After so much eating over the past few days, I cleverly planned to start this day with a long, leisurely bike ride, curated by The Pedaler Cyclery. Detouring through the back neighborhoods and beaches of eastern Victoria showed me a new side of this beautiful city, and my excellent guide, Charlie, filled me in on a plethora of fascinating history.
Keep Yer Potatoes Outta My Pig
Y’all know that I love a good story, so I’m going to steal most of Charlie’s, but I have to say if you are ever in Victoria–and don’t you think you must go after everything I’ve said?–please do take a tour with these folks. I was immediately seduced and, for the first time in several days, it was not by bacon. I fell in love with the electric bike. I like a long ride, but my knees have not been cooperative in recent months. Yet all you do with these little contraptions is up the power a little and whup-up-up, bob’s your uncle, you’re up the hill and still pedaling. We meandered hither and yon through beautiful neighborhoods and park, first stop over to Finlayson Point where Charlie started spinning tales.
Did you know that the U.S. and Canada nearly had shots fired over–a pig? It was June 1859, which Americans who paid attention in school will note was right before the outbreak of our Civil War. Despite the belligerence of a previous President ( Polk: 54.40 or Fight!), the U.S./Canada boundary had been set at the 49th parallel of latitude, which was cleanly below Vancouver Island and what is now also the city of Vancouver. But there was a problem.
Sailors out of Puget Sound needed a clean channel through the Straits of San Juan de Fuca and Georgia to move north. The people on the boats also needed to know where territorial waters ended, since those lines can differ from land ones. The U.S. favored a boundary closer to Canadian land while the Canadians, or rather still the British, wanted to extend the line further into the waters. And what about the islands?
The story goes that there was an Irish-Canadian and an American pioneer both living on San Juan Island, in disputed territory. The Irishman let his pigs wander where they might and one kept eating the potatoes farmed by the other fellow, until one day, American Lyman Cutler shot the pig. After all, it was, “Eating my potatoes!” Charles Griffin’s response: “Then you should keep your potatoes out of my pig!”
Both British and Americans brandished weapons and mustered troops on the island. This was after the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War, when Americans were still shooting everything that moved and military enthusiasm hadn’t yet been dampened by brothers killing each other. George Pickett commanded the Americans, four years before he would lead the ill-fated Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. The British redoubt was fortified by Henry Robert, who later created Robert’s Rules of Order. The two sides eventually created an uneasy truce, with a hundred soldiers stationed on each side of a fence a wee bit less dangerous than the Berlin Wall. After a dozen years passed in lazy joint occupation, Kaiser Wilhelm I was asked to mediate, and he sided with the Americans, ceding San Juan Island to the U.S. rather than the pigs.
Our bike ride pressed on, and we passed through two separate cemeteries on the way to the next coastline. The first, Ross Cemetery, was named for the first independent woman landowner in British Columbia, Isabella Mainville Ross. She was a Metis woman, daughter to a French-speaking fur trader and his Ojibwe wife. She in turn married another fur trader working for the Hudson Bay Company (which, as I mentioned yesterday, owned everything nearby at the time). During her husband’s absence and after his death, Isabella was well-known for her strength as a businesswoman and bargainer. Once when she was trading furs, some people came in and drew knives on her children. She chased them out of the shop and kept on about her business. There are many strong-willed women whose names thread throughout the plaques next to the men’s.
As we continued on past gravestones of Isabella and Sir James Douglas, Charlie was telling me that the deer in Victoria had become pretty brazen. I myself had seen one the night before walking up the driveway where we were staying, and it could hardly be bothered to move out of the way. Passing the headstones, sure enough, here came a four-point buck, nonchalantly sauntering by. Apparently, they think they’re elk here, and certainly in the cemetery, at peace with the spirits. Perhaps that’s as it should be.
Meanwhile, we came upon a more remote patch of green, sparser, overlooking the water. This was the Chinese cemetery, which has its own history. When the earliest Chinese immigrants came to build the Canadian Pacific Railway in the late 1800s, they were kept as segregated as possible, including in death. They were buried in a separate part of Ross Cemetery initially, some in graves simply marked “Chinaman No. 1” and in a portion nearly at sea level. During raging storms, some of these graves were simply swept out to sea.
In 1903, these graves were dug up and moved to a new location purchased by the Chinese Benevolent Association. This cemetery was bleak and, at the time, overlooked a deserted beach (which now sports million-dollar views by the surrounding Oak Bay and Victorian Golf Club). Guangdou Chinese burial practices for these folks also required they be exhumed after seven years and stored in a “bone house.” Ultimately, the remains would be shipped to the ancestral home of the deceased in keeping with tradition and also to send them where they would be more honored. That practice halted during the Sino-Japanese War of 1937 and the bone house remains of 900 people were reburied in the 1960s. They still have the view.
Impressive Buildings, Ignominious End
We cycled right through the drive way of the home of the Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia. The quiet, well-manicured gardens are publically-maintained and, therefore, freely open to the public. We also enjoyed the views from Craigdarroch Castle, built by a Dunsmuir from Scotland, to entice his wife Joan across the planet to this end of the north. Finally, we landed behind the Victorian legislative buildings, designed by Francis Rattenbury who also designed the Empress Hotel.
Rattenbury was a 25-year old immigrant from Leeds when he submitted his drawings under the name “A.B.C. Architect” and won the competition to design the British Columbian Parliament in 1891. While the project surpassed the budget by nearly double, the grand Romanesque style fit the idea of the times. My guide Charlie said that because the architecht wanted the multiple domes atop to be as green as possible, he had the workers pee on the domes and when that wasn’t enough, he got them to gather buckets of horse urine from the local stables to speed the process. Somehow it seems a fitting way to inaugurate the houses of Parliament.
Also, because the project went over schedule, the electrical work wasn’t finished at the time of opening. To compensate, the electrician also strung lights around the outside of the building, which creates that magical nightscape view (see yesterday’s post) so famous on Victoria postcards.
Francis Rattenbury received dozens of commissions and had a well-respected architectural career. Unfortunately, his busy lifestyle and wandering eye caused him to leave his first wife and children, apparently abruptly shutting off their electricity and services while they were still living there. He took up with a twice-married younger woman, but that relationship soured, too, and she took up with their chauffeur. In the end, Rattenbury was found with his head bashed in, the chauffeur and Anna both went to prison, and Anna took her own life even after being acquitted.
The good part of the story is that Rattenbury’s son John also became an architect. He was not in favor of the ostentatious style favored by dad, so he actually went off to study under Frank Lloyd Wright and eventually joined the group of Taliesin Architects in Scottsdale, Arizona.
But Don’t Raise Your Pinky
In a fitting end to the story and our trip, we went off to have High Tea at the Empress Hotel, that other local building designed by our infamous architect. This iconic structure was built on a bog, filled in by the owners to extend waterfront property. As a result, the hotel a century later is sinking, which is why you can see today that the front windows sit below sea level.
Nevertheless, we enjoyed tea in traditional grand style. High tea is so named because it requires sitting at a table, rather than on a couch or settee, which usually means it includes meat in a sandwich or hot foods, rather than just scones. Also, by the way, these were proper scones, a cross between shortbread and a southern biscuit, layered and flaky. Whatever we get in the U.S.–those dry, triangular wedges–are not scones. Those are skonz in the same way that Hot Pockets are pies. Just as Southerners deploy the white gravy, the English break out the clotted cream. We might have licked the spoon and the bowl, but no evidence remains.
A friend suggested I remember to raise my pinky, which I did. Then, I looked it up, and oops! Raising a pinky when drinking tea is not protocol but rather a sign of snobbishness. Originally, cultured people ate their scones and biscuits (cookies, my American friends) with three fingers, while working people used five fingers. But everyone drank tea with a firm, five-fingered grip. Use your whole hand.
Especially to wave goodbye to Victoria. Time to head back down south.