Nanaimo Historical Society Fonds
Series 2 Sound Recordings
Interview of William Lewis by William Barraclough June 3rd 1963
Transcribed by Glenys Wall, January 2005
Barraclough: We are recording the voice of Mr. William Lewis, as living memory for the Nanaimo Historical Society, from his home at 60 Dawes Street, Nanaimo, June 3rd 1963. Introducing Mr. Lewis:
Lewis: I was born in California in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in a place called Port Wine on July 17th 1863, We lived there for six years, going from there to a place Summersville, fifty miles from San Francisco. My father, being a coal-miner, naturally he worked looking for coalmines so he would get something to do. We lived there for four years and then went on up to Seattle at a mine there called Renton Although he didn't work there, we lived there and he went on to Bellingham and we lived in Bellingham for four years, father working in the mine of course.
Barraclough: Now Mr. Lewis, tell me about your father.
Lewis: My father left his native Wales in 1852, arriving in San Francisco and went to a place called Port Wine where I was born, July 17th 1863.
Barraclough: On the way there, he crossed the Isthmus of Panama then?
Lewis: On the way to San Francisco he crossed the Panama Canal, the Panama.
Barraclough: And the family you had?
Lewis: And eventually he worked there for some time and went back to Wales and married my mother whose name was Theodosia Williams, coming back to California and locating in Port Wine where I was born.
Barraclough: How many of a family did you have?
Lewis: There was a family of four.
Barraclough: Mr. Lewis your father left then for Seattle?
Lewis: And we arrived in Seattle, which had a population at that time of 2000.
Barraclough: That would have been 1872
Lewis: In 1872. From there my father went to Bellingham and worked in the mine for four years.
Barraclough: It was called another name?
Lewis: Yes, and he decided to come to Nanaimo, and he and a man by the name of Mr. Watkins had an Indian and his wife paddle him from Bellingham to Nanaimo, where he got work and worked in the mines on Newcastle Island.
Barraclough: Now Mr. Lewis tell us how you came to Nanaimo.
Lewis: When my father came back from Nanaimo and got the family and we had to go from Bellingham to Port Townsend and from Port Townsend to Victoria and from Victoria to Nanaimo. We left Victoria on a steamer called the Maude and we left at 7 o'clock in the morning and I remember we ran aground and it took quite a little while getting off and then on the way up at Saltspring Island there was a little trouble there and when we got to Dodds Narrows the tide was against us. The old Maude could only make six knots; the Dodds Narrows was running at eight so we had to wait for the return of the tide, arriving in Nanaimo at 12 o'clock at night. Of course there was no electric light, no street lights in Nanaimo at that time; evidently lanterns, I've forgotten now.
Barraclough: (laughing) Well, Captain Holmes was skipper was he?
Lewis: Captain Holmes was the skipper.
Barraclough: Mr. Lewis, where did you first attend school?
Lewis: A school on Crace Street, which is still in existence. Mr. J.P Planta was the teacher for the boys and Mrs. C.N. Young for the girls.
Barraclough: What year would that be?
Lewis: In 1875.
Barraclough: You must have seen an awful lot of changes here; how about the surrounding country of Nanaimo?
Lewis: Well it was all tall timber at that time. Haliburton Street was really the street and all down near the mill; there was a mill that operated at that time by water.
Barraclough: It was the Hudson's Bay Company mill, with water?
Lewis: Yes. And on the town site, which was the town site with tall timber, there were no buildings on the town site at all.
Barraclough: You had seen a lot of canoes drawn up on the beach there at Millstone River?
Lewis: Yes, at that time the Northern Indians, the Euclataws and the Haidas and all those tribes coming on their way to Victoria; they would stop here and go onto Victoria. I've seen a number of canoes there.
Barraclough: It must have been quite a sight.
Lewis: Yes it was quite a sight.
Barraclough: Now Mr. Lewis, tell us where you first worked.
Lewis: A small store on the Crescent, a man by the name of Charlie [Warren?]. It was a general store, not very large and I left there and I worked a little farther down at a firm by the name of Romano & Quagliotti. It was quite a big store and most of the business in those days was done with the Indians. Of course if you couldn't talk Chinook it was hard to do business with them so I learned Chinook. (laughing)
Barraclough: And what were the hours?
Lewis: Well, we were open at 7 o'clock and as long as there was anybody around in the evening, of course, and then after all the customers had gone, so those who were sitting around chatting made for home, and they closed the store.
Barraclough: And the wages were?
Lewis: I got $10 a month with board. And it was good board too, I'm telling you!
Barraclough: What kind of currency did you use in those days Mr. Lewis?
Lewis: Money in those days were silver and gold. I didn't see paper notes for several years later. Robert Dunsmuir would keep a stock of 5 and 10 and 20 gold pieces and I have often gone to his home for rolls of gold coins.
Barraclough: They did not like silver?
Lewis: They were wrapped up just the way you would wrap up silver today. And with this gold he would pay these Victoria merchants. A bonded purser on the boat would take the money down to Victoria and pay the bills. That's how he had them paid.
Barraclough: Well how would Mr. Dunsmuir get the gold in the first place?
Lewis: Well he would get it from California. It would come up on these boats to Departure Bay and from there it of course would be stocked at his home ready for any of the merchants who wanted gold.
Barraclough: Mr. Lewis, when did your parents die?
Lewis: My father died in 1876, my mother died in 1880. I also have a brother buried there by the name of Ritchie, who died in Vancouver. They're buried in the same plot on Wallace Street and a beautiful spot it is today.
Barraclough: Where did you work next, Mr. Lewis after the story you mentioned?
Lewis: After completing my apprenticeship with the Nanaimo Coal Company's machine shop in 1886, I went to work for James Abrams, who was a member of the Provincial Parliament. It was a building where the Masonic Hall now stands. Mr. Abrams also started a tannery, where the Tally-Ho Hotel is today. When I was working in the store opposite the Royal Hotel where Judge Begbie used to stay and I've seen him quite often. I happened to be in the Court House one day when Judge Begbie was sitting and it was a murder case and Theodore Davie was for the defence. He was a Victoria lawyer, brilliant and became Premier afterwards. But he said to the judge after he had charged to the jury, he said: “Would Your Honour please tell them the difference between manslaughter and murder.” And I don't think he looked up at all, he said: “That's what I've been trying to tell them for the last hour. That's for you wanting to have the last word.” The courthouse and the gaol was situated not far from the new Federal Building.
Barraclough: You have told me about Sir John A. Macdonald driving the last spike in the E&N Railway?
Lewis: Yes it was driven in 1886, someplace near Shawnigan Lake and after it was driven the party came to Nanaimo and went to the Royal Hotel, which was opposite the store of Mr. Abrams' and I saw Sir John A. Macdonald walking up and down on the sidewalk. After the banquet, they all went down to Number 1 shed to celebrate, so I've been told.
Barraclough: You also saw General William Booth?
Lewis: January 4th 1895 I saw General William Booth of the Salvation Army in the United Church now, which is the United Church now.
Barraclough: You have seen the Steamship Beaver in the Nanaimo Harbour?
Lewis: Yes very often. And I saw it one time on the Beacon, behind the Post Office, high and dry.
Barraclough: Referring back to Judge Begbie, how do you remember him?
Lewis: I remember him passing down the street, going to his hotel, which is the Royal Hotel opposite the store where I worked. He was a very erect, tall, reserved man and he was smoking his pipe, walking leisurely on the street.
Barraclough: And did you ever see Sir James Douglas?
Lewis: No I never did. Word came from Victoria when he died, that was in August in 1877.
Barraclough: How about sailing when you were a young chap?
Lewis: Yes I used to do a lot of sailing in Nanaimo Harbour, in fact, all over the Harbour as far as that was concerned, after school.
Barraclough: And you also belonged to the Minstrel Show?
Lewis: (laughing) Yes, yes. We had a Minstrel Show and used to perform in what we called the Institute at that time, which was the Council Chambers some time afterwards.
Barraclough: I have just been looking at a picture, a group picture of you and a very fine picture it is too. Talking of sports, Mr. Lewis, I think you told me about horseracing on Haliburton Street?
Lewis: Yes, there was a horse called Sleepy Dan and really he ran in the butcher carts and they would take him off about a month before the 24th May and train him. And we'd have this race down Haliburton Street and Sleepy Dan with other horses was generally a winner. We used to go to New Westminster on July 1st, they celebrate it and all we took was Sleepy Dan and racing on Columbia Street. I well remember the parade. There was a man by the name of Bill Ladner, Ladner's Landing; he used to ride a white horse up and down. That's where I saw the procession; they went through New Westminster.
Barraclough: And how did Sleepy Dan make out at New Westminster?
Lewis: Sleepy Dan always won! (laughing)
Barraclough: When did you join the Electric Light & Power, Mr. Lewis?
Lewis: April 18th 1897.
Barraclough: Then you became ...?
Lewis: Bookkeeping and collecting. At that time, the Plant only ran at night; it didn't run in the daytime, and principally for lighting the streets. It was very, very small.
Barraclough: How much were the rates for lights?
Lewis: Well there was a flat rate at that time. There were very few meters. We used to get $1 for 16-candlepower light and if they had four it was $3.75 a month.
Barraclough: That was a steam plant?
Lewis: Yes. It was a steam plant and the coal, what we called slag coal, which we paid 80 cents to the Company for the coal and 50 cents for hauling.
Barraclough: And then Mr. Lewis, you became Secretary of the Company?
Lewis: In 1910 and Manager some years later.
Barraclough: And then you retired?
Lewis: I retired in 1931.
Barraclough: Tell us about your marriage, Mr. Lewis.
Lewis: I married Mary Caldwell in 1890. She came from Ontario, from a place called Iroquois. She was very much interested in social work; in fact during 1914 she was instrumental in starting the Bastion Chapter I.O.D.E., which she also became an honorary member of and she was a honorary member, a life member in fact, of the Red Cross Society.
Barraclough: When did your good wife pass away?
Lewis: In April 1942.
Barraclough: I see a nice picture of her on the wall here wearing a medal.
Lewis: Well that picture...in fact she got an award....she got a letter from the Toronto Saturday Night, asking about the particulars of the Bastion Chapter and they also wanted her photograph and that is the photograph of my good wife.
Barraclough: How about social life in Nanaimo?
Lewis: Well social life in Nanaimo in those days was like one huge family. Of course Mr. Bate and his good wife and Mr. Dunsmuir and his good wife would be the head of those things, naturally.
Barraclough: And then Mark Bate was...?
Lewis: And Mark Bate took a great interest in the Silver Cornet Band. He was cornet player and Sheriff Drake was the leader of the band.
Barraclough: And he was elected Mayor..?
Lewis: He was elected Mayor in 1874 and he was elected...
Barraclough: I think it was 16 times after?
Lewis: Yes 16 to 17 times. And in the 1920s, Dr. Hall, John Shaw the high school teacher, Dave Stephenson, Provincial Police and myself were made life members of the Native Sons. I'm a member of Ashlar Lodge, Masonic Ashlar Lodge No. 3 for 71 years and now I've been made a life member. I've been a member of Nanaimo Rotary Club for 42 years and I'm also life member of the Nanaimo Historical Society and I'm a member of the United Church.
Barraclough: Now Mr. Lewis, about the Klondike Gold Strike?
Lewis: I was working for Jim McGregor and at that time the boats going north to Sitka from California with tourists stayed and got their bunker coal here and one day a young fella, a tourist, came into McGregor's store and was telling us about the Yukon and Bill Sloan was there. And after about a year after, Sloan, John Wilkinson, Fleck and Bill Scouse formed a party and went into the Yukon. They went up to Stewart River first, and couldn't find anything and they came back and when they came back they'd heard of a strike on Dawson Creek and they went into Dawson and got their licences and got out there as fast as they could and staked their claims and also while they were crossing the river they saw a boat coming up from Forty Mile and with the miners racing up to the big find and Sloan came out of there a year after with $110,000.
Barraclough: Do you remember Johnnie Bryant?
Lewis: Oh I remember him well. He was one of the old-timers of Nanaimo and he had been in Cariboo and was a noted Cariboo-miner. And there are wonderful stories told of Johnny and his early days up there.
Barraclough: He explored all the Peace River in his early days.
Lewis: Yes and he prospected in Peace River and all those places. Johnnie Bryant, he operated the Old Flag Inn and across the street was the Mechanics' Institute where they used to hold their dances and balls and political meetings and so forth. And for refreshments, of course, the boys would cross over to the Old Flag and say: “How do you do Johnnie and have one on me”. The Mayor and the Aldermen crossed over the street to Johnnie's and they tell me they finished the business over there and talked things over of what should be done. (laughing).
Barraclough: Now how about the 24th of May?
Lewis: On 24th May it was always celebrated in Nanaimo, as long as I remember and those days the miners gave $1 each and the hotels $20 and that was for prize money and they would have a celebration where the Malaspina Hotel is now, the canoe races and swimming and the greasy pole and everything in the morning and in the afternoon they went to the Green, where the Safeway now is, and they had their running and jumping and dancing at night until 12 o'clock. In the morning at the Old Bastion, Stewart, the Chief of Police, would fire a twenty-one-gun salute. The old cannons are there today.
Barraclough: And then you had foot racing?
Lewis: And they had foot racing on the Green and all that. And next day horseracing on Haliburton Steet and I remember when Haliburton Street was paved by H.J. Kaiser.
Barraclough: How about Bonfire Night?
Lewis: On 5th November we celebrated Guy Fawkes, burnt the effigy and that was on Peck's Hill and several other places in Nanaimo.
Barraclough: You have a story I'd like to hear Mr. Lewis.
Lewis: People often tell me, ask me, what I do at my age and this is the story it was told. They asked a man what he did and they said: “What do you do anyhow?”. “Well,” he says, “in the morning the first thing that I do I get up and I get the newspaper and I read the obituary column and if my name isn't there I go back to bed”.
Barraclough: (laughing) You also have another political story.
Lewis: At a political meeting in the Old Institute, Robert Dunsmuir was speaking and a man, a contractor by the name of Dixon, well known in town, attended all political meetings, kept asking questions. Dunsmiur didn't pay much attention to him. Finally he looked down at Dixon, who was quite bald, and said to him: “Is that you, Dixon? When I go to Victoria I'll buy you a wig.”
Barraclough: Now Mr. Lewis, will you close the interview?
Lewis: This is June 3rd, 1963. On July 17th I'll be 100 years old and I hope to see you all. And I wish to thank you, Mr. Barraclough, for all the time that you have taken in this interview.
Tape Pauses and resumes
Barraclough: Here we are once again, Mr. Lewis, to record the doings of your centennial birthday. That was a grand birthday party. I notices so many telegrams over the fireplace here and cards, baskets of flowers. Oh my what a party! Can you tell us something about the telegrams?
Lewis: Yes. We have a telegram from the Queen, from Buckingham Palace and one from the Lieutenant Governor, General Pearkes and the Premier of the Province, W. Bennett and the Prime Minister of Canada, Lester Pearson, the Opposition Leader, Mr. Diefenbaker and our member, Honourable Mr. Westwood.
Barraclough: I wish to introduce Mr. Lewis' niece, Mrs. Calderhead, the person who has been responsible for looking after Mr. Lewis so well and keeping him so hale and so hearty.
Calderhead: Happy Birthday, Uncle Will. You stood your birthday very well and we're all so happy for you. With all your flowers, telegrams and cards you were most wonderful.
Barraclough: My letter to the editor of the Free Press, Nanaimo, appeared in Saturday's issue, July 20th 1963.
“To the Editor,
A toast to William Lewis, Esquire, our dearly loved Citizen. July 17th, 1963 was the centenary of his coming into this world. During his long and useful life, the history of Nanaimo and the whole world has undergone dramatic changes. Our centenarian has kept abreast of the times with his outlook on life. Today he possesses a keen interest in world affairs and his sharp memory his remarkable. Mr. Lewis has lived through the term of every Prime Minister of Canada since Confederation, fourteen of them, and had the good fortune to see the first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald when he visited Nanaimo. He has also lived through the term of every Premier of British Columbia, twenty-three of them, and not only saw the first Premier, the Honourable J. Foster McCreight at Nanaimo but nearly all the Premiers at political meetings here. Mr. Lewis was on intimate terms with Robert Dunsmuir and the Honourable James Dunsmuir, men who helped to mould the affairs of our city. In this toast to our Grand Citizen, we can include every resident of Nanaimo and a host of his friends scattered over the globe. Here's to many more years of happy life and all the personal comforts that this world can bestow.
Tape Continues one year later:
Barraclough: Today July 17th 1964 is the 101st birthday of Mr. William Lewis of Nanaimo and here he is to greet his friends.
Lewis: I wish to send this message to all my friends and acquaintances on this my 101st birthday. Thank you for all the kind messages and words I have received which I appreciate very much. God Bless you.
Tape Continues one year later:
Barraclough: Here we are again Mr. Lewis on the anniversary of your birthday.
Lewis: I am pleased to say I am feeling grand and in good health on my 102nd birthday having had dinner with Mr. & Mrs. W. Barraclough. I wish to thank all my friends for their cards, telegrams and flowers. This being Saturday July 17th 1965. I wish to thank my friends for what they have done for me and trust and hope to have something to say later on.
Tape continues one year later:
Barraclough: Good morning Mr. Lewis. Here your 103rd birthday has rolled around, Sunday July 17th 1966. Remembrance cards and letters from your friends are numerous, some of them from far away places. People have remembered you with flowers, baskets of flowers. May we add our personal congratulations.
Side 1 of the tape ends
Lewis: (in mid sentence)... rest I well remember coming to Nanaimo in 1875, landing at Hirst's Wharf, which has now been torn down. Sitting in my chair looking out of the window in the house that I've lived in seventy-four years and I've seen as many as ten sailing vessels anchored for coal. There were very few steamships in those days. I wish to thank all my friends for the beautiful cards and the messages and telegrams I have received and I wish them the best of luck and health and happiness.
Tape continues one year later:
Barraclough: Good morning Mr. Lewis. I wish you a happy birthday, your 104th, this being July 17th 1967. Will you favour us with an added message to this tape-recording?
Lewis: There's one thing sure the advantage of my age, very few people die at 104. I was looking at the Province this morning and I was looking at the entrance to Vancouver Harbour in 1882 when we went from Nanaimo over there on the excursion and at that time there were three hotels and a sawmill and if I remember rightly our friend Magurder's[??] father owned the Sunny Side Hotel. I was just thinking this morning looking out what a beautiful morning we have. Yachts around the harbour, we have a wonderful harbour. In fact I was talking to an old friend of mine who has travelled the world, mostly all over and I asked him where he liked to live the best and he said right here in Nanaimo. I wish to thank all my good friends for the messages, letters and all the kind words that have been spoken. My idea of a good friend is one who knows all about you and loves you just the same. Not only that, that this is the day we worried about yesterday. I wish all my good friends health and happiness, this being a beautiful day and I wish you all a happy day and a happy year.
Barraclough: Adding a postscript to this recording. Mr. Lewis died at Nanaimo, February 25th 1968.
END OF TAPE