In the mid-1800s, Cole Island, at the head of Esquimalt Harbour, had wooden walkways and uniforms with no metal for those stationed there.
The reason: one spark and the whole island could have gone up in flames.
The island, technically in Colwood, was once used as the navy’s ammunition storage, including gun powder.
The Royal Navy created the facility, which continued to be used after the creation of the Canadian Navy, up until the Second World War.
Since then, Cole Island has passed from federal into provincial hands and fallen into disrepair.
But now a partnership between a citizen’s group and government agencies have started restoring the site as a testament to its importance as a national historic site.
The next step is to ask the public what it wants done with the island.
The first buildings on the island were constructed in 1859. At its peak, the island housed 17 structures. Over the years, the tide, weather and vandalism have taken their toll on the historic site and now only five buildings remain.
For the past five years, the province and Colwood have been working with the Friends of Cole Island Society to co-ordinate basic maintenance. With $70,000 from the province and matching funds from the federal government, the provincial Heritage Branch hired a contractor to address safety issues and secure buildings that are on the verge of collapse.
“This project wasn’t intended to address every single last defect on the island,” said Richard Linzey, a manager with the provincial heritage branch.
“We identified within that what the subgroup was that were absolute, crashingly urgent issues.”
Colwood is interested in assisting with the project because of the island’s historical importance to the area, said Coun. Cynthia Day, chair of the parks, recreation and culture committee.
“There is some fabulous history there and there needs to be a vision from the community on what they’d like to see,” Day said. “It’s very much connected with the history of the whole Esquimalt Harbour … so we would really like to see that heritage is valued and remains.”
Moving forward, Colwood and the province want to turn to the public to figure out what to do with the island.
The province’s mandate is to facilitate heritage conservation, but with input from communities where the sites exist.
“Why is it important to you? For your community? Why do you value it? What’s your ideal state for the island in 20 years time?” Linzey said. “We’ll ask those kinds of questions and then from that we’ll be able to determine what the community vision for the island is.”
After some type of dialogue with the public, a consultant will develop a number of options to preserving the site, based both on money and public input.
An option, and the one that the Friends of Cole Island support, is to see the site become a marine park, complete with a small dock to moor to and a picnic area for visitors.
“Those are the good visitors and we love to see them,” said Linda Carswell, one of the friends founders. “We love to see kids going over there and people are really using it. It’s just that kind of place that should be open and used by all.”