One-hundred-foot high dive towers, rival swim clubs and world champion swimmers along the Gorge are gone but not forgotten, thanks to local historian Dennis Minaker.
The Saanich author can spin an oral history of the Gorge Waterway that will make your head spin. His annual walking tour of the Gorge is free and happens this Saturday (May 23), starting at the Gorge Canoe and Kayak Club.
“Before cars took over, water was the way. And in Greater Victoria, the Gorge Waterway was an epicentre for summer activity,” Minaker says.
Fishing, swimming, sailing and rowing were daily occurrences on the pristine waters of Canada’s pre-war Gorge, and it stayed that way until the 1930s when its recreational draw began to decline.
Few know the stories of the Gorge like Minaker. A retired registered nurse, Minaker spent six years during the 1990s gathering about 200 first-person stories of the Gorge during its glorious heyday – from the 1890s to the 1930s.
“I got interested at just the right time, it was serendipitous,” Minaker says. “Had I waited five more years, they would have been gone. Gorge’s story would have been so much drier and thinner.”
Minaker couldn’t believe no one had documented the Gorge as its own entity, so he took on the project himself. It led to his 1998 book, The Gorge of Summers Gone, A History of Victoria’s Waterway.
The book has sold thousands of copies. In particular, people love the story of 100-foot dive tower, Minaker says.
“It was at Curtis Point and it was not for anyone. It was for two daredevil boys, about 19-years-old, who would dive as a spectacle,” he says.
The water depth today is only about 3.5 metres, but it may have been a few feet deeper as silt could have built up since then, Minaker adds.
“The duo even did night dives, circa 1922, wearing an asbestos-lined suit lit on fire with flames trailing all the way to the water. One of them broke his back diving off the tower a couple years later and died three years after that. Sad story,” Minaker says.
Canadian swimming champion Audrey Griffin of Saanich recalled the diving story clear as day.
“She was the rescuer who pulled him in, just her. When she told me, it was as clear as a story from last week, but it was 75 years later,” Minaker says.
Griffin was a popular athlete of the time, a regular in the Gorge three-mile swim meets that would start in front of the Empress hotel and finish near the Tillicum bridge, which was a central area for all six swim clubs. The swim clubs were on shore or on piles and would use logs to create a weir.
The age of the automobile had yet to take full effect, and as a result, people flocked to the fairground at the end of the streetcar line in Electric Gorge Park (now Esquimalt Gorge Park).
“B.C. Electric bought 10 acres at Gorge Park in 1905, creating an amusement park. It had a bandshell stage, outdoor stage, dance hall, amusement rides, roller coaster and a shoot the chute waterslide,” says Minaker.
Vaudeville acts visited the park and the swim meets invited world champions. Johnny Weissmuller came prior to his Hollywood fame as Tarzan. Hawaii’s Duke Kahanamoku, a world champion swimmer and the father of modern surfing, not only came to compete but also performed on the stage with his ukulele.
“The crowd loved it,” Minaker says.
The house that is now the Gorge Rowing and Canoe Club is the only building remaining in a stretch of houses and mansions in proximity to the bridge.
Young couples would rent a canoe and head up Portage Inlet, which at that time was still heavily forested but with cabins and quiet little corners. It was reputedly great for moonlight paddles.
In 1890, businessman Joseph Loewen of the Victoria-Phoenix Brewery built a mansion slightly up the hill from the Saanich side of the Tillicum bridge. Loewen died in the early 1900s and the estate served as Estella Carroll’s brothel, known as Carroll’s Castle. Saanich Police were said to have conducted midnight raids before it burned to the ground in 1923.
“The stories go on, I have too many,” Minaker says.
The bridge itself is the seventh generation. Prior to its construction in 1960, the crossing was only about two metres wide, but was a dangerous arrangement of rock. When the early bridges would fail, the crossing would default to a few tipped logs or planks.
“I was told the story of a 12-year-old boy with a bike and wagon who would deliver meat from the Saanich side, across the bridge in Esquimalt. He had to walk the bike, navigating over the unstable planks,” Minaker says.
Another man was nearly 101 years old when he recounted to Minaker the spring of 1911, when he tipped his canoe under the bridge. The man went into the Gorge Tavern (Gorge Point Pub) soaking wet and cold, and was served his first glass of whisky.
“That whisky resuscitated him. He never forgot it.”
The Gorge history walking tour starts at 2 p.m. on Saturday, May 23, at the Canoe and Kayak Club, 355 Gorge Rd. West. The walk will venture across the bridge and back and includes some stairs. For more information, call 250-385-8884.
Minaker’s book is available locally at Bolen and Munro’s bookstores.
Saanich offers a neatly mapped tour of the neighbourhood on its website at http://www.saanich.ca/discover/artsheritagearc/heritage/pdf/gorgetour2.pdf.