The presence of gold in the Thompson and Fraser rivers started a stampede of gold miners from San Francisco in April 1858. This was the start the Fraser River Gold Rush and about 25,000 miners flooded into Victoria to buy supplies on their way to the goldfields. Many businesses from San Francisco started branches here and soon the old fort was being torn down and flimsy wooden buildings were springing up in the immediate vicinity. The northeast bastion still stood during the early part of the boom and the street that ran beside it became Bastion Street, leading to Bastion Square. It was the heart of the gold-rush city.
The people who came with the gold rush were from all over the world. Among them were people from many places (United States, Britain, Canada, Europe, Australia and Asia) representing a wide range of races, religions and nationalities, including Chinese, blacks from the United States and West Indies and Jews from eastern Europe.
The focus of gold-rush Bastion Square was the Police Barracks and Gaol, a small crenellated brick building that stood about where the Maritime Museum’s gift shop is now, facing the harbour. The Police Court was held here and prisoners were locked up. The chain gang was a well known sight leaving the gaol every morning. During the 1860s about eleven public hangings took place in the fenced yard behind the gaol (more or less occupying the site of the Maritime Museum). Some of the bodies were buried underneath the gaol yard, never to be removed.
The first fire hall in Victoria was a small wooden structure, about the size of a single-car garage. The Union Hook and Ladder Company’s building stood beside where the entrance to Helmcken Alley is now off Bastion Square. The northwestern corner of the Board of Trade Building is the site of the first fire hall.
The first commercial brick structure in the Bastion Square area was Commercial Row, a series of privately owned stores and offices, now forming D’Arcy’s and the Rithet Building (1117 Wharf Street). They were completed in the early 1860s and their fronts were adorned with cast iron columns from San Francisco. (The foundry mark dated 1861 can be seen on the bottoms of some of them). The Reid Block was built around the same time. It has been altered substantially, but still stands and now houses a restaurant and stores running from the northwestern corner of Bastion Square along Wharf Street.
Another substantial brick building dominated Wharf Street below Bastion Square, blocking the view of the harbour from the square. This was the Hudson’s Bay Company’s warehouse which was built to replace the log storehouses inside the fort. It was two stories below Wharf Street and rose two and a half stories above street level. Torn down in the 1940s, the only part that remains is the stone foundation wall topped by brick on the west side of Wharf Street. This is an important heritage feature of the area which should be protected.
The Boomerang Saloon was a landmark saloon and hotel, operated by Ben and Adelaide Griffin. At first it was a two-storey wooden structure, located about where the spiral staircase comes down from the back of the Yates Street Parkade. In the late 1800s it was replaced by a brick structure. The Garrick’s Head Pub began on its present site (originally in a wooden building) in 1867, thus giving its name one of the oldest historical links in Bastion Square today. However, the Garrick’s Head had a long gap in its operations, starting when prohibition started in British Columbia in 1917.
Gold-rush Victoria was a frontier town with lots of drinking, prostitution, gambling and crime. In order to pacify the hordes of single men church groups, with funding from Baroness Angela Burdett Coutts (a wealthy English heiress), brought two shiploads of marriageable (mostly) young ladies from England to Victoria. The Brideships provided wives for many lonely bachelors. The ships landed along Wharf Street, within sight of Bastion Square.