Andrea Pickard, Planner with Central Saanich, sits on a bench and enjoys the view of St. Stephen’s Anglican Church. Don Denton photography

Walking the Crossroads of Central Saanich History

From pub to church, examining local historical landmarks

  • Dec. 4, 2018 9:15 a.m.

Story by Hans Tammemagi

Many say the soul of a community is its church, but the beating pulse is the local tavern. This certainly seemed true for the Prairie Inn— prominently located on the intersection of Mount Newton Cross Road and East Saanich Road in Saanichton—for though I visited midweek, business was brisk.

Andrea Pickard, a friend interested in local history, and I were sitting at the well-worn bar, studying a pamphlet that described a Heritage Walk along Mount Newton Cross Road. Keen to learn about Central Saanich’s past, we were at the tour’s first designated stop. There was one catch: the brochure was more than three decades old. Was it still current? What would we find?

We chatted with the barkeeper, who explained that the pub was built in 1859 for Henry Simpson, an early pioneer in the area. Called the Tavern, it was one of the first pubs in the province. The Tavern burned down in 1893 and was rebuilt as the Prairie Inn.

Pouring us an ale, the bartender listed the inn’s many historic achievements.

“If you don’t count the brief stoppage while it was rebuilt, this is the oldest continuously operating pub in British Columbia.”

“Furthermore,” he continued proudly, “we started brewing beer — the bestseller was Olde Tavern Ale — in 1985, as [one of the] first brewpubs on Vancouver Island.”

Sadly, the brewery part of the operation was discontinued more than 25 years ago. But later, we learned that in 1974 the Prairie Inn received the province’s first official designation as a “neighbourhood pub.” We sipped our ale in reverence, happy to be in such historic surroundings.

The Prairie Inn, open since 1859. Don Denton photography

As we started westward along Mount Newton Cross Road, we read from our notes that Henry Simpson, the original owner of the Prairie Inn, was one of the first pioneers in this area. He ran a large farm and was a prime initiator of the annual Saanich Fair, even donating five acres of land to get it started. As we were to learn later, he was a flamboyant gent, who dabbled in many exciting businesses.

After a few hundred metres, we were immersed in rich farming land; the agricultural character of the landscape was clearly evident.

Glancing at our literature as we strolled, we learned that the original inhabitants of this area were the Saanich First Nations, who lived off the bounty of the land and sea. They considered Mount Newton, which rises on the north side of the road, as a sacred mountain.

The earliest settlers were of British background and were (or became) farmers, drawn by the fertile soil and availability of land. As we meandered by, we gazed at one of the first, still-standing homes in the district, the Lidgate cabin, built in 1858.

In 1864, the early pioneer homes here led to the creation of Mount Newton Cross Road, the very road we were striding along, connecting East and West Saanich roads.

Heading west, we entered the Rose Farm property, which was established circa 1890. Now the thriving Mount Newton Seed Orchard, nothing remains of the original buildings except a stone creamery and barn, built of massive hand-hewn timbers in 1907. Bags of evergreen cones formed neat piles against the barn.

Proceeding, we discovered that two of the heritage houses marked on the brochure were no longer in existence. Several other properties were private and we could only catch glimpses of old homes through bushes from the roadside.

Bannockburn, built by William Thomson, is the oldest surviving house on the crossroad. Private and well set back, it was not easily visible. However, a large brown sign announced, “Bannockburn/1189 Mt. Newton X Rd./Est. 1855.”

The historic Bannockburn property is marked with this sign, visible from the road. Don Denton photography

We entered the quiet, serene grounds of St. Stephen’s Anglican Church and Cemetery through an elegant white picket fence. St. Stephen’s was founded in 1862 after William Thomson gifted five acres for the building of a church and school. Consecrated in 1868, it is the oldest church in the province, used continuously since built and on its original site. Now a heritage site, the simple white wooden building with a bell tower above the entrance porch is gracefully surrounded by oak trees and tombstones.

Inside, Andrea and I sat on a pew in the sombre duskiness and admired a large, stained-glass window at the front. The deep, rich wood forming the walls and ceiling consists of California redwood, rather than the local Douglas fir. I bowed my head and thought of the many, many generations who have worshipped here.

We completed the tour at Mount Newton Cottage, circa 1893, on the corner of West Saanich Road, and then returned to the Prairie Inn.

In the late 1890s, the Victoria-Sidney railway, the wood-burning train dubbed the Cordwood by locals, ran right in front of the inn. Imagining we were thirsty, disembarking passengers, we re-entered the building.

Between servings, the bartender continued his description of Henry Simpson, who not only tended a 300-acre farm and ran the Prairie Inn, but also operated a post office and was a contractor. Simpson’s most unusual business, however, was renting horses for the trip to Victoria. If the rider was not returning to Saanichton, he had to take the horse to a livery, buy it a meal and water, and then turn it loose. According to legend, the horse always came home by itself!

Andrea and I raised our gasses and toasted Central Saanich’s long and colourful history.

For more of Hans Tammemagi’s travel writing and photography check his website here.

Just Posted

Seven arrested in drug trafficking investigation

Queen Charlotte RCMP arrested seven people in connection to a drug trafficking… Continue reading

More sailings coming to Haida Gwaii

The B.C. government says Haida Gwaii’s two BC Ferries routes are among… Continue reading

More sailings coming to 10 BC Ferries’ routes

Transportation Minister Claire Trevena said the sailings were originally cut in 2014

Mold shuts down construction at QC supportive housing project

Construction of the new 19-unit modular housing complex in Queen Charlotte has… Continue reading

Spring fishery closures mulled for south coast

Fewer fish are returning to rivers and more conservation needed, say feds

National Energy Board approves Trans Mountain pipeline again

Next step includes cabinet voting on the controversial expansion

No treatment for highly infectious measles, says doctor

10 cases of measles confirmed in Vancouver as of Friday

Two more measles cases confirmed in Vancouver

It brings the number of total cases within the city connected to the outbreak to ten

B.C. Special Olympics officially underway in Vernon

Athlete’s Oath: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

Vancouver Aquarium wants your help to name a baby killer whale

The public helped name Springer’s first calf, Spirit, and is being asked to help with the second

Guards protest firing of fellow officers charged with assault at B.C. prison

Corrections officers demonstrated in Maple Ridge on Friday afternoon

Skier dies at Revelstoke Mountain Resort

Cause of death for young man has not been released

R. Kelly charged with 10 counts of sexual abuse

R&B star has been accused of sexual misconduct involving women and underage girls for years

Cryptocurrency exchange CEO who suddenly died leaves Kelowna house in will

Gerald Cotten, holding the keys to money tied up in his virtual currency exchange, died in December.

Most Read