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Esquimalt, British Columbia

The Township of Esquimalt is a municipality at the southern tip of Vancouver Island, in British Columbia, Canada. It is bordered to the east by the provincial capital, Victoria, to the south by the Strait of Juan de Fuca, to the west by Esquimalt Harbour, to the northwest by the town of View Royal, and to the north by a narrow inlet of water called the Gorge.

Esquimalt had a population of 16,127 in 2001. It covers 7.04 square kilometres. It is home to the Pacific fleet of the Canadian Forces, and forms part of the Greater Victoria Regional District.

View of Esquimalt, looking northeast from the Highrock Cairn, featuring Esquimalt Secondary School

History of Esquimalt

The region now known as Esquimalt was settled approximately 400 years before the arrival of Europeans, by a First Nations people. The treaties of the Hudson's Bay Company, signed in 1843, refer to these people as the Kosampsom group, though they are now known as the Esquimalt Nation. The word Esquimalt is an alteration of "Ess-whoy-malth," a phrase usually translated as "place of the shoaling waters." The Songhees Nation, who have a reserve in Esquimalt, were originally located on the western shore of what is now Victoria Harbour, but were relocated in 1911. Both nations spoke a Coast Salish dialect called Lekwungen.

In 1790, a Spanish captain named Don Manuel Quimper dropped anchor in Esquimalt harbour, which his first mate named Puerto de Cordova after the 46th viceroy of New Spain. Quimper claimed the region for Spain, and placed a wooden cross on a hill. When the Spanish returned two years later, however, the cross had vanished. Control of the region eventually fell to the British.

In 1843, the Hudson's Bay Company was looking for a new location for its western base of operations. The company's chief factor, Sir James Douglas, liked Esquimalt Harbour, but rejected it as a site for a fort because there were too many trees there. Douglas chose a spot on the western shore of Victoria Harbour at the mouth of the Gorge Inlet. He called it Fort Camosun, after the Lekwungen name for the Gorge, Camossung, but later renamed it Fort Victoria in honour of the British queen.

However, ships continued to use Esquimalt Harbour to load and offload passengers and supplies. In 1852, sailors from a British naval ship, HMS Thetis, built a trail through the forest linking the harbour with Victoria Harbour and the fort. This trail, since paved over, is now one of Esquimalt's main streets, Old Esquimalt Road.

Meanwhile, the Hudson's Bay Company decided to try its hand at farming. Douglas leased all of Vancouver Island for seven shillings a year from Great Britain, and had a division of the HBC, the Puget Sound Agricultural Company, come in to develop the land. The Viewfield farm was the first in 1850, with the Constance Cove farm and Craigflower farms added later. The Craigflower farmhouse still exists as a heritage site, as does the Craigflower schoolhouse built to serve the settlers' children. Thomas Mackenzie, the bailiff in charge of the farm, named it for the ancestral home of one of his superiors, in an attempt at flattery. By the mid-1860's, the farms were considered failures and abandoned, and the property sold off in small parcels.

In 1855, the navy constructed three hospital buildings on the harbour to treat casualties of the Crimean War. A small settlement grew up on the water's edge near the naval installation. But in 1858, the discovery of gold on the Fraser River triggered a massive influx of people, who came to Fort Victoria to buy permits and supplies before setting out for the mainland. Many of these ships landed in Esquimalt Harbour. Some of these people stayed in the area, including a few who opened up pubs, as well as some less-than-successful gold miners. With the growing population came the area's first building boom.

In 1865, the British Royal Navy relocated the headquarters of its Pacific fleet from Valparaiso, Chile, to the Esquimalt Harbour. In 1887, a military base was located at Work Point. In 1905, the Royal Navy abandoned the area, but the Pacific base of the new Royal Canadian Navy replaced it in 1910. Gradually, naval life and shipbuilding came to dominate the region's sense of identity. In 1887, the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway was built through the centre of town.

On September 1, 1912, Esquimalt was incorporated as a city. After World War I, it became one of Canada's major shipbuilding capitals.

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