On a sunny day, hundreds of pedestrians stroll beneath the giant oak trees of Pioneer Square past crumbling sandstone monuments.
Along the park’s Quadra Street boundary, an engraved boulder marks the centennial year of the Fraser River gold rush in 1958 and pays homage to the square’s 18-year history as the city cemetery.
But unbeknownst to most park visitors, nearly 1,300 human remains are buried below the grassy landscape.
Catholic families make up the majority of the northern plots while Anglicans are buried to the south. The park’s northeast corner was likely used by some of the earliest Chinese families who migrated to the colony of Vancouver Island and established Canada’s oldest Chinatown.
“I’ve watched this deteriorate for 20 years,” says Wilf Bruch, past president of the Old Cemeteries Society on a walk through the park.
The square served as the colony’s second cemetery from 1855 to 1873, after Fort Victoria was established in 1843. To mark its historical significance, the City of Victoria is spending $700,000 to restore salvageable gravestones and monuments, install pathway lighting and update landscaping. Work begins later this month and will shut down the 900-block of Rockland Ave. for up to a year.
Bruch and his colleagues have been waiting two decades for the news, and have done much of the legwork gathering historical documents on the cemetery’s inhabitants.
“That’s what we’re all about, trying to make sure that doesn’t happen again, that things don’t get lost or destroyed from lack of attention,” he said.
The cemetery sat largely unkempt after its closure until 1908, when a rogue city parks manager decided the problem was too big to fix and took it upon himself to pile gravestones along the square’s east end.
“The guy lost his job over it,” said Bruch. “It was a very controversial move, but once it’s done, it’s done.”
The original burial plot is lost to history, but scattered records from early churches and the B.C. Archives have been compiled on the Old Cemeteries Society’s website.
Larger monuments, like the bench tombs of John Helmcken and David Cameron, the first chief justice for the colony of Vancouver Island, remain in their original locations. Yet many engravings on less grand tombstones are no longer legible, thanks to years of exposure to the elements.
Even with the funding from parks, the city still won’t be able to cover the restoration cost all of the artifacts held safe by Bruch and the other 150-odd volunteers in the society. Staff hope to find fundraising partners for that phase of the project.
At a council meeting last Thursday, council ensured Pioneer Square will be protected by heritage designation once work is complete.