Glen Mofford is no stranger to the saloons and hotel bars in downtown Victoria.
For the past 17 years, Mofford has spent time talking to people, and combing through Royal B.C. Archives and documents at the public history room at the library in search of the stories behind some of the downtown core’s most popular saloons and hotel bars that operated prior to prohibition.
The end result is Aqua Vitae: A History of the Saloons and Hotel Bars of Victoria 1851-1917. The book offers a combination of true stories behind Victoria’s drinking establishments in their heyday between 1851 and 1917.
“It’s an aspect of social history that has been ignored,” said Mofford, who grew up in Victoria but now lives in Port Alberni.
Originally, it was a story Mofford didn’t expect to tell.
After graduating from Simon Fraser University with a degree in history in the 1980s, Mofford planned on teaching or archiving. He eventually fell into a government position in Victoria, which, 14 years later, he was still at.
Every so often as a way to blow off steam, Mofford and his co-workers would go to local pubs, such as the Tally-Ho and the Ingraham (a hotel on Douglas Street, which closed in 2013). Over the weeks, Mofford quickly got to know some of the regulars at the bar, who would tell him stories of when their dads used to go to beer parlours around the city and what they looked like.
“After a while, I found this stuff interesting so I asked if I could pull out my notebook,” he said. “I would ask about a certain person or a certain bar or I would simply say do you remember your time at the Drake?”
Those conversations led Mofford on a 17-year-long hunt to research the stories behind some of Victoria’s most notorious bars and saloons — the murders and suicides, along with the more lighthearted aspect of the bars that were usually open 24/7.
One such story that Mofford found of particular interest occurred in the 1880s. Workers were ripping up the floor boards at the back of the Omineca Saloon, when they discovered a skeleton under the floor boards. A doctor came in and it became clear it was the skeleton of a man who had been murdered and stuffed under the floorboards of the office.
“The book isn’t just about a bunch of guys sitting and drinking in a saloon. It’s a real combination of things. It goes from the very roughest part of town, which was Johnson Street, where yes there were a lot of fights and bizarre things such as raffles and rat races, right up to the Victoria Hotel and even the Empress is mentioned,” said Mofford.
In the future, Mofford hopes to publish a follow up book on the beer parlours that sprang up in Victoria after prohibition in 1954.
Aqua Vitae: A History of the Saloons and Hotel Bars of Victoria 1851-1917 is available online or at most local bookstores.