tofino history - voices from the sound

Voices from the Sound

by Margaret Horsfield

In the last issue of Tofino Time Margaret Horsfield described how her new book reflects the history of the west coast in the early decades of the twentieth century. Based almost entirely on letters and diaries, it allows the "voices" of the time to be heard.

Here, she writes about some of the people in the book, and how they have come alive to her.


n a grey day threatening rain, try to be on the shoreline overlooking Tofino harbour. As the light closes in and the horizon blurs, wait. Look carefully as the rain starts to fall, and imagine this harbour a hundred years ago. Through narrowed eyes, blinking the rain away, you might be able to conjure up glimpses of the past.

Small dugout canoes may come slowly into focus, heading towards the Tofino dock. The coastal steamer also comes into view, black smoke belching from its funnel, the screech of its steam whistle announcing its arrival. The harbour suddenly seems full of small boats, paddling fast to meet the steamer. James Jones could be in one of the canoes, having just arrived from working his mining claims up at Sydney Inlet, with a sack full of ore to be shipped to Victoria. At the turn of the century, Jones was a cheerful, constant presence in Clayoquot Sound. Buoyantly optimistic, unshakably convinced he would make a fortune from his mining claims, he travelled hopefully around the Sound, frequently writing to Walter Dawley, the storekeeper at Clayoquot, on Stubbs Island.

"Give my kindest regards to all the boys," he wrote repeatedly. The "boys"were young men just like him, prospectors who came and went seeking valuable minerals, frequenting the bar and hotel at Clayoquot as they passed through. They had sizeable debts at Dawley's store where they outfitted themselves, they registered their claims through Dawley, who was Mining Recorder, and they all knew him well. But only Jones had the temerity to address Dawley by his nickname "Charley," and to crack jokes about Tom Stockham's bald head. "Is he still using that patent hair elixer?" asked Jones, after seeing his reflection in Stockham's bald pate.

Stockham was Dawley's business partner until 1903. From the early 1890s, the two men successfully operated three stores on the coast: at Clayoquot, at Ahousat and at Nootka, where they employed a succession of colourful, sometimes dubious, characters as storekeepers. These included Fred Thornberg at Ahousat, who was perpetually at war with the Ahousats even though he was married to an Ahousat woman. He was succeeded by William Netherby who promptly embroiled himself in an appalling grave-robbing scandal. Up at Nootka, the ambitious James Sloman learned the skills of fur-buying when he "did not know a rat from a beaver" and became coolly determined to beat Dawley at his own game; his successor Alfred Vaughan, made of less stern stuff, fled Nootka in horror after two short weeks, terrified by Indian dancing.

Stockham and Dawley oversaw all this from their Clayoquqot headquarters, provisioning the stores as they saw fit, buying every fur they could, outfitting sealing ships as long as the fur seal trade continued, loathing all competition, and dreaming of acquiring an ironclad monopoly on west coast trade. The two men were wily, conniving, and tough as nails; perhaps inevitably, their partnership dissolved in bitter acrimony. Dawley struck Stockham's name from the letterhead and carried on alone.

Whenever the coastal steamer arrived in Tofino harbour, Walter Dawley waited over at Clayoquot, anchored in place, large and implacable, behind his store counter. The steamer came to him after calling at Tofino. Grimly unamused by the very existence of the new Tofino townsite, Dawley had set up shop at Clayoquot because it was the established centre of trade and communication in the area; in his worst nightmares he never imagined his business epicentre would be eclipsed by Tofino. However, at Clayoquqot he had the only licensed beer parlour in the area, so in that respect Clayoquot ruled supreme for years.

Even the Roman Catholic priests from Christie Residential School at Kakawis on Meares Island liked visiting Clayoquot for a beer. Dawley often saw Father Charles Moser paddling awkwardly across the harbour, and Father Charles recorded these excursions in his diary. "...proceeded to Clayoquot to pay a bill and do some shopping, after a glass of beer returned to Kakawis." On another occasion, Father Charles set out in "a terrible sea" to get the mail from the Clayoquot post office. "When I was about a quarter of a mile from Clayoquot wharf," he wrote, "I could see the steamer there when I came to the crest of a wave, but down again I went between waves and I could not even see the top of her masts." Father Charles regularly travelled by canoe, ranging from Opitsat to Kakawis to Hesquiat to Nootka and back again: eleven hour journeys in the winter rains and afflicted with perpetual seasickness became normal during the thirty years he was on the coast.

Meeting the coastal steamer at Tofino or Clayoquot, and visiting the store, was a special treat for older boys from Christie School. This allowed them a brief respite from the rigid schedule of work, lessons and religious services, a welcome break from the stern discipline at the school. Amongst the older boys at Christie School was Cosmos Damian William. Frequently unwell, he may not have been strong enough to paddle to Clayoquot from Kakawis. He wrote of his illness in a remarkable letter: "I am sorry to say that I am spitting blood for three days...I feel very weak," he wrote. "I used to be happy before but I am feeling very sick now." At Christie School, tuberculosis was rampant.

But the boys who were well sometimes had a parcel to deliver, or mail to collect, when the steamer arrived, as it did every ten days. Then, crossing the harbour, the boys'canoe would be the fastest, effortlessly skimming across the harbour, sometimes bearing notes for the storekeeper from the priests or sisters at Kakawis. Could Dawley's pedigree bull service the Kakawis cows this season? Where is the refund for the tins of corn that were sour? Why did Dawley charge so much interest on the last bill?

The stories carried by these canoes that appear in the harbour - and in your mind's eye, as you strain to see them from the shoreline - are vivid, powerful. The people involved can all be traced, though letters, diaries, memoirs, for they lived here, they were part of this landscape, as real as rain.

The survival of their stories is remarkable, even if only fragile strands of story survive in scraps of memoir and in letters. For many of us, even our own stories, let alone those of our grandparents and great-grandparents, do not survive.

To be involved with other peoples' stories, to assist their survival in writing Voices from the Sound, has been a true privilege.

On Sunday November 16th at 1:30 at the Legion Hall in Tofino there will be a book launch for Voices from the Sound. Margaret Horsfield will give an illustrated talk.

The event is sponsored by The Land Conservancy. Admission $5.00.

Books are available at the launch for $40 (normal retail $45). Proceeds and part of book sales will go to The Land Conservancy.

For more details about the book, and about book presentations in other locations during the month of November, see

Tofino Books

Tofino Time Magazine November 2008

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Margaret Horsfield shares another excerpt from 'Voices from the Sound', her book about life in Clayoquot Sound in the early 20th century.

tofino time november 2008

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