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Cole Island and the Canadian Navy

For the week of Monday November 8, 2010

On November 9, 1910, the Canadian Navy obtained Cole Island, an island measuring a mere 100 metres long and 50 metres wide isolated at the tip of Esquimalt Harbour in southern British Columbia. Esquimalt embodies more than a century of evolution of the Canadian forces and of naval defence.

Arsenals, Cole Island, Esquimalt, British Columbia
© Chris Marshall, Friends of Cole island Society
When the British Royal Navy established its Pacific Fleet in Canada in the 1850s, Cole Island was selected as a safe and strategic location to build an ammunition depot. The island was located far enough from Esquimalt to protect the naval base from the possibility of an explosion, yet it was close enough to allow the Royal Navy to easily access its supplies. In 1859, it was selected as an ammunitions depot, and two magazines or arsenals were built along with a wharf and guard’s residence in circa 1863. Ammunition, gunpowder and other explosives, which were transported to the island by ship, were stored in the drying room. The island’s complex of 17 buildings formed an important supply station for British, and later Canadian, destroyers and other naval vessels.

Inaugurated as a formal Royal Navy establishment in 1865, Esquimalt became the official headquarters of the RN’s Pacific Station, although it periodically reverted back to the original headquarters in Valparaiso, Chile. To provide protection to the Navy at Esquimalt, a coastal defence artillery system was developed. Later, a permanent naval hospital, coaling station, chapel and cemetery were also added to the inventory of buildings centred around the dockyard. In 1893, a joint coastal defence agreement between Britain and Canada was created to protect the Esquimalt base.

Cole Island, Esquimalt, British Columbia
© Chris Marshall, Friends of Cole island Society
Responding to the expansion of the German Navy, in 1905 the British navy left Esquimalt to concentrate its efforts on maintaining a stronger presence on the Atlantic Ocean. When the Royal Canadian Navy obtained the base in 1910, the dockyard and the hospital were expanded to provide training and administrative facilities, and to house the Canadian Naval fleet. It was briefly used as a storage facility during the First World War and the naval hospital was reopened in 1915 to care for wounded soldiers. During the Second World War, Esquimalt was a base for Canada’s west coast Navy; however, the magazines at Cole Island were abandoned in 1937. Esquimalt base still houses the Canadian Pacific Naval fleet.

The Esquimalt Naval Sites, a testament to the development of naval defence and the Canadian forces, were designated as a National Historic Site in 1995 and include Cole Island, the Former Royal Navy Hospital, HMC Dockyard, and the Veteran’s Cemetery.

This is the 100th anniversary of Canada’s Navy. For more information, visit The Canadian Navy Centennial 1910-2010 website, of National Defense and the Canadian Forces. For more This Week in History stories on Canada’s navy, please read: Sails Away! The Canadian Navy is Born, We’re in the Navy Now!, Pacific Naval Defense at Esquimalt, British Columbia, Smooth Sailing, Sovereignty on the Pacific Coast: Fisgard Lighthouse and Canadian Made Commander-in-Chief.

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