This Sunday, July 30th, 2017 is the annual Gorge Swim Fest at Banfield Park. Many of us see the Gorge as a quite, restful post-industrial waterway. Some might even venture to take a dip in its warm waters. But did you know that the Gorge was once a playground to wealthy Victorians looking to cool off from the city.
Between the late 1800’s and early 1900’s thousands flocked to the shores for picnics, outdoor concerts and to swim from its shores. The BC Electric Railway brought Victorian’s to the ten-acre Gorge Park. There were walkways and gardens with strings of electric lights, a Japanese Tea House, vaudeville stage, a roller coaster and merry-go-round all to the delight of its visitors.
In 1911, the city constructed a free public bathing house next to the reversing falls bridge and on the sunny side of the waterway. “The Free” attracted young people from as far as Oak Bay via streetcar and offered them an alternative to "The Pay" bathhouse on the other side of the bridge. Changing stalls with women on one side and men on the other opened to a ramp, which led to the deep water. Diving boards and slides were attached to floating rafts. It is said that 12,000 swimmers descended on the swimming hole in the summer of 1916. (Minaker p.88).
Only strong swimmers could traverse the tidal falls safely, as many inexperienced boaters and swimmers drowned in the tumultuous currents. The Gorge Bridge was where young swimmers, like nineteen year old William Muir learned to dive. Tourists were said to pay to watch children jump from the bridge for entertainment.
In 1922, to attract crowds, there was a freestanding diving tower erected, measuring 110 feet high. It was considered to be one of the highest diving towers in North America, while further challenging divers with an average of only 15 ft of water depth below. This was a thrilling challenge that friends, William “Billy” Muir and Herbert “Buck “ Calder could not resist.
On August 5, 1922 both Billy and Buck were part of a diving exhibition. Billy was the provincial diving champion in the spring of 1922. They had both made two dives during the afternoon with their final dive planned for dusk, after the last of the swimming races. Billy dove first to raucous applause, but surfaced only being able to move his hands. Something had gone wrong and Billy was in need of help. Local champion swimmer, Audrey Griffin, jumped in and dragged him back to shore. Spectators pulled Billy from the water, most likely further injuring his fractured back.
He was taken by ambulance to St Joseph’s Hospital, across from St. Ann’s Academy. His family and friends learned that his spine had been crushed and that he would be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
Local organizations, clubs, and artists fund raised for the Billy Muir Fund to help pay for his medical expenses. It was said that he suffered in great pain until he died three years late in his home on Vancouver street at the age of twenty-three.
His obituary read that his funeral at Sands Funeral Chapel was attended by “an unusually large gathering of friends” and that “many beautiful flowers required a motor to convey them to the cemetery testifying to the popularity of the young man with his friends.” He was buried in Ross Bay Cemetery, April 22, 1925.
To see video footage of the Gorge Diving Tower: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NwUyoUADlTQ
Swimming in the Gorge Waterway at Curtis Point in about 1922- BC History YouTube Channel
Minaker, Dennis, The Gorge of Summers Gone: A History of Victoria’s Inland Waterway (Victoria: Desktop Publishing Ltd, 1998), 103-108.
Minaker, Dennis, Next to the Gorge: A History of the Neighborhood Bound by Tillicum, Burnside, and Harriet Roads and the Gorge Waterway-1852-1996, accessed July 25, 2017, https://www.crd.bc.ca/docs/default-source/initiatives-pdf/gwi-pdf/other-reports/nexttothegorge-dennisminaker.pdf?sfvrsn=2
The Daily Colonist, August 6th, 1922 accessed July 25, 2017, http://archive.org/stream/dailycolonist0722uvic_31#page/n10/mode/1up/search/vancouver+island
The Daily Colonist, April 23, 1925 accessed July 25, 2017, http://archive.org/stream/dailycolonist0325uvic_45#page/n4/mode/1up/search/muir