Fate favors the prepared, I’ve heard it said many times.  Life on the west coast of Canada is a peaceful existence, the concept of an active war or military confrontation on our shores is a notion that is nearly impossible to fathom.  But that wasn’t always the case, and in the mid 1800’s as Britain was in the active process of colonization, these threats were all too real.  Thus was born the need for and creation of a Pacific Naval Defense system that eventually saw many different elements brought together in the area to form a comprehensive strategy to safeguard the merchants and citizens of the newly created territories.  We were prepared for a war that never came.

We are very excited to launch a new photoblog series here today called “The Toads At Cole Island” where we will be sharing a large collection of photographs we captured over the summer on a private visit to Cole Island in the Esquimalt Harbour on Vancouver Island, BC, Canada.  This island is a true national treasure, and we are thrilled to see that a group of people working together called the “Friends of Cole Island” have worked hard to restore and protect this place to serve as an important link to our diverse heritage and history.

Cole Island - Esquimalt Harbour, Victoria, BC, Canada

Cole Island – Esquimalt Harbour, Victoria, BC, Canada –

We first really became aware of Cole Island and the importance it holds in terms of our local history in the spring of 2013.  Some research quickly revealed that the only access to the island was by boat, no road or path exists as a bridge at all.  After a few emails back and forth with one of the people working in the “Friends of Cole Island” group, we came to find a time and means to make our way across the harbour to the island.  We were even given full access to the remaining buildings on site due to our sensitivity with such subjects, and Mrs. Toad and I then spent an entire afternoon exploring the island from stem to stern, from top to bottom, trying to find all the images and stories we could to share in this series.

As most of those who follow us regularly know, our prime format for our photography practice is in HDR (High Dynamic Range).  This is an ideal format for still subjects as we will see, but it is not ideal when trying to capture pictures of a moving object or from a moving platform.  Like a boat.  This required us to use both conventional and HDR techniques in this shoot, and the picture above is an example of one of the shots we took from the boat as we circled the island, and as such it is not in HDR.  It does, however, reveal the first facade of our incredible adventure and forms the foundation for all that we will see in the upcoming posts.

Cole Island - Esquimalt Harbour, Victoria, BC, Canada

Cole Island – Esquimalt Harbour, Victoria, BC, Canada –

The island itself is really rather small.  A few short minutes is all it takes to make your way around the perimeter and see all the highlights.  Spending time with the elements, though, starts to reveal the tapestry of a great story hidden in the remaining buildings.  Referred to as a “magazine complex”, buildings began to be constructed in 1859 to safely store the ammunition and explosives required for naval defense.  We believe these to be some of the first buildings designed and built in the area during this time of colonization, and as such they are so very important in terms of our heritage.  By 1905, sixteen buildings had been constructed to serve this purpose and were in active use.  The need to place this facility within easy reach of the navy flotilla was tempered with the need to keep these stores as far away from the main navy base as possible to avoid catastrophe.  When you consider the munitions stored here and the times these buildings were in full use, it’s easy to imagine the size and scale an explosion would have had at the time.  It would have been devastating.

Cole Island - Esquimalt Harbour, Victoria, BC, Canada

Cole Island – Esquimalt Harbour, Victoria, BC, Canada –

By the end of World War II, the site was considered defunct and soon fell into derelict condition.  The “Friends of Cole Island” have since formed a working relationship with all the government entities involved in this place and have taken on the arduous role of maintaining and protecting this important site.  As the years carried on and weathering and vandals worked to dismantle the place, key actions were taken to put a halt to this.  Steel doors with  holes cut into them were installed at all the remaining buildings, allowing visitors to peer in while maintaining the much-needed security to ensure the sites viability for many years to come.  We were given unfettered access to all the buildings by our friends who took us out in the boat.  All the doors were opened for us to get inside and explore the site in it’s entirety.  It was a very exciting afternoon for us, one we will remember for years to come.

Cole Island - Esquimalt Harbour, Victoria, BC, Canada

Cole Island – Esquimalt Harbour, Victoria, BC, Canada –

Much work has been undertaken in the years previous to our visit to ensure the buildings that stand will remain so.  The incredible beams and bricks at the site tell their own story, holding the spirits of those who worked here during the times the site was active as well as all the volunteers who strive to maintain it today.  We desperately tried to imagine the men at work inside these buildings, loading and unloading munitions onto the navy ships that would sail up to the doors and take those munitions onboard.

Cole Island - Esquimalt Harbour, Victoria, BC, Canada

Cole Island – Esquimalt Harbour, Victoria, BC, Canada –

Filled Shed Storage and Powder Magazine buildings are all that remains at the site, save for one more building we’ll be discussing and sharing in a future post.  This one above was constructed in 1897 as is evidenced by the date stamp in the bricks above the doorway.  This would have been one of the later buildings constructed as the site was very active for quite a few decades.

When you see a building like this, the first real thing that comes to mind is the great architecture and the rich details and textures found in the bricks and wood used to construct it.  What isn’t immediately evident is the fact that these places were constructed on a tiny island during a time when power tools did not exist.  Think about that for a moment.  When you really take that in, the true scope and context of creating a facility like this comes fully to life.

Cole Island - Esquimalt Harbour, Victoria, BC, Canada

Cole Island – Esquimalt Harbour, Victoria, BC, Canada –

As we were actively making arrangements for our pending visit, we were told of this particular composition.  I am sure it will ultimately be a favorite of ours from the catalog we produce.  What we are looking at here is the underside of the lofty arched brick piers that create the supports for the store building as it juts out over the waters of the harbour.  The engineering and vision used to design this facility are really amazing when you once again consider the time all this activity was taking place.  As we look through the piers over the waters of the Esquimalt harbour, we can see the navy yard in the distance.  This dichotomy of seeing the old and historical in context with the new and modern in the distance creates a truly striking image.

Cole Island - Esquimalt Harbour, Victoria, BC, Canada

Cole Island – Esquimalt Harbour, Victoria, BC, Canada –

As we look at the final image in our inaugural post featuring Cole Island, we see a date-stamp in the bricks above the doorway again.  This one is less discernible but when we view it zoomed in it appears to say 1865.  In the distance behind the brick building we see the homes that dot the shores of the harbour and find ourselves amazed to think of life on the ocean with such a wonderful vista to look out over.  Our deep love for Vancouver Island is rooted in our history, for without it we lose that connection with the past that brought us all here to this point in time.  We really enjoy visiting sites like this and trying to imagine what it must have been like here all those years ago.  Surviving and thriving in a new land with few tools and resources, challenges were found everywhere that had to be overcome for the eventual success and longevity of the community.  These are the stories we love to share.

Please stay tuned over the coming weeks as we continue our story.  As always, we love to hear from all of our visitors so please feel free to leave us any comments you may have.  Until next time, my friends!!

Resources

Friends of Cole Island
Canada’s Historic Places – Cole Island
HeritageBC – Cole Island in Esquimalt Harbour




  1. The old naval forts that encircle NYC are some of my favorite subjects. Glad to see you have similar opportunities out your way. Wonderful set.

  2. avatar Jack Bates says:

    Great site choice, photography and presentation as usual Toad’s…….Jack Bates

  3. avatar Linda says:

    Your images and your words are as captivating as the island itself. Already looking forward to future posts.

    Linda
    Friends of Cole Island Society

    • Thank you so, so much Linda, that means a lot to us! We hope that you and the society will enjoy our upcoming posts from Cole Island, we’re very excited to roll them out here in the coming weeks. We’re also thrilled beyond words to think of coming to revisit the island again when it snows! That will be a totally magical experience, thanks for making that possible!

  4. avatar Jim Nix says:

    nicely done Toad and great subject too!

  5. avatar Edith Levy says:

    Fantastic Toad I really had no idea of this history. You’ve captured some top notch images my friend but my favorite is the second to last with a view to the ocean through the arch way. Just gorgeous.

  6. Good stuff once again, Toads!

  7. avatar Len Saltiel says:

    Your documentation of the history of your island is so interesting Toad. These old places built for wars that never came really tell a story of what was happening back then. The story reminds me of Fort Jefferson in the Florida Keys.

    • Cool, thanks so much Len! Maybe one day we can visit the Fort you mention here, it sounds like a place we’d love to shoot! Many thanks for popping by and leaving us your awesome comments here today, Len, we sure do appreciate it!

  8. Looks like a great place to explore, great post!

    • We’re planning to head back once it snows, apparently it’s incredible there when that happens! Thanks so much Mike, we had a great afternoon on our own on the island taking it all in. We really appreciate your kind support my friend!

  9. avatar Ross Keller says:

    Tell you what, next time you are up near Campbell River, I will take you to Yorke Island if you take me to this place the next time I am down in Victoria?

    • This sounds awesome Ross! I would love the chance if my schedule allows it when you’re down here. Any chance we could book something like this a little in advance to ensure I can do it? I just looked up the details on Yorke Island and it sure looks like something right up our proverbial alley!!