Cole Island was named in 1847 by Lieutenant Commander Wood, HM surveying vessel Pandora, after Commander Edmund Picoti Cole, RN, master of HMS Fisgard, who served on this station between 1843-1847. The picturesque little island at the head of Esquimalt harbour is visible from the Six Mile bridge on highway 1A. Because of it’s safe location within the harbour, Cole Island became strategically important to the Royal Navy and construction of an ammunition storage depot began in 1860. Eventually, there were 16 solidly built brick and metal structures on the island including a jetty and a guard house. Five of the buildings remain standing and have recently undergone work to stabilize the footings, repoint the mortar and repair the roofs that were in danger of collapse.
Ownership of Cole Island changed many times. When the Royal Navy left its Esquimalt base in 1905, the newly formed Canadian Navy continued to use the magazine storage. It was officially transferred to the Canadian Navy in 1914. After being declared obsolete for military purposes during WWII it was abandoned again and became an addition to nearby Fort Rodd Hill National Historic Park.
Following a brief flurry of stabilization and restoration in the 1970s, it was transferred to the Provincial Government. Another flurry of activity followed in the 1980s for public safety reasons and to secure the buildings against further vandalism through installation of steel doors and shutters. It wasn’t long before vandals pried away the steel doors and the destruction continued.
Over the years, funding for heritage sites diminished as economies waned. Cole Island, isolated and vulnerable, increasingly became a target for looters and vandals and by 2005 the island was literally being torn apart. This provided the impetus for a group of local residents to organize the Friends of Cole Island Society (FoCI).
The first course of action for the FoCI was to connect with communities of interest. In collaboration with the City of Colwood, the Provincial Government, the Harbourmaster and the Town of View Royal, an action plan evolved setting Cole Island on a course for recovery.
Today Cole Island remains safe under the auspices of the Provincial Government’s Heritage Branch. The determination of a community and the actions taken has set Cole Island on a clear course for the future. It’s a peaceful place where visitors are able to wander and connect with a tangible piece of Canadian history. It is truly one of the most unique heritage sites in Canada.
Some of the work undertaken to date:
- Invasive species were removed to provide a sightline from shore. Area residents in homes around the bay maintain surveillance.
- The steel doors were re-installed with “viewing” holes so visitors could look in.
- Interpretive signage outlining Cole Island’s history and ownership was added.
- A fence was built to keep visitors off of an insecure bank and 80 Mahonia plants were put in.
- Colwood introduced a “no camping - no fires” bylaw.
- The Navy began to include Cole Island on their routine harbour patrols.
- The Province provided a $25,000 grant to address immediate safety concerns.
- Annual FoCI work parties were initiated and continue to this day with the FoCI taking on the role of general maintenance and on-going safety and security surveillance.
- In 2012, Cole Island received funding to consolidate the standing ruins through a cost-sharing initiative between the Province and Federal governments. Repairs to the roofs were undertaken and much of the brickwork repointed. Large beams were replaced and the buildings secured on proper footings.
- A dock was added in 2013 to provide improved access in support of conservation efforts.