There’s a faint Cowichan link to Victoria’s Empress Hotel

I see that Victoria’s landmark Empress Hotel has changed hands, as of June; this time, perhaps for the first time, the new owners are, well almost, local.

Designed by the great architect Francis Rattenbury and built and owned for decades by the CPR, it has in recent years operated as the Empress Fairmont. Now, Vancouver developer

and philanthropist Nat Bosa and his wife have taken possession of what he calls "a lovely old princess…a fabulous hotel…"

There’s a tenuous "what if" link to the Cowichan Valley if you go back, way back, to even before there was an Empress on this site. That’s when this part of the James Bay/Inner Harbour shoreline was a "malodorous" tidal slough, with shanties lining today’s Humboldt Street. Then known as Kanaka Row, it was home to Victoria’s impoverished and down-andouters, the slough at their doorstep serving as their garbage pit.

So it was into the 1890s – even after the Bird Cages, forerunners to the Parliament Buildings, were erected on the southern shore of James Bay and linked to downtown by a rickety wooden bridge, and even after Victoria achieved city-hood. It remained for Australian-born mining engineer Henry Croft – our Henry Croft and Crofton’s namesake – who’d made his stake in sawmilling and real estate in Chemainus to see greater potential for Victoria’s stinky gateway. He hadn’t seen it at first, mind you. Not until he’d had to mortgage himself to the hilt after dabbling in Victoria and Saltspring Island real estate and his partner defaulted with the bank account; not until he’d built a fine waterfront mansion in Esquimalt did an increasingly desperate Henry look about for other opportunities.

His answer for these foul-smelling tidal flats was to fill them in and build a worldclass amusement attraction such as those at Brighton and Blackpool.

Typically of Henry Croft, however, his vision was more in keeping with a Disneyland than just a seaside resort. To do this, when he was $60,000 in debt, he needed investors and the City’s consent, so he set about to achieve both.

Typically, his timing was off. Victoria had just come through a boom, its population having tripled in just 10 years. But, by the 1890s, the entire continent was into a five-yearlong recession that only ended with the discovery of gold in the Klondike in late ’97.

Henry Croft, as I’ve written before, seems to have had the Midas touch – not. For all of his grandiose ambitions and schemes (he could be a true visionary at times), for all his fine English schooling and his credentials as a mining and civil engineer, for all his connections as an in-law of the wealthy Dunsmuirs, he seems to have been jinxed. Everything he touched withered.

As for James Bay, after finding British capitalists willing to back him, he approached the City, the legal owners. In return for reclaiming the James Bay flats and making them a destination tourist attraction, he wanted title and a 40-year tax break.

With the approach of a new century, the City was ripe for change, something on a grand scale and particularly something that would

Nevertheless, there was the usual to’ing and fro’ing, with some councillors for and some against until Henry, becoming impatient, proposed a take-it-or-leave-it deadline.

In a 3-2 vote, Council accepted his terms.

So, what happened? Did he build his Brighton or his Blackpool? Of course not; as history shows, the CPR’s interest had been piqued. Thanks, no doubt, to Henry’s published vision for the entranceway to Victoria, they, too, now saw incredible potential for the Inner Harbour. Hence, in due course, the Empress Hotel and, later, the Crystal Gardens.

And Henry? By the time City Council voted in favour of his Harbour proposal, he’d moved on – to a rich copper strike on Mount Sicker where he’d not only build a railway but create a deepwater seaport at Crofton for a smelter. As it turned out, the Lenora Mine was indeed rich.

But not rich enough to support Henry Croft’s grandiose schemes and, within five years, the mine was finished and so was Henry. This time for good.

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