The Elliott house in Port Renfrew.

A heritage link in Port Renfrew

Sooke historian Elida Peers writes about the region's history

Pictured in 1920, the Elliott house alongside the San Juan River is a reminder of the vital link in communications carried out by pioneers of our west coast.  With the instant communications of today, it’s easy to forget the struggles of the early linesmen as they trudged through the dense underbrush, swollen creeks and fallen trees in their efforts to keep the telegraph line open.

While this cottage was put together from two separate cabins built by linesman Joe Williams in the 1890s, it later became known as the Elliott house.  Robert Elliott, a Prince Edward Islander who had sought gold in the Klondike before arriving in Port Renfrew, pre-empted land about 1900. In 1909 he joined the cabins to make a home for his family amongst the spruce trees on the river bank.

The telegraph line instituted in 1889 from Bamfield to Victoria was a tree-to-tree line following a route hacked through the wilderness by hardy men, slogging through the wet and mud, installing glass insulators and wire as they went. This line was part of the “red route” international communication system linking North America via Suva, Fiji to Australia.

After the wreck of the iron steamship Valencia in 1906 at Pachena Point, where 126 lives were lost within sight of shore, the international outcry meant added lighthouses on our coast and development of the West Coast Lifesaving Trail.  In time, the Bamfield – Port Renfrew section of the trail, first for communications, then lifesaving, became a tourist route attracting hikers from all over the world.

Generations of Elliotts have lived in the house, though it has changed over the years. Frank Elliott, who made his home there from 1952 to his passing in  2000, was one of Port Renfrew’s best known residents. He spent years in the woods; logging was king – there was even a logging railway running right by his house. When Frank’s logging days were over and he could concentrate on his first love –  fishing –  his renown as a fishing guide spread far and wide.

Frank and his wife Joyce were generous welcoming people and many a lunch was served in the little cottage by the river, eagles circling overhead in the beautiful San Juan valley. A highlight for the Elliotts was the day Prime Minister John Diefenbaker came out to fish with Frank. Limited out with his catch, the distinguished gentleman enjoyed lunch in the cottage. Perhaps it was a reminder of his own pioneer days.

Elida Peers,

Historian

Sooke Region Museum