A rural farm in the woods, overlooking a lagoon

Birth of Whaletown as a community abt. 1885-1914

Whaletown may get its name from an old whaling station, but Europeans really did not settle in the area for another 15 years or so. In today’s program Lynne Jordan, former President of the Cortes Island Museum, traces the modern community back to a logger named Moses Ireland.

First Nations people were using Whaletown Bay before that and a fish trap is believed to have once stretched across the entrance of the lagoon.

The whalers came for 18 months, in 1869 and 70.

“It wasn’t very many years after the whaling station left, in the mid 1880s,  that Moses Ireland moved into the area as a logger and set up camp where the whale station had been,” explained Jordan.

Whaletown’s wharf in 1910 – Courtesy the Cortes Island Museum and Archives

That is where the ferry terminal is today and Ireland also preempted a number of other properties around Whaletown Lagoon. He stayed there until about 1893, then relocated to what was then called Camp Island and now the Subtle Islands. Ireland was in his 50s when he married a widow and they built a hotel on the Northern Island. 

“His saloon was very popular. Loggers often stayed there when they were between jobs or on a holiday from a camp. There was not a wharf to start with, but a float where the Union Steamships could stop. They often were dropping loggers off, or picking loggers up and taking them to other places,” said Jordan. 

A lot of little camps and communities were starting up all around the Discovery Islands. 

Places mentioned in the text – adapted from Google Maps by Roy L Hales

Whaletown’s post office made its official debut around 1894. William and Laura Drinkwater had bought the property across the bay from Ireland.  

“There was a little dock, and at the top of the dock was a small building. That was a store that had not too much in it, just small items and the post office. it wasn’t officially a post office until I think it was 1894. Mail was being delivered on the Union Steamships,” said Jordan.

“Post was very important in those days. There was no other communication, no telephones, no radios back then. People ordered things to come up on the boats by mail. They kept in touch with their families and friends. When you got a letter, you kept it and you reread it many times in many cases. So there’s actually a lot of saved  handwritten letters, business letters too, that were typed on the old typewriters.”

The Drinkwater’s house became a community centre, where there were dances and other events. 

Meanwhile Ireland sold the Subtle Islands to Charles Strange, who came out from London with his two sisters. The two women were used to an urban lifestyle and brought trunks full of fancy dresses for dances, teas and going to the theatre. They also brought hats, matching purses, fancy shoes and magazines from England, like Vogue and The Ladies Home Journal. Most of this remained in their trunks when they moved into the old building in the Subtle Islands. 

Charles Strange preempted 160 acres, at the bottom of Sawmill Road, around 1902. He ordered a big round saw, which came up on a Union Steamship. 

Early 1900s horse logging – courtesy the Cortes Island Museum and Archives

Whaletown had spread out from Von Donop Inlet to Gorge Harbour by this time. A lot of people lived in float houses. The loggers used to move their  house from bay to bay, as they were working. They sold a lot of logs, but at that time most buildings were log cabins. 

“When that saw arrived, it was big news that spread over the whole island because now people could come to Strange and have lumber made for them to build their houses,” said Jordan. 

“Charlie Strange built one of the largest houses at the time on Cortes,  it had three stories.”

Sawmill Road was named after his mill. 

His sister Patty worked in the sawmill, while the other sister was the housekeeper and cook. They continued living on Sawmill Road after Charlie died.

“Patty became a little deranged. I guess, because she’d spent all those years stoking fires, she didn’t like fire. Every time the other sister lit a fire in the house for heat or for cooking, she’d put it out. They struggled a little bit until eventually I think it was Reverend Allen Green from the Coastal Missions who persuaded her to go into a hospital down at Pender Harbor where she was cared for. She died there and the other sister remained  on the property.” 

Some other families were preempting in the Whaletown area by this time. Joseph Youart received a grant for 160 acres at the top end of Whaletown Lagoon in 1900. He sold it to Alice Robertson in 1908.

Bernie Allen at Whaletown Boat day in 1918 – courtesy Cortes Island Museum and Archives

Alice’s maiden name was Allen and her four brothers had settled in Gorge Harbour in the late 1890s.

“Charlie Allen had the most property.  He preempted from Robertson Road all the way up to the end of the lagoon and above what’s now Whaletown Road, which of course at that time was only a trail. His brothers also had property above him and along to the east end of the Gorge Harbor. Bernie was a bachelor. James and Wilf, who Charlie called Wolf, preempted land there as well,” explained Jordan. 

“Alice had visited her brothers at some point in the early 1900s and really liked the Cortes area.  She went back to Scotland, married her husband, and then they came out to Vancouver before moving up to Cortes. Charlie actually had preempted some land for her around Gorge Harbour, but she didn’t come right away. So while they were still in Vancouver, he sold that property off. When they came up, they bought the property from Youart. There are still Robertson’s living on that same property today. Gregor Robertson, who was the mayor of Vancouver,  is related to the Robertson family in Cortes and he spent a lot of his youth on the island.”

Alice Robertson with her children Allen, Meg, Rankin and Duncan – courtesy Cortes Island Museum and Archives

William Robertson, or ‘Poker Bill,’ bought the property next to the Robertsons. There is no known relationship between the two families. 

“There was sort of a tiff between  the two Robertson families over the roadway and allowances on their properties that eventually went to court and was dissipated after that,” said Jordan.

Poker Robertson was pushing 60 when he married Moses Ireland’s stepdaughter Celia. She was in her twenties and only lived for another decade or so.

“Poker Robertson liked to drink and I guess he taught her how,” explained Jordan. “The death certificate states that it was from prolonged liquor use.” 

Their nine-year-old daughter moved in with her grandparents, who owned a hotel and ranch on Quadra Island at this time.  

“During the winter, or when there was no logging happening, loggers would lease the property or board their animals there. So that was how (Moses Ireland and his wife) made money besides the hotel.” 

Whaletown in 1910 – Photo courtesy Cortes Island Museum

Meanwhile the Drinkwaters had sold their property in Whaletown to another Englishman, named Sam Thompson. 

“It went eventually to his son, Nick, who enlarged the family properties, and  took over the store and post office. He  built a bigger store. I think he built the present wharf in 1914. It actually celebrated a hundred years,  in 2014,” said Jordan. 

“There was a big orchard and the Thompsons used to have people come up to stay in the summers, early tourism on the island.  They ran hunting trips and fishing trips, and they had a tent camp in the orchard that the visitors would stay in.”

Top image credit: The Robertson’s farm (Burnside) in 1917 – courtesy Cortes Island Museum and Archives

Sign-up for Cortes Currents email-out:

To receive an emailed catalogue of articles on Cortes Currents, send a (blank) email to subscribe to your desired frequency: