‘Big Frank’ Verdier helped lay out Malahat, part 1

Some years ago I received a letter from a lady who wrote that her grandfather,

Francis Edward "Big Frank" Verdier’s contribution to the laying out of the Malahat Highway has been all but overlooked by historians, myself in particular.

In fact, Edna Slater flat out said I hadn’t been "fair to the old boy – his descendants protest!" She was sure that, as "a respected historian," I’d read the attached photocopies. Which, of course, I did, and they convincingly supported her claim that I’d attached too much glory to Mill Bay’s Maj. J.F.L. MacFarlane.

The eccentric major had indeed played a key role in the selection of a direct link to Victoria via the Malahat in place of the existing and circuitous route via Sooke. He’d badgered a reluctant provincial government into finally adapting the route he’d "surveyed" with just an aneroid barometer for a transit level.

Which is where Big Frank Verdier enters the story. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

His saga begins in 1849 with brothers Alphonse and Etienne Verdier of Toulon, France joining in the great gold rush to California. Not striking it rich, Etienne travelled overland to B.C. and arrived in Fort Victoria in 1852 to find work driving a water cart for George Stelly, another pioneer name wellknown in Saanich. Within two years, Etienne owned the business of supplying potable water to city residents and he married Honorah Kilroy, an Irish lass who’d arrived by bride ship.

When he became tired of delivering water with wagon and bucket, Etienne and Honorah moved to Bazan Bay and settled on land near that of Alphonse who’d also found his way to the Saanich Peninsula by then.

Son Frank, the first of four children, was born in 1865 and became adept with a bow an arrow, the neighbouring natives who were his playmates also teaching him how to hunt deer, to trap bear, to mimic bird calls, to spear fish.

He was also invited to attend the secret dances and rituals of the medicine men that, once, included the tearing apart by human teeth of a small dog – much to the six-year-old’s horror.

He grew, as his nickname suggests, to be a "big man" despite a childhood bout with smallpox. His size and strength would serve him well as a logger. An article in a 1931 MacLean’s Magazine recounted how he "cut the big trees on Granville and Hastings Streets, when the great city of Vancouver was in its birth throes". Vancouver hadn’t even been thought of then, he said. "There were only a few shanties along the sea front, a sawmill and a saloon. It looked a big business to clear that forest, but we had it cleared off in a season."

Later, with 12 team of oxen, he helped to clear the Sooke Road; in the off-season he and his oxen cleared his 180 acres of equally stout timber in Saanich and, on a northern ramble, almost singlehandedly, he cut the first trail from Forbes Landing to Campbell Lake and beyond.

In 1931 Frank Verdier was said to be the oldest timber cruiser on the B.C. coast, an accompanying photo showing him with a thatch of white hair and a walrus-style moustache. Then living on busy Verdier Avenue in Brentwood ferry area, he recalled when "there were no roads at all…except the Indian trails, when he had no neighbours between him and old Fort Victoria except the Tsautup Indian [sic] tribe…"

Despite his years he remained an erect six-feet-two, 250 pounds, broad and strong, his shoulders "as massive as a wall". He had the easy stride of the outdoorsman, a "handsome leonine" head, eyes crinkling with a ready smile, and a ready and infectious laugh. Even in retirement he continued to work hard with his orchard, cattle and poultry.

This was the remarkable man who was asked to verify Maj. MacFarlane’s proposed route for a road over the Malahat.

www.twpaterson.com

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