Pedestrians step back in time when they enter the short narrow lane connecting the lower ends of Yates and Johnson. Waddington Alley is the only street in Victoria still paved with wood blocks, an early pavement common in the downtown core.
Wood blocks underfoot is not the only heritage feature. Buildings more than a century old line the alley and a rare metal carriage curb edges the sidewalk on the southern end of Waddington Alley.
Visitors must imagine hitching posts, clattering hooves, wagons pulling in for deliveries and piles of fragrant manure. “The smell of horse manure was so much a part of every street,” artist Emily Carr wrote in The Book of Small, “that it sat on your nose as comfortably as a pair of spectacles.”
Alfred Waddington purchased three lots in 1858, constructed a private alley to enhance their value and quickly erected wooden buildings to rent. It was a shrewd maneuver. The British Colonist reported Waddington’s income from shop rentals in 1860 was $1000 a month, an astounding sum at the time. Often called “Victoria’s original shopping mall,” alley businesses included a livery stable, bakery, blacksmith, restaurant, fishmarket, shoemaker, gambling establishment, dancehall and bowling alley. The Pioneer Wholesale and Retail Variety Store advertised “Glassware, guns and pistols, axes, nails, frying pans, lanterns, stoves, buckets and washboards.” Morley’s Soda Water Manufacturing, one of the most successful and enduring alley businesses, sold “Lemonade, Ginger Ale and Bitters, Medical Lake Water, Essences of Peppermint and Ginger, All kinds of syrups.”
A sign at the Yates Street entrance, shown on the left, provides some of the history of Waddington Alley, including a map of old alley businesses and a photo of Alfed Waddington. [Click on the sign for a larger readable version.]
Waddington Alley was not the first “paved” street, as often claimed, but it was the first “planked” street in Victoria. Plank streets were constructed like wood sidewalks and floors but without nails, which could work loose and injure horses' hooves. In rainy weather, this was a disadvantage because unsecured planks floated. There were other problems: planks were slippery in wet weather, deteriorated quickly and were flammable. Miles of expensive plank streets constructed in San Francisco burned in six major fires from 1849 to 1853.
Waddington planked his short, private lane in 1858, but by 1866, the alley was back to mud, with “iron plates” covering some of the worst potholes. When Waddington died of smallpox in 1872, the alley became city property. Responding to frequent complaints about the condition of the road, the city laid a rock surfacing called “macadam” in 1899 and, at last, wood block pavement in 1908. By 1949, they were the only blocks left in Victoria.
The historic blocks almost disappeared in the 1980's, when city engineer John Sansom recommended ripping them up and asphalting the alley. The Hallmark Society and others who valued heritage features waged a decade-long battle to preserve and restore the blocks. City Council voted to save a small token section in 1987, but Councillors Martin Segger and Geoff Young persuaded a reconsideration in 1988. The alley was restored at last in 1992, funded by $30,000 from the city and a $45,000 B.C. Heritage Trust grant. The Duncan chapter of the oddly named International Order of Hoo-Hoo Society, an organization for men in the lumber industry, volunteered to cut wood for new blocks at the Duncan Forest Museum.
Soon after restoration, the city was faced with a liability problem: the new blocks became slippery in wet weather, causing several pedestrians to fall. A section of old blocks--saved and replaced in the middle of the alley near three bollards--were not slippery because they were impregnated years before with creosote, a toxic substance which prevents algae growth. Environmental guidelines prevented the use of creosote on new blocks and the substitute product, copper arsenate preservative, did not stop algae growth. The city applied a thin layer of “foundation sealer mixed with sand” to the alley, which solved the slipping problem but visually, “it didn’t turn out as well as hoped,” city planner Steve Barber explained. The result is an oddly uneven coating seen on some of the wood blocks today.
Some dramatic changes are coming to the alley. Chris Lefevre purchased the three-story red brick building at Yates and Waddington. Rehabilitation plans include opening the building’s huge wooden door, blocked off for years, to welcome people from the alley into a covered passageway and inner courtyard. It will be an ideal venue for a flower shop, Barber said, and the change “will fit beautifully with the area.” The heritage alteration to reconfigure the door was approved by City Council.
If only the historic two-story brick Morley’s Soda Factory building next door at 1314-1317 Waddington Alley could be rehabilitated too. Boarded up for decades, the ornate brickwork and huge door for delivery wagons are still impressive sights, as shown in this photo.
Excluding vehicles from the alley is another needed improvement, according to University of Victoria student Sylvia Burdett. A no-car zone would create a more pleasant space for people and better protect the blocks, she says. Currently, bollards and a curb prevent vehicles entering the alley from Yates Street, but cars and garbage trucks access a small parking lot and three dumpsters from Johnson Street. Wood blocks on the north end of the alley are more worn than those in the pedestrian-only south end and heavy dumpsters are often parked on wood blocks.
The alley is a festive scene in summer, with thirteen hanging baskets and street musicians playing for a steady flow of tourists. “Buskers like the acoustics,” Barber says.
Paved with wooden blocks and lined with century-old buildings, Waddington Alley is the closest modern walkers can get to an authentic turn-of-the-century street. It’s all there but the horse manure. Current horse carriages could add that authentic 1908 touch to the alley by dropping off a daily pile or two.
City streets were dirt, gravel or rock for most of Victoria’s history. Until asphalt transformed the city after World War II, they remained muddy in wet weather and dusty in dry weather. Two pre-asphalt pavements--wood block and brick--were laid in the downtown core in the early 1900's, but covered less than 1% of the city’s street surfaces.
The first Douglas fir wood block pavement was installed in 1899. Cities around the world treated blocks with creosote before installation but year after year, Victoria used cheaper untreated Douglas fir blocks. The result was predictable. Victoria’s wood blocks absorbed water, expanded, contracted, cracked and rotted; they lasted only 4-7 years while other cities blocks lasted 20 years. By 1910--the last year blocks were laid--portions of ten east-west streets and eight north-south streets were paved. For the next seven years, wood blocks accounted for 5.64 km. (3.5 miles) of the city’s 241.4 km. (150 miles) street total.
In 1909, “vitrified” brick, a special paving brick fired at high temperature, was installed on Wharf Street from Johnson to Humboldt and Government from Humboldt to Belleville. All bricks were removed or covered with asphalt by 1942. Recently, city crews digging up Wharf Street found some of the original bricks, according to streets manager Hector Furtado.
Compared to wood blocks and bricks, asphalt is a spectacular pavement. It wears uniformly and will carry heavy traffic; repairs are simple and inexpensive; it isn’t slippery when wet. Asphalt is durable, waterproof, smooth, noiseless, easily cleaned, dustless and recyclable. Originally, the sole source of asphalt was two natural lakes in Venezuela; it took years to develop practical asphalt formulas and methods of application. Victoria began the switch to asphalt in 1911, but many decades passed before every city street was paved.
Today, asphalt covers more than 95% of the paved roads in North America and is the surfacing of choice for parking lots, driveways and airports. It is difficult to imagine the City of Victoria or the world without it now.