Muirs early pioneers in B.C. shipbuilding

Muirs early pioneers in B.C. shipbuilding

Way built off Murray Road in 1860s

Elida Peers | Contributed

Woodside Farm, situated so visibly on West Coast Road, with its stately Georgian-style farmhouse and red-roofed barn, is rather well known to most as they drive past Sooke. Not so many folk, though, are aware that the John Muir family, who settled at Woodside in 1851, was also a leader in the earliest shipbuilding undertaken in B.C.

In recent years, while working on Muir family history for the upcoming Woodside video documentary, we have conferred with a number of seafaring men as to where the Muir ships were built.

The consensus seems to be they established a way on the waterfront a bit west of Murray Road, where there is a gulley extending from the shoreline almost back to Horne Road. Michael Muir’s diary notes that they launched their vessels at highest tide, often at night.

When they first came, the Muirs were dependent on hiring canoes and paddlers made available to them by the T’Sou-ke people, when they needed to journey to Victoria.

With business to conduct, milled lumber and farm produce to transport to markets, and the need to bring supplies back to their pioneer household, the enterprising family soon recognized they should build their own vessels.

In 1861, the schooner Ann Taylor at 115 tons, was the largest vessel built on Vancouver Island to that time; it was named for a Muir relative back in Scotland.

The schooner Matilda, built in 1864, was named for Michael Muir’s wife Matilda Welsh, while the Robert Cowan, a brigantine, built in 1867, was named for the stepfather of Ann, (Mrs. John Muir, Sr.) a kindly man who had come out to Canada in the early years to assist the family.

Isabella, a schooner built in 1872, was named for the orphaned Isabella Muir, daughter of Andrew Muir and Isabella Weir (think Weir’s Beach).

To build the 132-ton Woodside, a steamship outfitted with the mast of a sloop as well, the Muirs hired Samuel Sea, a Victoria shipwright, to do the construction. It was launched with much fanfare in 1878.

While the Woodside carried passengers and freight along the coast for a decade, it was wrecked near Nitinat in 1888, and its history was later commemorated with a plaque on the Causeway in Victoria.

The family’s sixth vessel, Katie, may have been named for Michael and Matilda Muir’s first child, born in 1865.

The large, hardworking Muir family, struggling to keep their business going and all the mouths fed, probably could not have imagined the importance of their efforts to the early history of B.C.

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Elida Peersis the historian of Sooke Region Museum.