Old Orchards by the Colquitz           

In the fall of 1941 Rev. Connell set out to find the remains of a heritage orchard on the banks of the Colquitz River. His narrative weaves together the environmental and settler histories of the area.

From the Victoria Daily Colonist, Oct. 12, 1941.

I have just returned from a visit to the Provincial Archives where, like others, I resort when a knotty point about early history has to be untied. The information I sought pertains to the Burnside district and in looking for it I was shown some particulars of Mr. Peers, who once owned the old Murray Yale house at the corner of Burnside and Wilkinson Road, then known as “Stromness”. Mr. Peers was a well-known man in the old Hudson’s Bay days, held in high esteem by Sir James Douglas. He made the first road between the Coast and the Cariboo by way of the Fraser, a few years before the gold rush and the Government road. [We went over some old maps and the archivist Miss Wolfenden] displayed before my delighted eyes one of the Victoria district in 1861. [The map] takes in not only Victoria, Esquimalt, and Oak and Cadboro Bays, but as far west as Stromness and north to Mount Douglas. I found two or three little clusters of black dots in the area I was interested in representing farm buildings. With these as guides and the numbers on the map I betook me to the Lands Department and the kindly courtesy of two members of the staff soon gave me the names of eighty years ago. So much for introduction: Now for the ramble and the places.

The Colquitz River Valley as depicted on the 1861 map. The cluster of farm buildings that Rev. Connell was interested in can be seen east of the large bend in the river at lower right, just below the bridge. UVic map collections.

Yesterday was dull and as I left the street car at the Burnside terminus and looked across the landscape, everything half a mile away or even less seemed to have lost its proper color and become merged in a soft bluish haze. The sun was visible, a white ball somewhat indistinct in circumference through a fleecy blanket of cloud. From the southeast came a light and fitful breeze with whisperings of rain. The coloring of Autumn is now on most of the vegetation, in places the various shades of red and yellow, but chiefly just a toning down of the normal green to a dullness that tells of weakening vitality and slackening processes. Among the pale, ripened grasses rises the deep black-brown of the sorrel, fruit and stem and leaves all alike funereally changed, though down at the base out of sight, the basal leaves are still healthily green in blade and red in vein. Yellow cat’s-ears, white mayweed, and pink clover struggle on, but the chief beauty is in the Michaelmas daisies which compete not unworthily with their domesticated relations behind the garden fences. These wild asters with the ripening fruits of every thicket, make up the characteristic scene of Autumn. Red hips, black haws, scarlet cherries, blue-black cascara berries, white snowberries, at once please the eye and furnish a table for the birds. Sometimes a whiff of sweetbriar comes across the odor of ripe and ripening things, wild and domestic, of field and garden, of woodland and shrubbery.

A Neglected Stream

The road slopes gently down into the valley of the Colquitz, which on maps and in the Gazeteer is officially designated a “river”. Insignificant here where the bridge crosses it, it becomes more river-like in width of channel where it approaches Portage Inlet, widening out and flooded at high tide over a distance of about a mile.

Near the mouth of the Colquitz in 1907. Saanich Archives Image.

Its course on the map resembles a letter S with the end of the lower curve drawn out into a straight channel to the Inlet. The name “river” suggests that it may have been at one time a larger stream than now. Rising in Elk Lake it must, of course, have been affected by the operations which converted that body of water into a reservoir for the city of Victoria, and I remember that when I asked about its insignificant size on my early acquaintance with it, I was told that the Elk Lake scheme had seriously reduced the amount of water it carried. Of course, in Winter it is larger than now.

But here we are at the bridge, a very good plain structure of concrete with a strong hand rail and on each side, a cement pavement from which the pedestrian may look down on the little stream. I am always interested, as I think most people are, in running water as seen from above and I find pleasure in the shrubbery and vegetation generally that luxuriates along the banks and even in the channel itself. And the Colquitz is no exception in trees and shrubs. There are fine specimens of the black willow we saw along the New [Blenkinsop] Road the other day, robust Nuttall’s willows, bushes of cascara and saskatoon, small red-cherry trees and larger alder ones, with balsam firs, maples, and cottonwoods in the background. All this is very delightful but when the eye falls on the water, the sight on both sides of the bridge is decidedly disappointing. A turbid little brook, half hidden by refuse dumped from above. With a little more decency on the part of some people it might be just such a little stream as Thomas Hood sings of:

Still glides the gentle streamlet on
With shifting current new and strange;
The water that was here is gone,

But those green shadows do not change.

Serene or ruffled by the storm,
On present waves as on the past,
The mirrored grove retains its form,
The self-same trees their semblance cast.

The hue each fleeting globule wears,
That drop bequeaths it to the next;
One picture still the surface bears,
To illustrate the murmered text.

It would take a [Jonathan] Swift to write a poem about the Colquitz at the Burnside bridge today. Take a look over the railings and see.

A bridge over the Colquitz River (perhaps the same described by Rev. Connell?) in the 1970s. SA Image.

By Colquitz Banks

But to pleasanter things! For some distance along the road before reaching the bridge are fruit trees, apples and pears chiefly. And going up-stream another little orchard is found on the bank just above the railway bridge. We shall see more of these later. Meanwhile going down to the water’s edge we find the Colquitz here an active little brook, running at intervals over and between outcropping rocks and making a merry little song about it as it goes. One of the first things to catch the geological eye is the glacial grooving, very plainly to be discerned on the tough grey diorite. Apparently the stream is following in this part of its course south of Marigold, the channel carved long ago by glacial ice. At any rate it is a pretty little scene here by the water’s edge with ferns on the rocks, trees leaning over the pools, daisies and buttercups in the grass, the orchard behind on the left bank, and high on the hill above a white house like a watchful guardian. Returning between the rocks of the old Interurban cut I see the Oregon grape in the crevices and for the first time come upon the musky storksbill, a little wild geranium with beautiful dark green pinnate leaves, small bright red flowers, and a pleasant musky scent. Reported before from Esquimalt and somewhat uncommon, it is not a native plant. The carrot runs wild over this part of the world, at least along the sides of the road. It varies in size and luxuriance of foliage with the character and condition of the soil but in one thing it is uncaring- the form of its fruit-clusters- which from the incurving of their umbel rays and the attachment of the hooked seed-vessels come to resemble miniature bird’s nest. Their value protectively is appreciated evidently by one of out imported insects whose forebears perhaps learned it long ago in Europe. Opening one of the larger and riper “nests” I find in the centre a pair of very well developed earwigs snugly laid up for the daylight hours.

The flower of the common stork’s-bill (Erodium cicutarium). Wikipedia Image.

A little way beyond the bridge I turn off the road into a field on the left and west of the Colquitz, having that stream for its winding boundary. The shrubbery between it and the water is rich and varied and much patronized by small birds. Here, along the ridge front, I come across an animal of no little interest. It is one of the large orb-weaving spiders so numerous in Autumn. This one, however, is of a different color. She has just caught in her web a small fly and has descended from her “hide” to carry it up for more leisurely attention. I see just enough of her to notice her curious dark green hue, but as she moves upside down relatively to me I cannot see what markings distinguish her. So I wait till she gets inside, judging from past experience that orb-weavers are easily examined. But this one when I try to see it in its watchtower disappears like magic, dropping through the leafy tangle to the invisible ground.

An Old Orchard   

Following the side of the field I notice on a slight rise what appear to be fruit trees, and going over to them I find myself in another old orchard. Most of the apples have been stripped but here and there a rosy fruit shines out from the green foliage. One tree appears at first sight to be laden with small yellow plums but closer investigation shows that it is a crab apple tree. Some of the higher apples are touched a little with red. A few yards away is another crab apple whose fruits are smaller and rounder and of a rich red all over. I do not have time to examine every tree but there are certainly pears and probably plums as well. In one place among them grows a small Rocky Mountain juniper, the species found along some of our rocky shores, particularly about Albert Head and on the Gulf Islands.

The pioneers of Vancouver Island were great planters of fruit trees and the only trace of some of the early farms is found in fields and survivals of orchards. The Burnside Road region is particularly rich in this kind of historical memorial. It was to ascertain the probable planters of these trees that I went to the Archives and Lands Department, and from them I found that part of this area was owned by John F. Kennedy in 1857, and that the rest was farmed by Jean Baptiste Jollibois in 1859. In agricultural statistics of the Island that have come down to us from those days it appears Jollibois had eight horses but no oxen, though most of the farms of the time used them. He kept several cows, fifty pigs, and a small number of poultry. His buildings and those of the Kennedy place were opposite banks of the Colquitz. The old map also shows that where the orchard trees are beyond the bridge another group of farm buildings stood. Today nothing visible remains except the trees. It would be interesting if someone with more knowledge than I of fruit trees made a study of these relics of the past. Some of the trees may be seedlings descended from the original trees and the fruits of such might be worth attention.

The Hidden Slough

On the 1861 map there is shown where the long straight part of the “S” is on modern ones a broad extension obviously marking a swamp or slough. It is however hidden today from anything but the closest view by the dense shrubbery that lines it on the left bank and by a wooded hillside on the right one. Along the edge of the field is the densest of thickets chiefly made up of wild rose and willow. The water lies motionless below with the shining green of cat’s-tails and sedges flanking it. The sudden change from a lively, though small current, with its distinct sound to this tranquillity of surface and greatly larger body of water shows that the seven foot high tide this afternoon is felt up here, and actually this slough is at the head of tidal waters. But again it is probable that since 1861 the width of the slough-like extension has been much reduced, through filling up by drainage of soil.

The Colquitz in 1913. SA Image.

The noisy chatter of a kingfisher causes me to look back and on the dead top of a small tree beside the stream higher up I see a sharp-shinned hawk. It’s presence, of course, explains the halcyon’s excitement. Walking quietly back I am able to get quite close without disturbing the bird, and am thus permitted a good view with the glasses. The little hawk’s eye is really on the numerous small birds that feed and shelter in the thickets or move restlessly through them. As I walk along I can hear their voices continuously: The twitters of sparrows, the noisy protestations of the Bewick wren, the catlike notes of a pair of towhees. Out of the many I can identify song-sparrows, savannah sparrows, white-crowned sparrows, and a single russet-backed thrush, besides the wren and the towhees already mentioned.

The fields are partly still covered with stubble; further on are long lines of furrows, grayish brown now that wind and sun has dried the soil. The unploughed portion is a veritable nursery garden of young weeds. Every inch of ground is covered. Silvery patches of juvenile field thistle and an occasional spear-thistle; the white daisy-like blossoms of the may-weed whose leaves emit an odor to most people decidedly unpleasant. These are the most conspicuous of the weeds, but below them covering almost every inch of available ground is a sheet of baby crane’s-bills, the little roundish and toothed leaves set close together. Yet there is room for an occasional scarlet-flowered pimpernel, the poor man’s weather-glass of simpler days.

“Old Farmlands of the Lower Colquitz Valley” by Robert Connell, September 29, 1941.

Today instead of old farmhouses among their trees we have peeps of the bungalows of the Tillicum area, their colors softened by the haze. Listening attentively occasional sounds from the clustered houses can be heard; but even to hear the passing of cars on the Burnside Road requires an effort, so much is the mind and ear dominated by the voices of nature, scores and scores of little calls and cries mingled with the gentle breeze among the stiffening leaves. To the west, between the nearer groups of trees the hills of Sooke loom like faint blue clouds low on the horizon. They, at least, were seen by the Burnside pioneers just as we see them in 1941.                         

Published by Ben C. Baker

The best stories, I think, are those that connect us to place, and as an historian this is the focus of my interest and work here in Victoria, BC, Canada.

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