A challenge issued by the Goldstream News Gazette 38 years ago has finally been met with the unravelling of the mystery of the Colwood Hygienic Mineral Water Co. of 1911.
A Gazette article from July 28, 1978 details the mystery of Colwood soda bottles discovered around that time in Vancouver and on Vancouver Island, proving the existence of a long rumoured soda company on the West Shore.
At the time, researchers and collectors had been unable to find any information or further evidence of the existence of such a business and the Gazette asked readers with any information about the Colwood Mineral Water Co. to come forward and “help solve the mystery.”
“So here I am,” Bill Wilson said.
A self-described part collector, part detective, part amateur historian, and a former Colwood-resident, Wilson went to great lengths to crack the case. He received help from other collectors and local historians, and delved deep into the B.C. Archives.
“It’s kind of a detective story, and I’ve had a lot of fun with it,” Wilson said. “Everybody knows about the bottles, we’ve been collecting the bottles for 40 years, but nobody knows the history of it.”
Less than a dozen bottles from the Colwood company are known to exist, two of which are in Wilson’s collection, both ceramic bottles used for ginger beer. Clear glass bottles are also in collectors’ hands, likely for ginger ale and soda water, along with a glass soda syphon for bar mixing.
All are etched with Colwood Hygienic Mineral Water Co. But what no one could figure out is just what that was.
Wilson’s “smoking gun” came about four years ago, in the form of a court document.
A fellow historian, Chris Hanna, a researcher with a deep knowledge of the provincial archives, found for Wilson a court document revealing the creation of the company. The company had not been in any directories, had never been incorporated, but it turned out it had been registered before a judge.
“This is the only known reference to this company,” Wilson said. “You can’t even imagine the number of people that have been looking for that answer.”
In preparation to start production, bottles would have been ordered from England and shipped to Victoria via steamship around the tip of South America, as the era predates the building of the Panama Canal.
Wilson figures it would have been around the time the bottles arrived in 1911 that one of the partners in the business, a Baker brother, died of a heart attack.
His death must have spelled the end of the enterprise. With the court document in hand Wilson now knew the company existed, but the fact Baker’s will didn’t mention the company meant it must never have been built, or else it would have been listed as an asset.
“The company never filled a bottle,” Wilson said.
Only one mystery remained: where were they planning on building it?
Frank Braine, a well-known Colwood character who died in 1958 after a life as a cowpuncher, actor and commercial fisherman, was one of the partners in the business and owned the land on which Wilson figures the plant was supposed to be built.
Braine isn’t listed in any directory, but Wilson dug up a voter’s list from 1912, which told him Braine owned Section 107.
“The only question then is, where the hell is Section 107?” Wilson said.
Another historian friend, Ron Greene, managed to find a 1928 map of Colwood, detailing the lots, with lot 107 shown on the edge of Mill Hill Regional Park, in what is now Langford.
Looking at the map, it shows Mill Stream running through the only flat section of the property, the perfect location for a soda factory. This puts the planned, though never built, location of Colwood Hygienic Mineral Water Co. at about the location of what today is Cedar Vale Park, a small slice of nature surrounded by development.
That the area is now a park is a perfect ending to the story, Wilson said.
“The one place they were going to put the bottling plant is still the way it was.”
As it turns out the area is nearby where Wilson used to live, and he used to walk right by the park while specifically keeping an eye out for signs of the fabled soda company. It was both never there and there all along.
Bottling up history
-Bill Wilson has been a collector of rare B.C. soda and beer bottles since the 1970s and has written two books on the subject. He hopes to write a third, which will include the story of the mystery of the Colwood Hygienic Mineral Water Co.
-There is a thriving community of collectors for these antique bottles, with some worth thousands of dollars.