Oak Bay Heritage is celebrating a landmark preserved as Trial Island lighthouse officially garnered heritage designation from the federal government.
“The designation of this lighthouse ensures the protection of its heritage character for present and future generations,” said Minister of Environment Leona Aglukkaq, in her letter notifying the Oak Bay Heritage Commission.
Trial Islands Lighthouse is designated under the Heritage Lighthouse Protection Act that was championed by retired senator Pat Carney.
A total of 21 lighthouses will be revealed as having new heritage designation in coming weeks.
“Trial Island was one I was particularly happy to see. The community really embraced it,” she said.
Carney explained that the heritage designation means the Trial Island lighthouse and outbuildings cannot be “demolished, altered or transferred” without public notice and must be maintained to international conservation standards.
“This means the community of Oak Bay can feature the historic lighthouse in its promotion and planning without fear it will be removed or abandoned,” she said. “The heritage designation recognizes the historic importance of Trial Island in B.C.’s maritime history. In colonial days the British Navy sent its ships for a “trial run” after refitting them at the Esquimalt naval base. In recent years the light-keepers at Trial Island have saved many lives in marine accidents.”
Carney, who lives on Saturna Island, said the 21 B.C. lighthouses which are receiving heritage status represent a treasure chest of stories and cultural opportunities, which add to coastal communities’ history and attract tourists.
“It’s such an icon in the community and that’s one of the most treacherous parts of water in this area. There are many shipwrecks in that area,” said Bronwyn Taylor, chair of the heritage commission.
The designation took years to achieve, says Cairine Green, who served as council liaison to Heritage in 2011 when Gwen Ewan initiated a lobby for the scenic and historic site.
“Tragically she passed away the following August, in the wake of her death the commission picked up the project,” said Green.
The job was taken up by Heritage, which is made up of the Oak Bay heritage commission, foundation and archives.
“It’s an excellent example of the power of community and volunteers working together for something they really believe in,” Green said. “It’s an honour for Gwen’s memory too.”
The commission has waited anxiously since May 2012 for the federal government’s decision.
“We’re glad the wait is over. I’m curious now to see what other lighthouses got designation in B.C.,” said Heritage volunteer Paul Maurenbrecher, among those who did copious research, filing and form-filling for the application. “It’s nice to finally have the lighthouse designated. It’s such a landmark, we see it from everywhere.”
The lighthouse has been a visual, symbolic part of Oak Bay’s heritage for a century.
“The lighthouse itself was built in 1906 so that’s another connection with Oak Bay, that’s the year Oak Bay became a municipality,” Maurenbrecher said. “There have been a few changes to the lighthouse, including replacing the light, and it’s nice the original light is in Bastion Square.”
In his research Maurenbrecher found an admiralty chart dated 1858-59, based on a survey by Captain Richards, that shows the names Trial Islands, Enterprise Channel and McNeil Bay. An older map dated 1853 also shows the name Trial Islands. The name probably reflects the dangers to navigation around these islands. Strong winds and tidal currents had caused many disasters, one of them the tug Velos with a loss of five lives in 1895. The Songhees First Nations’ name for Trial Islands is Tlikwaynung.
The original lighthouse consisted of the keeper’s residence, a white, square, wooden dwelling surmounted by a red roof, with a red, circular metal lantern room on top. The fog alarm is no longer in operation. A separate light-tower was built in 1970 – a slender white cylindrical concrete structure. The concrete was made up of a quartz aggregate and white cement to give it a white appearance without the need for painting. Current buildings include the original lightkeeper’s residence, the assistant lightkeeper’s residence, the boathouse and other outbuildings.
Access is restricted to Trial Islands as it’s also designated an ecological reserve.
“We plan to produce a brochure about the lighthouse. Not many people know about that lighthouse, they know it’s there and that’s it,” Maurenbrecher said. “What will be interesting is to produce some stories and maybe get them published. That would be – especially now – a good idea.”