T.W. Paterson: Clara Dick watched Vancouver Island grow

Ladysmith was another of the towns that she watched grow “from nothing along the shores of Vancouver Island”.

Ladysmith was another of the towns that she watched grow “from nothing along the shores of Vancouver Island”.

Born in a prairie schooner on an American desert, and a resident of Vancouver Island when “wolves and panthers infested the neighbourhood of towns”: this was the exciting background of pioneer Clara (nee Westwood) Dick.

Ninety years ago, she recounted how she’d watched Nanaimo grow from a mining village at the edge of dense forest into a thriving city. Then 82, and in Victoria to attend the city’s first pioneer reunion, Mrs. Dick told a newspaper reporter how, in 1852, her father William Westwood, her mother and their young family had headed west by covered wagon for San Francisco and the land of golden opportunity. Despite the threat of Indian attack, the wagon train had proceeded westward until it came to Fort Bridges, Montana, where all, newcomers and Natives, had gathered round to see the first white baby born during the trip: Clara Westwood, the future Mrs. Archibald Dick.

Although she was too young, of course, to remember the event, her mother had often described the scene to her: how a score of faces, young and old, grizzled and hard, had clustered about the wagon, patiently waiting for their first look at the infant. Mrs. Westwood, she said, had been terrified lest “the savages should carry away her treasure”.

Upon safely arriving in California the Westwoods settled in, only to grow restless once more; this time for the wilds of British Columbia. All those years later, Mrs. Dick could distinctly remember her first impression of the new colony, how she’d stared in childish awe at the “great dark trees”. But no sooner had they settled in Victoria than Mr. Westwood decided to move again, to Nanaimo, where the family finally settled for keeps.

Upon landing near the old Hudson’s Bay Co. fort, the Westwoods had hurried on shore. On the top of the bank nearby grew a little thicket of gooseberry bushes, laden at that season with tempting fruit. Dashing into the thicket, and oblivious to the prickly bushes which clawed at her skin and clothing, little Clara picked and ate the berries to her heart’s content. At least until she suddenly realized that she was alone and, panicking, she began to scream. Fortunately, a Mrs. Thompson was nearby, overheard her and came to the rescue, then took her to her parents who, in the rush of securing accommodation in the hotel, and taking care of the family effects, hadn’t missed her until that very moment. Mrs. Thompson’s opportune arrival bringing Clara back into town, had just averted a mass alarm.

At East Wellington, Mr. Westwood pre-empted and bought enough land (todays’ Westwood Lake Park) on which to start a farm and erected a sturdy log cabin for his growing family, all youngsters turning to the daily chores regardless of sex. Long after, it was Mrs. Dick’s boast that she’d driven a team and milked the cows as well as any of her brothers.

Once, she recalled, she’d been playing on the edge of a lake when a large cougar stepped from the forest for a drink. Much to her relief, the cat panicked upon seeing her and returned to the bush. On another occasion, she and a brother were walking along a country lane when they met two wolves. Again, happily, the animals had chosen to retreat.

There was further drama when, during a forest fire which raged from Nanaimo to Mount Benson, Clara and a sister had set out with food for two of their brothers who were fighting the blaze. They found the youths overcome by smoke inhalation and exhaustion; the girls’ chance arrival saved their lives.

Years after, Clara became Mrs. Archibald Dick, wife of the B.C. Inspector of Mines, and they had eight children. In 1924, by then widowed, Mrs. Dick was enjoying the “peaceful evening of her days” with her youngest daughter, Mrs. W.A. Cullum, at Ladysmith — another of the towns that she’d watched grow “from nothing along the shores of Vancouver Island”.