Cordova’s Wooded Cliffs

Originally called “Tseleethch” by the Indigenous inhabitants, in this article Connell visits Cordova Bay’s stunning coastline and muses upon some of its geographic, as well as more recent, histories.


From the Victoria Times Colonist, April 2, 1932-

Cordova Bay is one of the few places in the vicinity of Victoria with a Spanish name. Yet, curiously enough, it was not given by the Spanish explorers of the Coast. The late Captain Walbran in his “BC Coast Names” tells how the Spanish Lieutenant Quimper, in command of a confiscated British vessel, the Princess Royal, entered what is now known as Esquimalt Harbor in 1790, and anchoring there gave it one of the many designations of Mexico’s viceroy. It seems, however, that in the vagueness which the Spanish maps of the period shared with all others of this part of the world, the name “Puerto de Cordova” or Cordova Harbor got misplaced and appeared some miles to the northeast of its proper place. If you look at some of our railway maps of Vancouver Island you will see exactly how this would occur, for from the situation of place-names the most absurd conclusions are inevitably arrived at by a stranger.

The name thus got transferred from Quimper’s anchorage to the long sweep of coast-line between Cormorant Point and Cowichan Head, a transfer made by the Hudson’s Bay Company originally, who retained “Esquimalt” as an equivalent of the Native name of the shallow water at the head of the harbor where the Millstream enters and where the oyster-beds are situated.

Detail from an 1855 map showing the Cordova Bay region. “Tetaihit” (Tetayut/Tsawout) village is shown near Cordova Spit at the top of the frame. UVic map collections.


The Old Road and a Hermit

The distance by the shore from Cormorant Point to Cowichan Head is a good six miles, and the road with its necessary deviations is probably somewhat longer. At “Little Cordova” the old Cedar Hill Road turns at right angles and proceeds along the edge of the cliffs between the mountain and the sea. The name of the road of course recalls the older name of the mountain- Cedar Hill. In the first days of settlement north of Victoria the country abounded in cedar swamps which appear to have alternated with small oak-covered “prairies” and ridges where Douglas and balsam fir vied with their deciduous neighbors. Cedar, which for many years was rather scarce in the vicinity of the mountain and had been completely cleared from the lowlands, is now increasing within the Park boundaries, and a later generation may yet see something of what the forest looked like when the Todds, the Irvines, and other pioneers entered the wolf-inhabited forest between Spring Ridge and Cordova Bay.

Cordova Bay Road in 1904. Saanich Archives image.

In spite of all “improvements” the old road along the Coast remains substantially what it has been for the past half century. In “Life and Labour in the Far, Far West” by W. Henry Barneby, there is an interesting account of the writer’s land-hunting along the shore of Cordova Bay in 1883, and he incidentally mentions that they “traversed the newly-surveyed road, running into Cedar Hill Road, and passed some magnificent timber, mostly Douglas fir.” Barneby and his guide- Anderson of Fern Dale Farm, Lake District, were in what was then wild country lying between Elk Lake and Cordova Bay, and in their search for certain lots they came on one of those curious bits of pioneer history which are so rarely preserved. The author relates it thus:

While wandering on in the forest we noticed, at the base of a huge Douglas fir, a little wooden cabin made by a cross-stick on two poles, with strong strips of bark leaning against them to form two sides. There was only just room for a man to crawl underneath; nevertheless, in this the owner had lived, summer and winter, for twelve years on his own “holding” of about a hundred acres, which he had not attempted to cultivate further than by cutting down a few of the magnificent forest trees here and there. Not long ago this man unexpectedly came into a large property elsewhere. Search was made for him and on being discovered he was taken off, new clothes provided for him, was shaved and had his hair cut, and then was shipped off by the next mail to his new home and his riches. We saw the ashes of his camp fire, the kettle, and some old clothes, all still remaining just as he had left them. This story is a fact, and was told us by Anderson.

It may be added that in his search for the property he intended to call “Cordova Ranche”, Mr. Barneby was influenced by its proximity to what is now Mount Douglas Park, then the Government Reservation, which made his property in his eyes “all the more valuable, as the timber there would remain standing.”

This early watercolor by Connell (1907) shows Cordova Bay from the top of Pkols/Mt Douglas c1907. Part of James Island is visible at right near a passing steamship, and in the distance on the left the grassy slopes of Mt Tuam rise above Saltspring Island. Private Collection.


The Cliffs of Cordova

Below the road the cliffs do not at their highest attain the altitude of those immediately west of Cormorant Point, where they are 180 feet or more high. Still, 100 feet is not to be belittled, and at many places along the first part of the road you can look down at precipitous faces of this height.

Sand cliffs at Cordova Bay, March 2022.

Formed of loose interglacial deposits, sand and clay, they are very subject to erosion in the winter and it is not impossible to find that the piece of ground on which you are standing is simply a projection of the upper soil with its roots into empty space owing to the undermining operations that have been going on. Slips of the cliff with growing trees and shrubbery frequently occur, but fortunately so rank is the growth of vegetation that the damage is as a rule very speedily concealed, at least in part.

Nevertheless there is a good deal of coastal erosion going on, and I should not care to perch a house too close to the edge at a number of points. Alder, maple (both large-leaved and smooth-leaved) and elder are conspicuous members of the cliff flora, with butter-bur and sword-fern below. The fern makes remarkable growth in some of the shady hollows, its fronds reaching lengths of four or five feet, and fully justifies the enthusiasm with which the German botanist Von Chamiso first hailed it in the cool glens of the California Coast Range.

The cliffs reach their highest at Cowichan Head, beyond the road where the loose interglacial deposits attain a height of 240 feet, and exhibit south of the Head one of the most interesting as well as one of the wildest prospects along our portion of the coast. But while the greatest heights are reached by the sand cliffs, there are some very striking outcrops of massive crystalline rock. The volcanics of the Vancouver series, after forming the bold headland that bounds the Bay to the south, disappear under their interglacial blanket to reappear near where the long straight northerly stretch of Cordova Bay sands invites the summer camper and bather. They form some bold cliffs forty or fifty feet high at this point, and then vanish to reappear on the other side of the shore village. Another and larger outcrop occurs just south of the Cowichan Head cliffs.

The volcanics are worth an examination because of certain unusual features. They show what is common in the younger Metchosin rocks but is rare among the Vancouver ones in the south end of the Island; I refer to pillow structure.

An example of pillow lava rock formation.

The roundish or ellipsoidal masses of the ancient lava are generally believed to indicate a submarine origin for the igneous activity causing them. Then the cavities of the lava and the space between the pillows will be found to contain clusters of crystals belonging for the most part to the mineral group known as Zeolites. These were not part of the primary lava, but are formed from the dissolution of certain of the original minerals by water percolating through the rock and the subsequent crystallization of the solutions in new mineral combinations of an even less stable character.

But to those who are untouched by the curious form and geological history of the pillows or the pearly beauty and chemical descent of the zeolites, perhaps another group of rocks near at hand will appeal more. These consist of certain elongated masses of limestone or marble which occur as in-liers in the volcanic rock while along the contact there has been developed by another set of chemical and mineralogical changes a band of magnetic iron or magnetite. This, as the name denotes, differs from ordinary iron in its various manifestations in rocks and rock minerals in being strongly attracted by the magnet. Worn down by atmospheric and mechanical causes, it ultimately forms the grains of magnetite found in the sands of our shore and the celebrated “black sand” which is sometimes associated with placer gold, but is by no means an invariable accompaniment of the more precious mineral.

Bands of magnetite “black sand”


Cordova Village

I suppose one may dignify the settlement at mid-Cordova Bay by the name of village. Certainly the houses are there, not only strung out along the water-front either just above the sands or on the wooded bluffs, but already having crossed the road beginning to reach back to the steep ridge beyond. The original European settlement consisted of one or two scattered farms, but even thirty years ago there were numbers of little summer cottages which again were supplemented by tents during the season. But now there appears to be an increasing tendency for the landowners to settle permanently on their property, and orchards and gardens are marking the landscape. There is one exceedingly pretty little farm that carries on the old tradition. The white farmhouse with its old-fashioned garden and shrubs, the picturesquely weathered barn and out-buildings, and the old orchard, make a very pleasing impression on the traveler as he passes through much that is only too transitory.

The Jeune farm at Cordova Bay, c1900. Saanich Archives image.

An equally pleasing sight though in another class of impression was, as I passed the other day, a little group of workers in a large garden where hoe and spade were at work and the planting of the season was in full swing. And they were young people too!

The situation of the village is very pretty, and if only a little community planning were possible a charming effect would be obtained. The background is the long ridge of wooded upland that separates Elk Lake from the sea. The loose sands of this 300-foot ridge act as a sponge to absorb and transmit the winter rains to the level of the underlying clay, and the consequence is that the lowland adjacent to the village is everywhere well watered and, because of the resulting rich growth of plant life, exceedingly fertile. It is true that after such a wet season as the one now closing many of the cottages are surrounded by water at present, but drainage will prevent that. A good deal of the alder forest that made the place so charming in years gone by has disappeared before the advancing settlement, but with care and taste other beauties will replace these wilder ones.

McMorran’s Motor Court at Cordova Bay in the 1950s.

A little side trip into the woods is worth while, early as the season is, but it is difficult to find an opportunity to get in without violating the precincts of some cottage. However, here is a roadway, and as the clearing beyond has as yet no forbidding fence or notice we may venture to cross it to the edge of the sea. In spite of all the timber-felling and removing, the ground is thickly covered with young plants to which no tramping and hauling seems a sufficient discouragement; indeed, they look the better and more vigorous for it. Noticeable especially are the fawn lilies, whose paired and mottled leaves make a carpet so dense that it is almost impossible to put down a foot without treading on one or more plants. These are almost all seedlings, only occasionally is a flowering plant to be seen.

From the edge of the cliff as we look down on the sea below which, with this high tide, washes the rocky base. San Juan lies across the Straits, blue in the distance with still loftier islands behind. Mount Baker and the Cascades are hidden entirely by a bank of clouds, and if we did not know better we should have no record of the most fascinating part of the landscape. It is amusing to notice in the journal kept by Archibald Menzies as botanist to Captain Vancouver’s expedition how little Mount Baker appears to have affected him. He has not a single adjective of admiration, and his fullest description is: “A very high ridge of mountains was observed, one of which was seen wholly covered with snow and with a lofty summit overtopping all the others around it.” Captain Vancouver described it in his journal as a “very high conspicuous craggy mountain, towering above the clouds.” Not very enthusiastic either, you see. But then it must be remembered that mountains were not as yet objects of popular admiration in 1792: Turner and Ruskin had yet to sing their beauties’ praises.

Mount Baker/Kulshan.

The sawed-off ends of James and Sidney Islands appear to the north, and nearer across the Straits is D’Arcy Island, long the abode of the unfortunate sufferers from leprosy until a kinder dispensation removed them to Bentinck Island. Many years ago a Chilean occupant of the D’Arcy settlement, weary of the life among his companions, escaped by the bold hazard of navigating a log across the waters of the Straits of Haro to the shores of Cordova Bay. A day or two later he was recognized on the streets of Victoria and taken into charge. The conditions of his life were wisely eased and eventually he was discharged as cured.

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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