The Gordon Head Memorial Air Park was set to exist on the current grounds of the University of Victoria.

Unbuilt Saanich, what could have been

Saanich would look a lot different in 2016 if it wasn’t for some key decisions by the people in power over the last 70 years.

Imagine an airport bordering Saanich and Oak Bay instead of the University of Victoria. Or an 18-metre viewing platform jutting out from the top of Mount Tolmie. How about a canal that connected Portage Inlet with Esquimalt Harbour?

Saanich would look a lot different in 2016 if it wasn’t for some key decisions by the people in power over the last 70 years.

Local architectural historian and author of Unbuilt Victoria, Dorothy Mindenhall, recently led a presentation at the Centennial Library that included blueprints for the aforementioned Saanich developments, and more.

“The idea behind the canal in the Gorge [Waterway] was part of a grand plan to clean it,” Mindenhall said.

By the 1930s, the Gorge was starting to smell. It’s grandiose as the favoured swimming hole and daytime destination continued but the many mansions and nearby residences were pumping raw sewage into it. Pre-regulated industry was also taking its toll. And, as the stories go, if you couldn’t afford the time or money for a trip to the dump, you could always toss it into the Gorge come nightfall.

By the end of the Second World War ‘no swimming’ signs were posted.

However, connecting the Gorge by canal to Esquimalt waters would bring a tidal flow the protected waters of the Gorge previously didn’t have.

As one story goes, that is why the rocks were blown out from below the previously shallow area under the Gorge Bridge (Tillicum Road). Sketches show a canal would have been dug and dredged from the southernmost point of Portage Inlet, with a lock, and then into Esquimalt Harbour.

“There was a grand scheme to create a roundabout boat trip from the Inner Harbour that take tourists up the Gorge and then back, by using the canal,” Mindenhall said.

The idea fell flat, as did so many others in Saanich, such as the Gordon Head Memorial Air Park.

Aviation was still in its infancy when Second World War veterans returned from service. There was some support for the war veterans to fly, and from growers “who were prepared to buy their own planes” and ship bulbs and flowers with this new technology.

To many, it made a lot of sense at the time. Nearby, the Lansdowne airstrip was the birthplace of Canadian aeronautical success where William Wallace Gibson designed and flew Canada’s first plane in 1910.

But, despite Saanich purchasing the land, and “the flying club laboriously grading the runways” in preparation, Saanich ratepayers voted against the airport.

Ten years later, the land was the right fit for the expanding Victoria College, or University of Victoria, Mindenhall said.

UVic has its own story of unbuilt designs. In the 1960s, it was unhappy with its designer Don Emmons of WBE and hired Arthur Erickson and Geoffrey Massey, who were  lauded for designing the concrete pleasure of the Simon Fraser University campus. Over three years, Erickson and Massey proposed several ideas but only one building was developed, the “incongruent” Cunningham Building.

Among the most entertaining developments that came close were the medieval Sherwood Park English village on the Gorge Waterway (adjacent to Tillicum Road) and the Globe Theatre and Elizabethan Village in Royal Oak.

The 1962 Sherwood Park proposal would’ve used 4.5 acres of Gorge park. Viking ships would bring visitors from the Inner Harbour, who would be greeted by Robin Hood and in-character friends.

A Globe Theatre proposal in 1980 would’ve used the original building and grounds of the Fireside Grill (built in 1936 as a tea room). Blacksmithing, weaving and other craftsmen and characters would take you back to the medieval times of Shakespeare.

Based on the research in Dorothy Mindenhall’s book Unbuilt Victoria, available online at, and in the Greater Victoria Public Library system.


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