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Watershed Moments: A Pictorial History of Courtenay and District

By Christine Dickinson, Deborah Griffiths, Judy Hagen, and Catherine Siba

Review By Dan Hinman-Smith

May 5, 2016

BC Studies no. 191 Autumn 2016  | p. 145-146

Those who would wish to time-travel to the Comox Valley of the First World War era need only to walk the streets of today’s Courtenay downtown core. There they will encounter numerous large publicly-displayed photographs put up as part of a collaboration between the city and the local museum in celebration of the centennial of Courtenay’s January 1915 municipal incorporation. Thirteen two-metre-square images line the fence by the intersection of Fifth Street and England Avenue, now concealing a vacant lot but for some seven decades home to the Palace Movie Theatre. Wall-mural-sized photographs of the Palace Livery Feed and Sales Stable and of the turn-of-the-century business district decorate the outside of the Courtenay and District Museum and the Florence Filberg Centre. Even the garbage containers on Fifth and Sixth streets have been refitted with images that pay homage to the same locales a century earlier. The museum and city alike are to be congratulated for this splendid project in public history.

Watershed Moments: A Pictorial History of Courtenay and District was also inspired by the centennial. It draws upon the same rich archive at the Courtenay & District Museum & Paleontology Centre that serves as the base for the street display. Indeed, the book’s cover photo of a 1913 horse race at the Courtenay Fair is the very one featured in life-size form on the wall of today’s Lewis Recreation Centre, near the original heart of the old town on the east side of the Courtenay River. Two museum employees, Executive Director Deborah Griffiths and Curator of Social History Catherine Siba, have teamed with local historians Judy Hagen and Christine Dickinson. They have embedded the images within a text that provides a brief history of the Comox Valley from the late eighteenth century through to the end of the Second World War. Some primary documents and biographical vignettes are interspersed throughout as a way to draw the reader into a more personal connection with the material presented and with the local past. But it is the photographs themselves that are most noteworthy, and in particular the remarkable series of turn-of-the-century glass plate negatives documenting Comox Valley life taken by Kye Bay farmer, miller, and logger Walter Gage. The last image in the book makes the break to colour technology and offers a glimpse of an earlier centennial, as Chief Andy Frank and Margaret Frank of the K’omoks First Nation wave from a convertible in a 1967 parade.

Centennials provide ritual opportunities not just for public commemoration but for discussion about the meaning of the past. In the case of Watershed Moments, the centennial moment was perhaps not fully realized. Courtenay has long had an uncertain identity, the result of such factors as the complex relationships between it and the surrounding communities; between river, ocean, and highway; and between settlers and First Nations. The authors of this volume are not unaware of these complexities, and use the Comox Valley watershed as a metaphor to include materials on not just Courtenay, but on Comox, Cumberland, Forbidden Plateau, Merville, Royston, and Union Bay as well. That may, however, be attempting too much for a relatively slender volume, especially since the authors seem somewhat undecided as to the role that developed text and analytical explanation should play in this book. Alternative approaches might have seen a narrowing of focus to the history of Courtenay alone; to the history of Courtenay, or to Courtenay and District on each side of 1915; or to the life and photographs of Walter Gage, if sufficient materials are available to support such a study. Watershed Moments is nonetheless a worthwhile addition to the small library of Comox Valley history, and the stunning images contained here may well inspire local residents towards a deeper immersion in their past.

Watershed Moments: A Pictorial History of Courtenay and District
Christine Dickinson, Deborah Griffiths, Judy Hagen, and Catherine Siba
Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2015. 208 pp. $34.95 cloth