This Week in History


Pacific Naval Defense at Esquimalt, British Columbia

For the week of Monday July 16, 2001

On July 20, 1887, the Esquimalt graving, or dry dock, officially opened. Esquimalt offered both Britain's Royal Navy (RN) and later the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) a facility for repairing ships on one of the finest natural harbours on the west coast of the Americas.

HMS Cormorant entering drydock, Esquimalt.

HMS Cormorant entering drydock, Esquimalt.
© BC Archives / A-04645

In the 1840s, Britain was involved in border disputes with the United States over territories on the North American west coast. Animosities escalated, and the British feared for the security of its colonists and Hudson's Bay Company traders in that disputed region. Having already established a Pacific Station based in Valparaiso, Chile, in 1837, the RN used these skirmishes to increase its presence in northern Pacific waters. The harbour near Esquimalt was ideally suited, and makeshift buildings were erected there. British involvement in the Crimean War (1854-56) eventually led to building a permanent naval base at Esquimalt. Although the war took place in the Mediterranean, the British prepared for a Russian attack in the Pacific. Esquimalt, a strategic location, officially became the RN's Pacific Station headquarters in 1865.

Various stores, including "victualling" (food) and ordnance (gun storage) facilities were built in the Dockyard to support the naval presence. As the Dockyard grew, so did its value for British Columbia. B.C.'s conditions for joining Confederation included not only the construction of a transcontinental railway, but also a graving dock at Esquimalt. The Canadian government agreed, and B.C. joined Confederation in 1871.

The graving dock — a dock, kept dry by pumping out water, used to repair ships — was capable of holding the largest British warship in the Pacific. The graving dock is 450 feet long, 65 feet wide and holds 29 feet of water at high tide. The pumphouse, which empties the dock, originally contained bucket pumps operated by high-pressure steam. The dock's creation was one of the largest projects in Canada at the time. It still is constantly used, servicing both naval warships and merchant ships.

Aerial view of CFB Esquimalt Dockyard, including graving dock

Aerial view of CFB Esquimalt Dockyard,
including graving dock

© Canadian Forces Photo

Esquimalt was abandoned in 1905 when the RN was reorganized to focus on its home fleet. In 1910 the Royal Canadian Navy was established and Esquimalt became Canada's Pacific naval base. The RCN at Esquimalt participated in the two world wars and the Korean War. Currently, the Dockyard is a part of Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt.

The Esquimalt Naval Sites, including the HMC Dockyard, Former Royal Navy Hospital, Veteran's Cemetery and Cole Island, are of national historic and architectural significance.

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