City of Gardens was once a City of Garbage

By Janis Ringuette

Families heading to the beach this summer don’t need to pack a garbage rake. It was a different story when the City of Victoria dumped its refuse into the ocean. Back then, bringing a rake to the beach along with towels and a lunch was a good idea.

For fifty years, from 1908 to 1958, municipal workers loaded garbage on scows at the city's garbage wharf near the Blue Bridge on Johnson Street. A tug towed the scows past Ogden Point and dumped the garbage into the sea.

Loading Victoria's garbage scow - 1953

Most of it floated, and prevailing winds were from the south. Depending on tide and wind conditions, garbage could wash up on Dallas Road beaches before the scow tied up at the wharf. Tin cans, bottles, paper cartons, grapefruit skins and old shoes accumulated in Horseshoe Bay, Gonzales Bay and from Clover Point to Ogden Point. Long-time resident Roy Fletcher remembers especially heavy concentrations in Ross Bay. One March day in 1953, Esquimalt resident Roy Wellwood measured garbage stretching “300 feet long, three feet wide and six inches deep” on the beach at the foot of Lampson Street.

Defensive city officials pointed out beach trash could be from ships, not city scows. CPR ships, navy ships and ferries routinely threw all garbage overboard. "Follow the Birds to Vancouver Island," a popular tourism advertising slogan in the 1970s, referred to the clouds of gulls following every B. C. ferry, waiting for scraps dumped off the stern.

Ship garbage was minimal compared to vast quantities dumped by the city. According to the Daily Colonist, a total of 26,000 tons was loaded into scows and dumped at sea in 1952. That total included garbage trucked from Oak Bay and Esquimalt to Victoria's garbage wharf.

Jim Hume worked as a deckhand dumping the mess into the sea. Not yet a distinguished journalist and desperate for money in 1948, Hume applied for work at the city garbage wharf. Hired on condition he start immediately, he was forced to dump the first scow load dressed in his interview clothes--a suit, tie and polished shoes. Tormenting the greenhorn Brit further, the wharf crew organized a betting pool, certain he couldn't last two weeks. Hume describes sticking it out through “a stinking summer, a rain soaked fall, a frozen-ropes winter and an unfresh spring.” Not many men lasted an entire year on the scows. But not many felt so insulted and angry their first day, either.

The city’s huge garbage operation stretched along the upper harbour from Swift Street to Herald Street. Men tossed wood, boxes and sofas into a beehive burner kept going 24 hours a day. Garbage trucks dumped load after load into a gigantic trough. From there, it travelled through a crusher and onto a conveyor belt, filling three scows in rotation.

In good weather, a tug dragged scows the distance specified in the city contract: “...not less than 15 cables (about 1.7 miles) in a southerly direction from a line joining Macaulay Point and Brotchie Ledge light.” If it was stormy, the captain sounded the whistle to dump the load just past the Ogden Point breakwater. Hume, working alone and without a life jacket, used a long metal pole to unhook the scow’s side panels. Hinged at the top, the doors swung outward allowing garbage piled on the slanted floor to slide into the sea. He remembers “how disgustingly the doors worked and how sometimes they didn’t.” Swirling constantly above were thousands of screaming gulls. Even 57 years later, Hume still hates those gulls.

Victoria adopted the scow system in 1908 after years of garbage problems on land. Smelly open dumps burned constantly in five areas of the city, attracting rats, flies, gulls and unending complaints from neighbours. Ocean dumping solved all those problems and was cheap besides.

Unfortunately, a new and insoluble problem was created. Despite a series of new crushers installed through the decades to sink garbage to the bottom, mountains of it still floated ashore. Some residents caustically suggested the city could save work and money by dumping garbage directly on the beaches.

Dumping garbage farther out would not solve the problem either, according to an Island Tug and Barge spokesman. “If the winds were right,” he told Daily Colonist reporter Roy Baines in 1953, garbage dumped as far out as four or five miles would still return to Victoria’s beaches. “If we sat around waiting for the right wind before we sent the scow out, what would we do with the stuff piling onto the wharf every hour? It’s impractical.”

Health officials requested the garbage wharf be relocated in 1953 because of its proximity to a meat packing plant and other food warehouses downtown. Ald. Arthur Dowell, chairman of the garbage disposal committee, called the situation “a mess.”

In March, 1954, city medical officer Dr. J. L. Gayton recommended to City Council that ocean dumping be replaced with a sanitary landfill. He said the only way to eliminate garbage on city beaches was to quit dumping it in the sea. Mayor Claude Harrison agreed the downtown garbage wharf was “a filthy mess” and city engineer Cyril Jones thought it should be abandoned.

At last, in 1958, the City of Victoria ended the practice of dumping garbage at sea. “I am very happy that we have reached the end of garbage drifting back on the beaches,” Mayor Percy Scurrah said. The Daily Colonist concluded the city was truly “rid of the floating garbage problem.”

The downtown garbage wharf continued operating for another 28 years as a transfer point for garbage destined for the Hartland landfill site. When it closed in 1986, city engineer John Sansom stated: “A garbage operation is not really a downtown thing. It’s smelly, dusty and it attracts the seagulls.”

Though Victoria ended ocean dumping in 1958, B.C. Ferries continued throwing garbage overboard for another 25 years. Betsy Terpsma, a corporation official in Tswwassen, said: “The practice of discharging food waste overboard was eliminated in the early 1980's by B. C. Ferries. We’ve come a long way in the last two decades.”

We have indeed come a long way. Dumping garbage into the sea is unacceptable today. Gulls no longer follow garbage scows or ferries. People enjoy cleaner beaches. And nobody ever brings a garbage rake to the beach.