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Construction of Arbutus Lodge

Original house photo

As a wedding present from their inlaws the Douglas', the soon to be wed Helmckens received a parcel of land next door. The Helmckens began building their house shortly before they were married in 1852, but before construction began the land had to be cleared.

"Of course I had to build a house. Mr. Douglas gave me a piece of land, an acre, wanted me to live on it, because being close together would be mutual aid in case of trouble – for these days trouble might at anytime come from Indians and so forth – besides there were no servants save Indians – and they never remained long and would not live in houses. I ought not to have built there, for it was away from my work and office, and so found it very inconvenient.... A doctor’s office and his house ought to be together, for it adds materially to his comfort, convenience and profit, saves no end of time and labour.... Of course... it pleased Cecilia – she was near her mother and relatives." *

"The piece of land was of course very rough and cost a good deal of time and money to clear it – this being done by Indians, chiefly from the north." *

These reflect the time in which he refers, such as in his impressions of the native inhabitants living in Victoria and how they were treated and looked upon. Helmcken House was the first private home to be built outside the Fort Victoria stockade, and they were concerned about their security. More importantly to Helmcken was his dislike for his commute to work. He also notes that dynamite was not available so the clearing of large stumps had to be removed by hand and burned.

Hudson Bay Construction

Construction of the house began in 1852. It is of Hudson Bay Company (HBC) construction. This Post-on-Sill construction was a standard construction method for the Hudson Bay Company.

"... how we studied over the design, ie the interior divisions of the building 30x25!! Then to get it done – for there were no contractors, everything had to be done piecemeal. There being no lumber, it had to be built of logs squared on two sides and six inches thick. The sills and uprights were very heavy and morticed – the supports of the floor likewise – the logs had to be let into grooves in the uprights" *

Log Wall
Part of the log wall in the Arbutus Lodge kitchen has a glass covered viewing area
This type of building constuction, popular in French Canada, was also known as Poteaux Sur Sole, loosely translated meaning "post on the sill", and known as Pieux En Terre, meaning "piles in the ground". The cause of its popularity was because it provided suffient insulation for weather extremes, was durable, and building only required simple, portable tools to be used in the abundant forest land.

Timber Diagram

The main structural component were squared logs, joined together with mortice and tenon joints the squared filler timber and the upright posts, piling them on top of the bottom sill plate, much like Dr. Helmcken described (see the illustration). Local forests had an abundance of trees to be used as building material, and no nails were needed for the basic house design.

"Well the timber had to be taken from the forest – squared there and brought down by water. All this was contracted for by French Canadians, then when brought to the beach – I had [to] beg oxen of the Company to haul it to the site. Then other Canadians took the job of putting the building up as far as the logs were concerned – and then shingling – the Indians at this time made shingles – all split. All this was very heavy, expensive and very slow work, for the men were by no means in a hurry." *

Handmade Shingles
Shingle making

Still, the flooring and other elements of the house had to be dealt with. Lumber cut in a saw pit was used for the floors, but also plank and some yellow cedar were requested by Helmcken from Fort Rupert. The cedar was used for the windows, doors and skirting boards.

"So it happened that Gideon Halcro [Halcrow] a crofter – a mechanic of all work was here – he could do carpentering, plastering and everything connected with a house, so I got him to go on with the work, but oh, the grumbling about the irregular wood – so much planing down – besides the flooring was 8 or ten inches wide - no narrow plank then." *

Helmcken also notes that cedar laths were used, on which the plaster for the walls was added. Some time passed before the house could be lived in, because the plaster had to dry significantly first. They moved in some time after their marriage in December, meanwhile they lived in Government House, formerly Governor Blanshard's house.

A well was indispensable in those days. In the summer, when ground water was scarce, one of the only sources of water was a nearby spring. The water had to be carted from there. Helmcken house had it's own well installed.

Indians dug a couple of wells and lined one with boulders! The boulders left very little well – they were so large and heavy – I now wonder how the Indians handled these stones and built the well without a severe accident. *

* From John Sebastian Helmcken (BCARS: ADD. MSS. 505, v.12)

Continue to the first addition page.

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