Victoria’s Wild Days

Victoria was wide open in the years surrounding the turn of the century. There was always a bar at your elbow, the Brown Jug, the Grotto, Garrick’s and the Retreat. Drinks were two for 25 cents and there was always someone ready to stand a treat. No jiggers on the bottle in those days, just call for your brand and the bottle was placed on the bar in front of you — you poured what you wanted, one finger, two, half a glassful.

If three went In, why you all bought a drink each and one for the bartender, and any decent bartender always reciprocated. That was the great part of life in those days, the bars. The Pacific Northwest experienced five gold rushes in the period from 1840 to 1890 and three of these occurred in British Columbia and the Yukon, on the Fraser River, in the Cariboo and in the Klondike.

The era of the gold rushes saw the wilderness that is now British Columbia change from a fur trader’s paradise into an area sprinkled with numerous settlements, small towns and a few cities. It is hard to exaggerate the acceleration these gold rushes gave to our growth and economy. Imagine Fort Victoria In 1858, a town of around 2,000 inhabitants, suddenly flooded with 10,000 California prospectors, scrambling ashore, in Esquimault, overwhelming our rather sleepy populace with their excitement and dreams of Eldorado.

Victoria, Vancouver and Seattle became the jumping off spots for these starry-eyed fortune hunters, the place to get their outfit and supplies, the last chance to whoop it up on the way to the diggings and a place to stop over and show off new found riches, or to drown sorrow on the way back. The main streets of the cities became one continuous row of merchants of booze, wholesale by the barrel or retail, by the bottle or glass.

In 1862, with only 2,500 permanent residents, Victoria had about 21 saloons; by 1900 with 20,000 residents the number of saloons had grown to 83. With so many bars at hand, you would wonder at the popularity of the bootlegger with his ever-ready, still spouting forth “tangle leg,” or “snake head,” the latter generously laced with kerosene. However, there was always the illegal sale to the Indians, and to that ever present segment of society who delight in shady dealings and getting a bargain to boot.

All the men drank, regardless of class, and while ladies were not permitted in bars, it was “genteel” to slip out a quiet brandy to the coach where she sat waiting. In fact, there may have been more drinking among women than we think. To quote the Victorian Home Journal, in 1893; “Drunkeness among women is increasing to an alarming degree, and the habit is not confined to low and middleclass.”

The decision to throw Victoria wide open to reap the benefits of the second-hand gold was made in the latter part of the 19th century, probably by the city fathers. The plan worked admirably and as long as the northern bonanza continued our own little gold mine kept producing. Thousands of visitors, all needing accommodation, food, drink and entertainment, clothing, miner’s equipment and transportation, landed at our wharves — a captive market both coming and going.

The saloons abounded, offering every type of entertainment you could want, gambling, keno, craps, chuck-a-luck, roulette and of course a multitude of “ladies of the evening.” Beer was sold in wagons in Bastion Square, regardless of the fact there were 14 saloons on Johnson between Wharf and Government.

There were one or two memorable entertainment palaces, such as the famous Savoy, run by Black Jack McDonnell and the California Saloon, run by the feisty, tassle-hatted Andy Bechtel. The Savoy, located on Government, between Yates and Johnson, a first class music hall and our only burlesque house boasted standing room only on opening night. The raised, private boxes along the sides of the theatre, even had curtains up to keep them really secluded.

There were girls onstage, skits and jokes as raw as the patrons could take, with bouncers on hand to throw out the drunks who got rowdy. The California, on the corner of Johnson and Waddington Alley, was memorable because of its most notorious employee, the original Annie Rooney, a transvestite, who played the piano in the bar, between pints that is. Her fame as a piano player faded long before her reputation as having served six months in the United States Navy before her sex was discovered.

The most notable thing about a saloon was usually its stink, which wafted out into the street, almost felling you as you walked by. It was a musty odor, damp and clammy, an odor compounded of sawdust, tobacco juice, malt, metal polish and whisky. Of course the fast style of living was bound to rub off on some of the more impressionable local types and when a few of the young bloods of Victoria got into trouble over gambling debts, things were not quite so rosy.

Drunkenness and crime of all types Increased to an alarming degree and stealing from the local firms to cover gambling losses was not uncommon. Yes, Victoria had indeed become a wide open city. With the petering out of the Klondike gold supply in the1890’s, activity in the town suddenly slowed down. The turn-of-the-century property boom ended at the same time the young men began to leave in droves for the First World War. The Ban the Bar crusade closed forever the swinging doors of the saloons, and along with them the many flimsy doors in the overblown hotel business. Two years of bone-dry prohibition finally put the finishing touches on closing the city, legally, that is.

We did, however, have one more brief but colorful chapter during the two-year dry period, before we began to completely rollup the sidewalks. Rum-running by our American neighbors to the south, was the order of the day. Victoria’s coastline lent itself well to such activities. Smuggler’s Cove, on Ten Mile Point earned the name any one of dozens of busy small bays could have claimed.

So you can see, if Victoria is rolling up her streets at eight, it isn’t that there are stodgy, far from it; they are just taking a well earned rest!

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