The Quadra Story: A History of Quadra Island
November 4, 2013
Review By Howard Stewart
Jeanette Taylor’s history of Quadra Island is a welcome addition to Harbour Publishing’s growing collection of Coast histories. It draws on Taylor’s profound local knowledge of the northern strait and complements her histories of Campbell River and the “Discovery Islands.” Her sensitive feel for Quadra’s diverse corners and people allows her to reveal evolving relations among them. It’s an often fascinating story full of compelling, if not always likeable, characters.
Local history is inevitably parochial but can be a better read than many academic histories when a writer such as Taylor is armed with stories like those from Quadra Island. As Jean Barman points out in a recent issue of BC Studies (165 : 103), local history enhances our historical understanding “by evoking place from the perspective of families and communities with the intimacy that proximity brings.” For the most part, Taylor tells the stories of Eurasian families and communities, their descendants, and the successive wave of newcomers who had become the dominant element on the island by the twentieth century. But she does not neglect the island’s rich Native heritage. She offers a solid overview of what is known about the Salish speakers who greeted Captain Vancouver at Cape Mudge in the late eighteenth century, then of the Lekwiltok people who had replaced them by the time Eurasian settlers began arriving in the latter decades of the nineteenth century. Native islanders, mostly at Cape Mudge, were decimated by disease and marginalized by colonial law and society. Nonetheless, they remain important, though often separate, players in Taylor’s story. Reflecting the influence of people like Cole Harris and John Lutz, though blessedly bare of what Lutz would call “Pomo wawa” (i.e., postmodernist jargon), Taylor demonstrates that the island’s Native people never stopped playing vital and diverse roles in its post-contact history.
Like other islands in the strait, Quadra has provided a stage for a unique cast of characters and communities. Taylor recounts the origins of the rivalry between Quathiaska Cove and Heriot Bay, the former growing up around a cannery and the latter around a bar. Settlements built around the island’s frontier logging and a bit of mining grew up at the north end of the island – especially Granite Bay. These communities are revealed mostly through stories of their men and women. Billy Assu at Cape Mudge and Reginald Pidcock at Quathiaska Cove emerge as outstanding leaders of early modern Quadra. But its most unforgettable character is probably Helen Bull, the energetic, talented, and not terribly trustworthy proprietor of the iconic Heriot Bay Hotel, who washed ashore from New Zealand in the early 1900s, escaping a murderously irate business partner. An expanding cast of characters bursts into the boom years of the early twentieth century –with logging and fishing both thriving – then endures the brutal setbacks of the First World War and the Depression.
Taylor demonstrates how Quadra’s shifting links with the off-island world affected island life. In the steamship era, Heriot Bay and Quathiaska Cove could be more important places than Campbell River. Once the highway reached northern Vancouver Island, they were left behind. A car ferry then opened Quadra to the recreation, tourism, and real estate industries that continue to shape the island’s economy today. Taylor doesn’t linger in these recent decades. Her last big story is the arrival of the back-to-the-landers, artists and fellow travellers who stirred the ire of many established islanders in the 1960s and into the 1970s before they, too, were accepted.
It is a good story, well told and worth a read by those interested in BC coastal history, especially Native-settler relations, the evolving coastal economy, and the unique social and cultural experiments of the islands. Only geographers will regret that Taylor hasn’t put scales on her maps.
Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing 2009. 272 pp. $32.95