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Listed on the Canadian Register:
Statement of Significance
Description of Historic Place
Cole Island is a low-lying, partially-treed, 0.6 hectare island in Esquimalt Harbour, west of downtown Victoria. It is located close to the active Esquimalt naval base, which it once served as a repository for naval ammunition and arms. On the island are four single-storey brick magazines (buildings for the storage of gunpowder and ammunition) and a guardhouse. Two of the magazines, the most prominent structures when viewed from a distance, stand on lofty arched brick piers over the water. Fifteen other structures, including a jetty, survive only as surface remains.
Cole Island is valued as the location of the former naval magazine complex of a nineteenth-century Royal Navy dockyard, as a former seasonal site of importance to First Nations, and as a recreational site.
Cole Island, now owned by the Province of British Columbia, is nationally and provincially significant as part of the Esquimalt Naval Sites National Historic Site of Canada that commemorates, through a wealth of built resources, a continuum of defence themes such as the Imperial defence period, the creation of the Royal Canadian Navy, and naval institutions in wartime. Along with the former Royal Naval Hospital, the Esquimalt Dockyard and the Royal Navy Cemetery, the surviving buildings on Cole Island contribute to a homogeneous grouping of naval structures that evoke the distinctive sense of place of a nineteenth-century Royal Navy Dockyard, which helped protect British trade interests in the Pacific.
From the establishment of a British navy presence in the northwest Pacific Ocean in the mid-1840s to its use by the Royal Canadian Navy until the end of the Second World War, Cole Island served as a magazine for the storage of ammunition and powder for the supply of the Pacific naval squadron. Its location at a distance from the naval base reflects the dangers inherent in the storage of ammunition, and the need to protect the Dockyard from a devastating explosion.
The standing buildings and their function-specific internal arrangements illustrate the type of naval weapons and ammunition stored there from ca. 1880 until 1945. Internal evidence demonstrates that the standing magazines were used for the storage of projectiles, barrels of gunpowder and other explosive material, such as gun-cotton.
Footprints of other structures illustrate the organization of a complex designed to receive, overhaul, store and issue naval ammunition. The cartridge store arrangements, in particular, illustrate that naval ordnance of the time used separate cartridge and projectile ammunition. The remains of a drying room serve to show that ammunition often arrived wet and unstable after a sea voyage, and the location of the drying room on the end of a wharf shows just how dangerous wet, unstable ammunition was known to be. The remains of a small-arms store serve as a reminder that naval vessels were equipped with side-arms for the crew and the marines on board.
The guardhouse and the remains of an associated garden illustrate that this was a secure place of great value to the British and later the Canadian navies, that required a permanent guard. The fire hydrant system, supplied from the nearby Vancouver Island mainland, illustrates the need for fire-fighting measures in a magazine complex.
Today the island is also valued by First Nations for its former traditional use as a seasonal fishing and camping site and by kayakers, boaters and local people as a picturesque recreational site.
Source: BC Heritage Branch properties files
Key elements which define the heritage character of Cole Island include its:
- island location in Esquimalt Harbour
- proximity to the Esquimalt naval base and deep water
- five standing buildings, including filled shell stores and guardhouse
- remains of the wharf
- remains of the other buildings, including small-arms stores, powder magazines, and cartridge stores
- remains of infrastructure, including fire hydrant system and barrow runs
- remains of the garden and imported plant species
Province of British Columbia
Heritage Conservation Act, s.23, s.13(1)(a)
Provincial Heritage Property (Designated)
Theme - Category and Type
- Governing Canada
- Military and Defence
Function - Category and Type
- Military Support
Architect / Designer
Location of Supporting Documentation
BC Heritage Branch properties files
Cross-Reference to Collection