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dave obee R.T. Williams helped shape our history

By Dave Obee

Many people were around to witness the early years of Victoria, but Robert Taylor Williams had an advantage over most of them.

How many people, after all, could honestly say that they were acquainted with every mayor the city had in its first seven decades?

Williams could. He even knew some of the people who took office after he died, so it would be safe to report that every mayor in our first 80 years knew him.

Williams was born in Rochester, New York, in 1849, the son of William and Betsy Williams. He came to Victoria with his family, by way of California, when he was 10.

He was a bookbinder by trade, and won an honorary certificate for the samples he produced for the Second Provincial Exhibition, held in Victoria in October 1873.

He was well-known for his directories of businesses and residents.

He was not the first to produce a British Columbia directory -- Edward Mallandaine had that honour.

Mallandaine compiled several directories in the 1860s and 1870s, and Williams produced a couple of them in the early 1880s. The two men worked together on a directory in 1887.

After that, Williams ran the directory business by himself, with the help of a small staff. He produced directories until the early 20th century, when the Henderson company from Winnipeg took over the local market.

No matter who compiled them, these directories represent superb sources of information for people researching history. They tell us where people lived and worked. They make it possible to trace the evolution of families and communities.

But Williams should be remembered for more than just his directories.

He also sat on Victoria city council, serving from 1894 to 1902 with a year off. He was re-elected to council in 1931 and was an alderman when he died in August 1934.

Well into his 80s at the time, he was the oldest person ever to serve on Victoria council. He did not let his age slow him, though; he even found the time to write a weekly column on history for the Daily Colonist.

Williams was able to provide a unique perspective, as he drew on his early memories of the city. He was living here three years before Victoria was incorporated as a city in 1862, and saw in action many of the most notable people in our history.

Sometimes, he wrote about places rather than people. In 1932, for example, his topic was a lumber mill that was adjacent to the hollow on Douglas Street between Queens and Princess.

Here is what Williams said:

"At one time, traffic to Saanich from Victoria was by way of Government Street only. Douglas Street was opened up years after, and a long bridge placed over a deep hollow near Queens and Princess avenues.

"Until that hollow was filled in, it was used as a reservoir, with an embankment next to Government Street increasing its capacity. That reservoir, along with an undershot wheel, provided enough power to run a mill.

"The late Roderick Finlayson was the owner of the property, a gentleman highly esteemed by all who had the pleasure of his acquaintance. Operations of the mill started in the early 1850s. It was of limited capacity, only cutting a small quantity of lumber daily. The output was of great value for building cabins, barns and larger dwellings."

Williams said the mill employed white men, First Nations and Kanakas -- men from Hawaii who had arrived on trading vessels.

"Although the output was small, efficient work was accomplished so as to aid in supplying the little community which was just starting up. Much of the lumber in use in the first building operations came from California, and a house built of redwood brought from the great forests of the South at one time was quite common here."

At the time Williams wrote the column, a few of those buildings were still standing. He said the material used in their construction had proven to be very durable.

He also reminded his readers that Victoria's early history was still in evidence, even in the 1930s.

"The trees immediately around Fort Victoria produced a supply of logs, and if one were to examine the shores of the arm, stumps bearing the marks of the woodman's axe of 70 years ago are still in evidence, and it is from these that the supply came to keep the infant industry going."

Williams noted some of the other leaders of the sawmill industry, including William Parsons Sayward, "Victoria's grand old man of pioneer days;" Michael Muir at Sooke, "a staunch far-seeing, industrious Scotsman;" and Sewell Prescott Moody on Burrard Inlet.

"The lumber industry in this province contains many names of our best and most respected citizens, of whom, one and all, many pleasant things might be said," Williams reported in his Colonist column.

As a historical columnist, Williams had an enviable vantage point. He was able to write about people he knew, places he had been, and events he had attended. Not many people can make that claim, either.

Posted January 27, 2008


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