The Tale of Beacon Hill Park

By Norman K Archer

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It is a common error to assume that the fields of waving blue Camas lilies that adorn Beacon Hill Park every May are indigenous. They have certainly flourished there for countless centuries, which may give them the right to call themselves homegrown, but there is an increasingly popular opinion that they were brought there, perhaps 10,000 years ago, by wandering Asian tribes that followed the woolly mammoth across the Bering land bridge in search of food.

The first white settlers also assumed that the same piece of land was natural, unused and waste. They were wrong. The Lekwungen had been systematically farming there for generations, carefully harvesting the Camas bulbs for food. The Camas harvesting was a most significant annual festival with highly complex agricultural rituals, preparing the ground for future crops. And the modern visitor to the park is misled to believe the misinformation carved into the granite monument at the Beacon Hill Park summit, “When Victoria was settled in 1843, this area was a natural park.” Not so.

James Douglas chose this area for the Fort, over the better harbour at Esquimalt and Sooke because the land looked so fertile. Of course it did - it was cultivated. Fifty years earlier, George Vancouver described the area “as enchantingly beautiful as the most elegantly furnished pleasure grounds of England!” But the painstaking efforts of the Lekwungen were about to be destroyed forever by the misguided, though well-intentioned policies of the white man to civilize the savages. Soon, sheep, pigs and cattle were grazing indiscriminately over the carefully preserved Camas fields and heavy booted men trampled the crops, compacting the soil. Grazing continued for at least 50 years until a complaint was made that the animals were damaging the cricket pitch, so fences were erected. Then came the mowing machines, followed by the introduction of countless varieties of bushes and plants foreign to the area and destructive to the native flora and fauna. Along came the picnickers, the tree-fellers, the rifle range, the horse track, the dog-run and all the other trappings of chic Victoria society. Victoria is one of the few areas in the world where the climate and soil are conducive to the growth of the Garry Oak, which, at one time, dominated the scene and this was noticeably the case in Beacon Hill Park. But the abandonment of the aboriginal land management threatened the Garry Oak with extinction.

Evidence of more than 20 early aboriginal burial cairns marked the southeast slope of the Park; circles of stones of various shapes and sizes with a mound in the middle. White immigrants removed the boulders. Artificially reconstructed cairns are visible in the Park now, but they are a poor substitute for the real thing.

The Coast Salish Lekwungen people dubbed the area *Meeachan* and one name origin theory is that it means “belly” because from the ocean it looks like the fat stomach of a man lying on his back. It received its name “Beacon Hill Park” because two masts were erected on the hillock near the southern edge of the Park, affectionately dubbed “Mount Beacon.” One mast carried a large blue triangle, and on the other, a little to the east, a green square was mounted. If a sailor could see the square through the triangle, he knew he was in trouble. He was heading straight for Brotchie Ledge and inevitable shipwreck. As the years went by, developers came up with some ghastly schemes for “Mount Beacon.” In 1909, an exact replica of the Parthenon in Athens was proposed. The plan was described by its creator as, “one of the wonders of the world that would attract visitors from far and near.” Opponents were horrified, calling it a “tumours monstrosity in the shape of an asinine imitation.” Then in 1964, Mount Beacon was the first choice for the Provincial Museum that would include turning Horseshoe Bay into an enclosed salt-water swimming pool with picnic grounds adjacent. A few years later, an enormous tower in the form of a “Space Age Tree House” was proposed! With almost monotonous regularity over the years and, as recently as 1984, determined developers submitted plans for a “First Class Tea Room” with a resident caretaker on the summit of Mount Beacon.

But delightfully tranquil as the Park is today, it was fraught with bitter controversy in its early days. The Hudson’s Bay Company leased the whole of Vancouver Island from the British Crown for the nominal sum of seven shillings a year - about $1.50. During this time, there was no doubt who had the administrative rights of every square inch of land. But when Victoria was officially declared a city in 1862, the Park was specifically omitted from City jurisdiction. Over the next 20 years, agreement over maintenance responsibilities was never reached. Some said it was the Province, others the City. Protests were common. Fiery debates ensued. Insults were hurled back and forth between the City and the Legislature. One Member of the Legislature remarked that the incompetence of the City was evident by the condition of the streets! The matter was finally settled in 1882 when it was officially turned over to the City “in trust.”

The Park has seen its share of deaths by drowning, suicide and natural causes. But perhaps the most spine-chilling concerns a mysterious suntanned woman, with long fair hair who, in the late 1970s, was seen standing on a rock at the corner of Southgate and Douglas Street every morning for several months. Then, one morning, she was no longer there and was not seen again. However, in 1983, several years later, a woman exhibiting the same peculiar behaviour was seen in the same place, but this woman was very fair with dark hair - almost like a photographic negative of the earlier sighting. Every observer agreed that this woman was a ghostly apparition. Shortly afterwards, the body of a strangled woman with a matching description was found in the bushes, close to the rock. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the two apparitions were the same woman, although the colouring was reversed. Students of the paranormal call this phenomenon a “doppelganger” (double-walker.)

Today, a visitor may walk the perimeter of the 75-hectares that comprise western Canada’s oldest Park, surveying the “Mile Zero” sign indicating the beginning of the world’s longest highway of 7,821km. One may gaze in awe at Mungo Martin’s creation - the world’s tallest free-standing totem pole, carved from one tree, standing over 39-metres high and erected in 1954. But then one may also see the forlorn figure of a dark-skinned blonde standing on a rock - or her doppelganger.


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