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The Gold Will Speak For Itself: Peter Leech and Leechtown

By Patrick Perry Lydon

Review By Patrick Dunae

August 20, 2015

BC Studies no. 189 Spring 2016  | p. 160-164

Vancouver Island has a distinctive personality among the regions of British Columbia, one that has been shaped in complex ways by geography and history. The books reviewed here vary in their candlepower, but all of them illuminate people, places, and events that have contributed to Vancouver Island’s multifaceted character.

Two of the books deal with Leechtown, the site of a gold rush in 1864. Located near Sooke, not far from Victoria, it was named for Peter Leech, deputy leader of the Vancouver Island Exploring Expedition (VIEE). The VIEE was organized by Victoria business interests to identify and promote the mineral resources of the region. The Dublin-born Leech had earlier served as a corporal in the British Columbia detachment of the Royal Engineers. The VIEE leader, Robert Brown, had come to Vancouver Island under the auspices of the Edinburgh Natural History Society to collect botanical specimens. The twelve-man expedition included the English artist, Frederick Whymper, and John Foley, an American miner. It was Foley who found gold on a tributary of the Sooke River. He generously named the location for Leech, whom history has credited with the discovery. Posterity has likewise been good to Brown, who reported the find, and included a sample of nuggets in a dispatch to the governor of Vancouver Island, Arthur Kennedy. “The whole value of the diggings cannot be easily underestimated,” Brown wrote. “The gold will speak for itself” (14).

Patrick Lydon’s book takes its title from that dispatch. The author, who was born in Ireland and trained as a doctor in Dublin, practiced medicine in Victoria for many years. He is active in several local history organizations, including Victoria’s Old Cemeteries Society. In this attractive, self-published book, he extols Leech’s Dublin roots, valorizes his work with the VIEE, and celebrates his marriage to Mary MacDonald, who came to Victoria on the “bride ship” Tynemouth. The book contains some archival images, reprints of recent articles about the Leech family, and a pot-pourri of other items, including a timetable from the late 1920s, when Leechtown was a stop on the Victoria-Youbou branch line of the Canadian National Railway. In addition, there are colour photographs from the 2012 unveiling of new gravestones for Peter and Mary Leech in Victoria’s Ross Bay Cemetery. This publication, the author says, “is more of a scrapbook than a book” (5). It was compiled in anticipation of the 150th anniversary of the Leechtown gold rush, which was celebrated at Sooke in July 2014.

Bart van den Berk succeeds in establishing the central place of John Foley in the Leechtown saga. His commendable, self-published book is based on primary sources, notably the Robert Brown papers in the BC Archives. The author has examined letters from Whymper and other VIEE members, as well as contemporary newspaper reports about the Leechtown “El Dorado.” He has consulted many secondary sources and scholarly works to place events and participants in their historical context. The book comes with endnotes (which provide additional information on the text) and substantial bibliography. The History of Leechtown Part I was deservedly nominated in 2015 for the BC Historical Federation’s prize, the Lieutenant-Governor’s Medal for Historical Writing. (It received Honourable Mention.) We look forward to Part II.

Both authors are active historians who bring first-hand knowledge to their research. Lydon is a director of the Vancouver Island Placer Miners’ Association. He has a placer claim on a creek near the Leech River. van den Berk, who emigrated from the Netherlands a few years ago with a degree in Engineering, is also a member of the Association. He describes evocatively the allure of panning for gold, and the contemplation of history, in the preface of his book:

Some go fishing, some like hunting, I love sitting in the middle of nowhere, quietly surrounded by nature on a river or creek, playing with water, rocks, gravel and sand, hoping to find that little shiny nugget which makes the day even more special. And while I’m sitting there panning, armed with a modern survival kit, GPS, bear spray and satellite emergency beacon, I always try to imagine how it must have been in the early days. No modern equipment, no beaten trails, logging roads or bridges, no detailed maps….

“This fascination and respect for those early pioneers,” van den Berk writes, “brought me to my interest in Leechtown’s history” (xii-xiii).

Lynne Bowen’s book, Those Island People, was inspired by a different situation. Visiting a remote village in the Italian Alps, she and her husband were surprised to see familiar surnames on the village cenotaph. “We recognized many of the names because their relatives had emigrated [from Italy] to Nanaimo, our home town” (vii). She was struck by the legacy of immigration. “This book is about those [Vancouver] Island people: those who came from Europe, Asia, Africa or the Americas, those who caused trouble and those who became hometown legends, those who died tragically, and those who had the courage to come from very far away and whose descendants live here still” (ix). She offers sketches of about thirty Islanders — single men, women, and married couples. Some of them were introduced in Bowen’s earlier books about Vancouver Island coal miners and Lake Cowichan residents. But other subjects — such as the affable Kim Lee Jung, who operated the Green Lantern restaurant in Chemainus for many years — have not been profiled before. It is a pleasure to meet them. Many of the people presented here were involved in labour unions, socialist political parties, and kindred organizations; they contributed to a leftist, progressive character that is evident in some parts of Vancouver Island today. The vignettes in this book are finely-crafted, as we might expect from this award-winning author who taught creative non-fiction at the University of British Columbia for many years.

Bowen’s book is published in partnership with the Nanaimo and District Museum Society, which supports one of the best regional museums in the province. Stephen Ruttan’s book, Vancouver Island Scoundrels, Eccentrics and Originals, is co-published by the Greater Victoria Public Library. The main branch of the GVPL in downtown Victoria houses one of the best local history collections on the Island. Ruttan, the GVPL’s local history librarian, was born and raised in Victoria; he studied History and Library Science at UBC. As its sub-title — Tales From The Library Vault — suggests, this book was intended to publicize the GVPL’s resources. Some of these tales first appeared in the Victoria Times Colonist and were recounted for listeners of the CBC Radio show, On the Island. In this edition, which consists of twenty brief chapters, Ruttan describes colourful figures like Amor de Cosmos, the irascible Victoria newspaper editor and politician; events, such as the so-called Pig War on nearby San Juan Island; and phenomena — notably the Cadborosaurus sea monster (aka “Caddy”) and the April Ghost of Doris Glavin (d. 1936) that haunts the Victoria Golf Club’s 5th hole fairway. While all of the tales are well told, it’s not always evident how some of the subjects should be remembered. The Brother XII, who founded a cult colony near Cedar in the late 1920s, was undoubtedly a scoundrel. Should we say the same of Joseph Trutch, the colonial official who refused to acknowledge the legitimate claims of native people to lands and resources? What about Stella Carroll, a flamboyant brothel-keeper in Victoria or the celebrated architect Francis Rattenbury: were they “eccentrics” or “originals?” Readers can form their own opinions by following up on the sources for Further Reading that are included at the end of this entertaining collection of tales.

Jan Peterson has written a love letter to Port Alberni. The prolific Nanaimo-based historian is the author of several earlier works on this central Vancouver Island community, but Port Alberni: More Than Just A Mill Town is the most personal. It describes “Port” in the early 1970s, when the author moved there with her husband, who had been hired as plant engineer at the MacMillan Bloedel plywood mill. The community had recently (1967) been enlarged with the voluntary amalgamation of the twin cities of Alberni (now called North Port by locals) and Port Alberni (South Port). The 1970s was a boom time for the coastal forest industry as production levels, corporate profits, and workers’ wages rose steadily each year. The boom was evident in the construction of new houses, apartment buildings, and a large shopping mall. For those who supported the New Democratic Party (NDP) — as most voters in the Alberni Valley did — it was an exhilarating time. The city’s MLA, Bob Skelly, first elected in 1972, would later become leader of the party. Culturally, it was a golden age, with the opening of the Echo Community Centre, creation of the Rollin Art Centre, and expansion of the Alberni Valley Museum and Archives. Throughout this period, Peterson was a reporter for the Alberni Valley Times and member of the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission. “I felt like I had a front seat to the developing history of the town” (10). She also saw how the city struggled in the 1980s, as a result of labour disputes, a severe economic recession, and the near collapse of the forest industry; and how it adjusted to new conditions in the 1990s, with the rise of the environmental movement and assertion of aboriginal land claims. The author describes these recent developments objectively and sensitively. The book does not have an index, but has endnotes and a useful bibliography. The cover image, with a photo by Martin Pederson, is striking. Instead of a conventional view looking down towards the harbour and Alberni Inlet, the cover photo looks up Argyle Street towards Mount Arrowsmith. The author has provided a good, modern history of a vibrant community. The publisher, Heritage House, has added another popular title to its growing catalogue of Vancouver Island chronicles.

Recent social, political, and economic developments on the west coast of Vancouver Island are examined closely by another Nanaimo-based historian, Margaret Horsfield, and Ian Kennedy, who lives in Comox. Their new book comes from Harbour Publishing, arguably the leading regional book publisher in the province. This is an outstanding publication in all respects. The aesthetics and design elements of the book are impressive. The authors’ scholarship and critical analysis of historical and contemporary events are profound. The authority of their work is conveyed assuredly but lightly in an engaging prose style. Although the main focus is Tofino and environs, the narrative ranges over the entire west coast of the Island. It comprises over twenty chapters and runs to nearly six hundred pages. It opens with a description of geological events that formed the land millions of years ago and seismological threats that are pervasive today. Readers are conducted on a fascinating journey that travels across mountains and seas, along beaches and through forests, over a time span of more than three centuries. The book includes informative, clearly-presented maps, plus historical photographs and drawings. The timeline is an excellent feature. There are no footnotes, but the selective bibliography is extensive. As well as printed books, monographs, and periodicals, the authors include references to archival material. (Archival records from Ottawa and Oregon help to inform the authors’ penetrating analysis of missionary activities and Indian residential schools at Ahousat and Alberni.) The authors indicate that a “complete bibliography and notes on sources are available on the Harbour Publishing website” (582). And so it is. The online bibliography, which includes private documents, scholarly dissertations, and documentary films, is definitive. This magisterial book concludes on an optimistic note, with observations on a growing spirit of reconciliation between aboriginal and non-native residents and, among the latter, a growing respect for the environment. The authors sound of chord of resilience and anticipation, too. “Residents of Tofino and Clayoquot Sound are keenly aware that challenges and surprises lie ahead. They expect nothing less. After all, this is an area where people live with the knowledge that a tsunami could easily engulf them….Meanwhile, they ready themselves to catch the next wave of change, not knowing where it will take them. Here on the west coast, another wave is always about to break” (567).

Each of the books reviewed here highlights the diversity of Vancouver Island. The diversity is evident in aboriginal cultures and settler communities, and in various economic activities that have been conducted on land and sea over the years. As these writers indicate, the region’s multifaceted character has also been shaped by the ambitions and achievements, foibles and follies of people — native and non-native — who resided, settled, and sojourned there. The social history of Vancouver Island sparkles in these books. To borrow a phrase from the intrepid Mr. Brown, readers who delve into these books will discover rich diggings and gold that will speak for itself.

The Gold Will Speak For Itself: Peter Leech and Leechtown
Patrick Perry Lydon
Victoria: Lydon Shore Publishing, 2013. 110 pp. $22.00 paper.

The History of Leechtown Part I: The VIEE and the Discovery of Gold on the Sooke and Leech Rivers
Bart van den Berk, editor
Sooke: Van Den Berk Books, 2014. 279 pp. $22.00 paper.

Those Island People
Lynne Bowen
Nanaimo: Nanaimo and District Museum Society and Rocky Point Books, 2013. 118 pp. $17.95 paper.

Vancouver Island Scoundrels, Eccentrics and Originals: Tales From The Library Vault
Stephen Ruttan
Victoria: Greater Victoria Public Library and Touch Wood Editions, 2014. 184 pp. $19.95 paper.

Port Alberni: More Than Just a Mill Town
Jan Peterson
Victoria: Heritage House, 2014. 280 pp. $19.95 paper.

Tofino and Clayoquot Sound: A History
Margaret Horsfield and Ian Kennedy
Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2014. 640 pp. $36.95 paper.