 1854, when the naval base was established in Esquimalt, the Coburg Peninsula was reserved as a rifle range but with the influx of settlers to the area following the gold rush in the late 1850s, the area saw other industrial developments. A sawmill was built at the mouth of Colwood Creek in 1863, which was replaced in 1871 by a tannery and boot and shoe factory. This business ran profitably for a number of years and employed over 100 workers. Machinery was powered by water from the various springs on the property that form part of the lagoon’s watershed.

The Mouth of Colwood Creek

The Mouth of Colwood Creek

James Dunsmuir’s Hatley Park was not the area’s only construction project in the early 1900s. The Daily Colonist in 1909 describes the plan of the Public Works department to build a 2 and ¾ mile road connecting Belmont landing to Albert Head Road at Sangster Plains: “The route at first proceeds over a hill…runs along land adjoining the government property where the Rod Hill fortifications are, and on reaching the waterfront at Esquimalt lagoon a 1000-foot lumber bridge will be necessary to connect it with the spit. The spit itself forms a natural road which only needs grading over the mile and a quarter which it extends.” Property developers were keen to capitalise on these planned developments. Frequent adverts in the papers around 1912 promise beautiful “Ocean Beach” home sites in Royal Bay, on a “real bathing beach near town”. The adverts promise that the “completion of the Belmont road in the near future will connect with the famous spit which skirts the lagoon and enters directly into Ocean Beach”. However, the bridge was not built until 1930 and until then, local residents had to make do with driving the long way around.

Excerpt from an advert in the Victoria Daily Colonist, November 24, 1912

With the bridge construction came further development when a public house and restaurant called The Dugout was built at the east end of the peninsula. A popular place with sailors from Naden and soldiers from Fort Rodd Hill, it was sorely missed when it was destroyed by fire. Many cabins and summer homes were also built along the spit. In 1940, the Department of National Defence expropriated the land on the peninsula and it was once again used as a firing range. The civilian properties were all removed, and the ones that were substantial were relocated elsewhere in Colwood. Residents at time have told stories of mock bombing raids over the lagoon where RCAF crews would have to drop flour filled sacks onto targets. They were not always accurate and it was often a dangerous place to be!

The cadets at Royal Roads also made use of the lagoon. The boathouse on the property was built for purpose – to house and repair boats used for training on the lagoon and in the ocean beyond the spit. Classes and physical training often required cadets to be out on the water.

Oceanography class, 1980s

A regatta in 1965, and an oceanography class from the 1980s

It wasn’t all intense naval training though. Cadet skylarks, or pranks, often involved the lagoon. One unfortunate morning, prior to an important inspection, some sleepy senior officer cadets found themselves waking up on the island in the middle of the lagoon, complete with beds and pillows, having been stealthily transported there overnight by some cheeky junior cadets!

Transporting sleepy cadet officers to their temporary sleeping arrangements

Today, the spit is used extensively for commuting as well as for recreation. The supports for the lagoon bridge have suffered from erosion in recent years, with considerable repair costs. Local community sponsors have assisted with the maintenance costs, and their names can be seen on a sign by the bridge.

The lagoon and surrounding area are a federally protected Migratory Bird Sanctuary, as designated on December 12, 1931. The lagoon and beach ecosystems continue to provide important habitats for a diverse community of plants and animals, including many migratory birds. Note that it is against the law for dogs to run off leash within 100 metres of the lagoon high water mark. Next time you are down at the shore, look for the many hundreds of ducks who choose to over-winter on the sheltered waters of the lagoon.

If you have any archival stories to share about the lagoon, or other areas on campus, contact Jenny Seeman in the archives, ext. 4122.