Then and Now

By Ted Ross


Image D-01228 courtesy of Royal BC Museum and Archives

British Columbia's most renowned architect, Francis Mawson Rattenbury, arrived in Victoria in the spring of 1892. He had come to supervise construction of the new Provincial Legislative Buildings. Rattenbury's design had been chosen over 66 others in the competition held among architects across Canada and the United States by BC's Commissioner of Lands and Works. Now, from his boarding house lodgings on Menzies Street, he would head up construction of the beautiful stone buildings to their completion in 1898.

The Canadian Pacific Railway appeared in Victoria in 1901 when it purchased John Irving's Canadian Pacific Navigation Company. That company, not affiliated with the CPR, had a fleet of ships operating between Victoria, Vancouver, New Westminster and other locations, offering freight and passenger services. They sailed from a terminal at the north end of Menzies Street, four blocks from Irving's house at the corner of Menzies and Michigan Street. The fleet would form the basis of Canadian Pacific Steamships, which plied Victoria and British Columbia waters until 1960.

Canadian Pacific Railway's Ticket Office on Belleville                                                 Image H-03022 courtesy of Royal BC Museum and Archives

FM Rattenbury and the CPR first crossed paths in 1901 when the architect won the competition to build a new 250 room hotel in Vancouver. This was the beginning of a relationship which saw Rattenbury become CPR's unofficial western division architect. As Stan Sauerwein states in Rattenbury: The Life and Tragic end of BC's Greatest Architect, "The chateau style of building he provided...was almost a trademark for the railway's tourism endeavours."

In 1905 he designed a wooden terminal building for the CPSS at Menzies and Belleville. 1908 saw the completion of the Rattenbury designed Empress Hotel on the infilled James Bay mudflats, east of the Government Street causeway.

The CPR commissioned Rattenbury, and his partner Percy James, to design a new steamship terminal to replace the 1905 structure at the north end of Menzies Street. In 1924 the building opened for business. The City of Victoria Downtown Heritage Registry states, "Complementing Rattenbury's vision of the Inner Harbour, this Neo-Classically inspired structure presents a stately and dignified face both to the land and the sea. The use of engaged giant order Ionic columns gives an appropriately monumental scale to this building, which was also technologically innovative, as it was Victoria's first large-scale use of pre-cast concrete." Around the Inner Harbour Rattenbury had designed the Parliament Buildings, the Empress and now the CPSS terminal.

Image D-05216 courtesy of Royal BC Museum and Archives

Canadian Pacific Steamships offered a variety of services from its new Victoria terminal after 1924. Checking contemporary ship schedules, there was a daily sailing to Vancouver and one to Seattle as well as one sailing from each of those cities to Victoria. There was a daily midnight sailing to Vancouver where you slept your way to the mainland city, either sitting in the lounge or going to bed in a rented stateroom; the same service was offered in the reverse direction to Victoria. There was an extra sailing from Vancouver arriving Sunday only at 9:45 pm.

On Tuesdays the steamship Princess Mary left Victoria at 10:20 am bound for the Gulf Islands with stops at James Island, Sidney, Port Washington, Ganges Harbour, Mayne Island and Galiano Island. She arrived in Vancouver about 7:20 pm. Service to the west coast of Vancouver Island was provided by the Princess Maquinna. That ship, especially designed for the stormy waters of the west coast, sailed to Port Renfrew, Bamfield, Franklin River, Port Alberni, Ucluelet, and so on, north to Port Alice. In all there were 37 ports of call on Maquinna's voyages. She was replaced in 1951 by the Princess of Alberni.

Cruises to Alaska could be initiated in Victoria, although the cruise ship, Princess Louise, would be boarded in Vancouver. Victoria was a coastal steamship service hub for many years. Throaty steam whistles echoed across the Inner Harbour as the Princess ships arrived in port. Their signature long-short-long-short blast was known by all in the city.

In 1947 the first diesel-powered car ferry was put in service between Seattle, Victoria and Port Angeles. The motor vessel Chinook, operated by Black Ball Line,carried 100 autos and 1000 passengers with 200 staterooms and a large dining room. It was designed to move people with their autos, and was the sign of the future of saltwater services. Black Ball Lines Canada Ltd. was established in 1951 and was soon operating two ships on a Horseshoe Bay-Nanaimo route in direct competition with CPSS for the Vancouver-Nanaimo traffic. Black Ball ferries took traffic over either end of the ship, leading to much faster stowing of autos than the side-loading CPSS ships.

A labour dispute shut down Canadian Pacific in 1958. Black Ball Ferries went down to labour problems two months later, leaving nothing sailing from Vancouver Island. The Provincial Government was able to legislate the provincially governed Black Ball fleet back to work, but was unable to touch the federally governed CPSS. Almost immediately the Province announced it would build and operate a government ferry service from south of Vancouver to the Saanich Peninsula north of Victoria, creating a new direct water-link from Victoria to Vancouver. It began service June 15, 1960 with two ships operating between Tsawwassen on the mainland and Swartz Bay on Vancouver Island.

In February 1959 night boat service was ended between Victoria and Vancouver. Those two magnificent floating hotels, the Princess Joan and Princess Elizabeth, were sold overseas. The west coast service was ended in 1959 and the Princess of Alberni, the freighter that had been doing the trips, was sold by CPSS. The summer of 1960 was the last which saw the Princess Patricia and Princess Marguerite sail between Victoria and Vancouver.

In 1961 the Royal London Wax Museum opened, first at the Crystal Garden, but before not too long, at the now empty Steamship Terminal on Belleville Street. This was the first display of Tussaud figures in North America. The museum was a number one tourist attraction in Victoria for years.

In 1975 the Provincial Government purchased 8.7 acres of CPR land around the steamship terminal, putting the Rattenbury building in government hands.

In 2005, the Provincial Capital Commission added a steel and glass structure to the full height of the building's west end. The purpose was to provide handicapped access by elevator to the second floor and third floors. As the Wax Museum was on the main and basement levels, it was not served by the lift, but upstairs offices were.


On News 1130 for Sep 15, 2010 we read, "One of B.C.'s most famous tourist attractions closes forever this weekend, thanks to mandated seismic upgrading and a lack of cash. It's been part of Victoria's beautiful Inner Harbour for 50 years, but the Royal London Wax Museum's owners are ready to pack up.

"Ken Layne and his family have run the wax museum for decades. He says the Feds and Province are forcing them out for seismic upgrades, apparently needed for the 50-year-old (sic) former CP Steamship Terminal...All the figures in the building will be moved into cold storage."

Renovation and seismic upgrading in the Steamship Terminal commenced in 2011. The Times-Colonist, 3 March 2011 reports, "Steamship Building on the Inner Harbour is undergoing extensive renovations. The darkened halls that once housed the Royal London Wax Museum have been peeled away to expose ornate designs that have been under wraps for decades."

The article goes on to say, "Rehabilitation work...uncovered two rows of eight stately columns, adorned with decorative plaster, lining the interior of the main floor with its five-metre ceilings. Ornate embellishments and cornices have been uncovered in gold, red and blue. A blue-and-white maritime wave design is featured in decorative medallions topping columns.

"A massive fireplace is adorned with the letters CPR (and is) joined into other decorations in the west end of the 7,900-square-foot main level."

Regarding seismic upgrading, the Times-Colonist says, "A steel frame will be installed inside the building to help support it. On the lower level trenches have been cut into the floor to hold 24 steel piles...drilled down into granite below and secured.

"The building was originally constructed on rubble fill, requiring the piles to be installed. Original concrete was not that strong so a fibre-mesh reinforcement has been attached to the underside of existing joists."

Following renovation and seismic improvements, the search was on for a tenant for the building. In April 2012, the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority became main tenant in this Rattenbury-designed edifice. Their lease would be for twenty years with two  options to renew for a further ten years. They would be responsible for sub-letting space in the building to a variety of businesses.

As of August 2016 tenants are The Robert Bateman Centre and the Steamship Bar and Grill. As well Starbucks Coffee has an outlet while the GVHA has its offices in the building.

In its on-line advertising, the Steamship Terminal says, "This landmark building is once again open to the public. By day or by evening, time spent in the outdoor plaza on the Inner Harbour or under the lights of the main hall will connect you to the experiences of others who entered this graceful structure many decades ago." Their on-line address is 

                                                                                             Photo by Bob Tuomi


Sauerwein, Stan, "Rattenbury: The Life and Tragic End of BC's Greatest Architect," Altitude Publishing, Canmore Alberta, 2003; Dictionary of Canadian Biography, "John Irving," University of Toronto/Universite Laval, 2015-2016; Old Time Trains, "Canadian Pacific Railway; British Columbia Coast Steamships," R.L. Kennedy, 2015; JNB Heritage Consulting Services, "City of Victoria Downtown Heritage Registry," City of Victoria, 1996; Canadian Pacific Steamship Schedules, 1944; Royal London Wax Museum, "Royal London Wax Museum," 2008; News1130, "Victoria's Wax Museum forced to close its doors," Sep 15, 2010; Times-Colonist, "Grand designs back in sight," 3 Mar 2011; Times-Colonist, "40-year deal signed for CPR building," 27 April 2012; Canada's Historic Places, "CPR Steamship Terminal," Ottawa, 2016; Steamship Terminal, "History," Victoria, 2016; Phone conversation with Kenneth Layne of The Royal London Wax Museum, 08 13 2016