Quadra Island History - A Turbulent Past
by Jeanette Taylor
Quadra Island’s history is packed with bold individuals, men and women who pitted their will against a place that lies within a dynamic point of change. It’s here the tides of south and north Vancouver Island meet, to blast through the narrow passages that separate Quadra from its neighbouring islands. The climate zone changes here too, with slightly colder temperatures emphasized by snowcapped mountains on two skylines. It’s also the borderland between two First Nations groups with entirely different linguistic roots, the Kwakwaka’wakw and the Coast Salish.
As a cultural frontier, the island’s earliest history is one of shifting territorial claims. British explorer Captain George Vancouver visited a large Salish village on the bluffs at Cape Mudge in July 1792. Several decades later the We-Wai-Kai, with roots to the north among the Kwakwaka’wakw, took over the island through a complex process of both warfare and intermarriage.
The late Harry Assu of Cape Mudge said his people moved here because they could catch all five species of salmon year around. Harry’s father Billy Assu was one of the most extraordinary men of his time and place, a natural leader with a powerful intellect. Under his direction, the We-Wai-Kai people navigated the sweeping changes that ensued with the arrival of the first loggers in the early 1880s.
Among these loggers was Moses Cross Ireland, who grew up in the big woods of the State of Maine. Ireland was a man of legends, from his days in the Cariboo gold rush to his work as a timber cruiser and logger. He reminisced about his early adventures in a 1905 Colonist newspaper. “I have seen vast fortunes made by men who bought my timber for a song. They are reputed millionaires and I am still cruising timber. I suppose I must go like all the rest of them but I am not going to quit cruising until they carry me out of the woods.”
Where there were loggers and fishermen there was a need for farms. People from across the western hemisphere were granted 160-acre tracts for $1 per acre, plus the value of their clearing. The government touted Quadra as a poor man’s paradise with “beautiful brown loam, well adapted for the raising of good crops.” But in reality the land was best suited to growing trees and produced marginally productive farms. The typical pattern was for women to run the farms while their husbands worked away as loggers and fishermen. “Water was hauled from a creek at the bottom of the bluff,” recalled a grandchild of one the earliest settlers, the Joyces. “There was a steep trail going down the creek and not a drop of water was wasted after the effort of bringing it up the hill for washing and the garden,” recalled Virginia McPhee. Her grandparents’ farmhouse at the end of Joyce Road is now the James Pottery studio and showroom.
The Heriot Bay Inn is another relic from the 1890s. The hotel, built by Hosea Arminuis Bull of Missouri, was little more than a “watering hole” for loggers until Hosea married a widow with a hotel keeping past. Helen Bull, who dodged a point blank gunshot by an estranged business partner in her native New Zealand, transformed the hotel into a tourist resort. Though she died nearly a century ago, some say Helen still watches over the hotel from her rocking chair by the hearth in the lobby.
The We-Wai-Kai people were not part of the lively social scene at the old Heriot Bay Inn. They were prohibited from buying alcohol and barred by the government from the mechanized fishing fleet until 1926. Even their ceremonial gatherings – potlatches – were made illegal. In 1922, following a large potlatch, Billy Assu and others were arrested. To secure his release the We-Wai-Kai people surrendered their masks and regalia to the Canadian government. Half a century later what remained of the collection was returned to the Nuuyumbalees Cultural Centre at Cape Mudge Village.
While this Cultural Centre is a focal point for island history, visitors today will also find traces of the past in a choice of heritage sites. The abstract petroglyphs, or carvings in stone, on the beach below Tsa-Kwa-Luten Lodge date back hundreds of years. Fruit trees and fields mark farms abandoned long ago on what are now the Haskins and Community Centre hiking trails. While there’s no trace of the once thriving cannery in Quathiaski Cove, a giant iron flywheel in Granite Bay marks the spot of the Lucky Jim gold mine and the photogenic Bold Point dock is a reminder of the days when Moses Ireland shipped cattle from his ranch to his logging camps over a century ago.
Jeanette Taylor is the author of several books on the history of the region, including the BC Bestseller Tidal Passages, a History of the Discovery Islands and Exploring Quadra Island, co-authored with Ian Douglas. Her newest book, The Quadra Story, released by Harbour Publishing September 2009, is loaded with tales of engaging characters and historic photographs.