By the turn of the century, sixteen structures covered the small island. Now, after many years of neglect and deterioration, five structures remain including the original powder magazines.
Today, thanks to the hard work of the non-profit group Friends of Cole Island Society in cooperation with the Province of BC, the buildings on the Island have been undergoing restoration and are now accessible from sunrise to sunset by a small dock on the west side of the island.
The Self Guided Tour starts at the end of the dock, where you will see an information kiosk with a rundown of the history of the island. The boardwalk to the right takes you to the wooden deck overlooking the harbour towards the Juan de Fuca straight. The large white building you see is the former guardhouse that serves as the caretaker’s private residence and is not open to the public.
The island is small, allowing for a quick journey to its heart where a row of brick buildings stands restored to their former glory with a fresh coat of pristine white paint.
The two buildings on the left have openings in the door to catch a glimpse of the renovation work that is going into restoring the 160 year old buildings. These were the Powder Magazine buildings used to transfer the shells off and onto the boats waiting below.
As you reach the end of the boardwalk you may notice a path with stairs leading down underneath the buildings. To access the path you have to get off the boardwalk but don’t worry, it’s allowed. This is the coolest part of the self-guided tour. A peak underneath the buildings will take you back in time with the old brick arches along the water’s edge.
We were lucky to visit when we did, as both Linda and Barron happened to be on the island. They are an integral part of the Friends of Cole Island Society and spearhead the restoration project, saving the remaining buildings from ongoing vandalism and deterioration.
Barron took us on a quick tour of one of the buildings telling us stories of the work that has gone into making sure everything is historically accurate from the doors to the replacement of the huge beams above. We were lucky to stand on the rebuilt decks where ammunition was once lowered onto ships below. Looking down at the wooden floor, you could see large dents and marks in the wood from years of use.
Cole Island is located at the end of Esquimalt Harbour in Victoria. There are very few access points within the Harbour.
We used Stewart Beach which is a small neighbourhood beach with only a few parking spots. I would not recommend this spot for anything larger than a kayak. There are two short flights of stairs to get down and even a ramp to help with larger kayaks. It takes 15-20 minutes to paddle to the island from here. Please be sure of your watercraft and swimming capabilities and gear, as water conditions can change quickly!
You can also access the Esquimalt Harbour through Price Road shoreline access. The beach does change drastically, so you may have to walk over the beach to get to the water.
If accessing Cole Island by boat, the ground to the south is ideal – it is muddy and perfect for boats to set anchor in depths of about 3-4 m or 10 – 13 feet. Consult chart 3419.
All vessels, upon entering Esquimalt Harbour, are requested to contact King’s Harbour Master of Operations on marine VHF channel ten and inform them of your arrival and/or departure. If arriving by kayak or other small craft, you can call in at 250363-2160.
There is a 100 metre security zone around all navy ships and facilities. You must maintain 200 metres from naval vessels underway.
Cole Island is among the various sites within the Esquimalt Harbour that were historically utilized by the local Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations communities for gathering and preparing food. This island contains archaeological remnants, such as shell middens deposits, providing evidence of clam and other shellfish processing activities conducted in the past.
While Cole Island has not undergone any archaeological investigations thus far, other sites in the harbour have produced radiocarbon dates that exceed 3,000 years.
Cole Island was named after Commander Edmund Picoti Cole, the master of the Admiralty Survey Ship, HMS Fisgard, during British Admiralty in 1846. The Island was also known as Magazine Island for obvious reasons.
The Island was occupied by the British Royal Navy and used as a naval ammunition depot. The small island was chosen due to its location protected by the harbour but yet a safe distance from the naval base in case of an explosion. The first two powder magazines and guard house were completed by 1862—storage for artillery shells, mines, small arms and ammunition was later added. By the turn of the century, the complex included 16 buildings.
The British Admiralty transferred Cole Island to the Royal Canadian Navy, and the use of the powder magazines continued throughout WW1.
With a more substantial secure magazine at Patterson Point, Cole Island had become obsolete as a depot, but a few of the old buildings were still used to house field artillery and ship’s stores.
The Province of British Columbia now owns Cole Island and is now maintained by The Friends of Cole Island Society in cooperation with the Municipality of Colwood, the Province of British Columbia and with generous support from the town of View Royal.
For us, it was a great experience visiting Cole Island to see the local military history and the fact you have to put in the extra effort to get here made it even more special.
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