Jordan Rover Powerhouse by Elida Peers
Motorists who drive the West Coast Road at Jordan River nowadays view the pounding surf, glimpse black clad figures riding the crests, and admire the “quiet little seaside community,” generally have no knowledge of the bustling industrial metropolis that once dominated this site.
More than one thousand men were employed, housed and fed here when the development of the hydro-electric system was at its height around 1910-20, to say nothing of the additional hundreds on the payroll of timber companies, who began railway logging in 1907. Transport was mainly by water up until 1912, when the Old Otter Point Road was put through to Jordan River.
While the shell of the old powerhouse still stands on its concrete foundation today, back of the WFP repair shops, gone are the glory days when it produced the power that ran the City of Victoria. (See photo, 1930’s.) During those years Jordan River boasted a nine-piece orchestra, a social setting with manicured lawns and tennis courts, and hosted Canada’s Governor General, Lord Willingdon.
Helping to fuel the economy of our province has been a traditional role of the great watershed of the Jordan Meadow and Jordan River Valley. While its water resources produced electricity, its fertile hillside resources have offered an abundance of forest harvest.
It was 1908 when D.I. Walker arrived on the scene, travelling by coastal steamer. He had charge of a massive undertaking – the construction of a hydro-electric system to supply the power needs of the City of Victoria. While a hydro system at Goldstream had begun producing electricity a few years earlier, it was becoming apparent that the city would need much more power.
While exploring for possibilities, Vancouver Island Power Company’s engineer G.M. Tripp traveled through Jordan Meadows, recognized its enormous potential, and surveying for construction began. Flowing from Jordan Meadows and Bear Creek Valley to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the water was channeled into two large reservoirs, Bear Creek and Diversion Dams, and released into a flume that would carry it to a lower level.
The flume that carried the water to the forebay reservoir was a long, open trough, built initially of red cedar, and later replaced by Douglas-fir. It was eight feet wide, six feet deep, and wound for five and a quarter miles along the precipitous hillsides of the Jordan River Valley from Diversion Dam to reach the forebay. From there it was conveyed through penstocks to the 26,400 kilowatt powerhouse built on the east bank of the Jordan at sea level.
Speaking of the powerhouse brings to mind well-known names in the region’s history. First the family of D.I. Walker, the first power company superintendent who went on to build the Jordan River Hotel in 1935, the Jack Elliott family, the Ted Banner family, the Lewis Fatt and George Oliver families.
Cliff Banner recalled “The old streetcars were still running in Victoria when I started work there in the forties, and you could tell the drain on the generators in the plant when the streetcars started up…” Jack Elliott added “the old meter, you could see it running up and down, up and down, according to the increase added or the drop in the load – another thing that drained the generators was the motor operating the pumps at Victoria dry-dock…”
V.I. Power Company was a subsidiary of B.C. Electric, and when they were taken over by the provincial government in 1962, the system came under the B.C. Hydro and Power Authority. Today a new powerhouse and new system, developed in 1971, continue the tradition of sending electricity to power southern Vancouver Island. The new plant, with a capacity six times greater than the old one, stands tucked out of sight on the west side of the river.
While for some time in retirement the old powerhouse structure stood almost derelict, windows broken, gutted of its machinery, in recent years it has taken on new life. Under lease, it now shelters a value-added forest products production plant, operated by Dwayne Busetto.
Old records show that the first power reached Victoria on September 10, 1911. While the building has changed dramatically from the days when the roar of its turbines drowned out conversation, though it is surrounded by encroaching alders, there is an aura still, a haunting reminder of the days when it helped light up southern Vancouver Island.
For more regional history, please visit the Sooke Region Museum.
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