One colonist’s trash is another man’s treasure, given a century or so.
Hunt around long enough in the Gorge Waterway and antique bottles can emerge from the muck.
For Reece Hygh, the Gorge remains a treasure trove of old handmade bottles and clay jugs produced in breweries and factories dating to the earliest days of Fort Victoria.
“The Gorge is one of the first places people partied. For Fort Victoria, the British colonists drank there and would toss in their bottles,” Hygh said.
“You can still find really old bottles, embossed pop and beer bottles. We’ve found bottles marked ‘poison’. We’ve found U.S. Navy mustard bottles that date to 1858, dried mustard bottles. That is cool.”
Probing the grasses and mud using a rake and a snorkel, Hygh and friend Chris Hill recently found a shard of a bottle stamped with ‘VB’ for Victoria Brewery, which is circa 1868.
That early brewery first used water from Swan Lake and then moved into downtown Victoria. They’ve found ginger beer and pop bottles from Alex Phillips, the first bottler of soda pop in Western Canada, and from Christopher Morely, who had his factory in Waddington Alley in a building since refurbished into condos.
The practice of hunting through silt and muck is called mudlarking, and dates back two centuries to impoverished Brits who scavenged the shores of the Thames River.
Hygh, 54, has collected antique bottles for 40 years and enjoys the thrill of treasure hunting and its connection to local history.
“I’m a history buff. I like relics like embossed bottles from Victoria or Nanaimo or Vancouver or San Francisco,” he said, noting that Alex Phillips first imported his bottles from San Francisco. “I do this as a hobby. We are the keepers of relics. We keep them for a while, then pass them on.”
He normally hunts for old bottles “above the falls,” otherwise known as west of the Tillicum Bridge. Many sections of the Gorge were popular for swimming and socializing in the early 1900s, before the era of industry and pollution.
“I walk the Gorge a couple times per year,” said Hygh, who lives in Nanaimo. “Other collectors walk it every day and still find stuff. Some people go in the water with (fishing) boots and wetsuits. That’s not for me. I scrounge around along the side.”
–with reporting from Sharon Tiffin