Builder and city clerk William Leigh helped guide the City of Victoria, B.C. through its challenging pioneer years

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By Sam McBride

I have long been intrigued by the story of my great-great-grandfather William Leigh (1815-1884), who was city clerk of Victoria for 20 years before his death. His daughter Matilda Caroline “Carrie” Leigh (1852-1885) married Walter Dewdney (1836-1892) in Victoria, and their children included my grandfather Edgar Edwin Lawrence “Ted” Dewdney (1880-1952).

For many years, the info I had on William Leigh was from his obituary and funeral report in the Daily Colonist newspaper, as well as biographical notes put together by City of Victoria staff on past city clerks.  The basic information was that William Leigh was born in 1815 in Warwickshire, and came to Victoria with the Hudsons Bay Company in the mid-to-late 1850s.  His father was a construction contractor in London whose best-known project was the construction of the Sweyn Lighthouse on quicksands.  Before going to work for the Hudson Bay Company, William Leigh was primarily known as a barge builder.

William Leigh managed the Uplands Farm for several years before going to work in 1862 for the city of Victoria as assessor and then city clerk in 1864 after the city`s incorporation as a municipality earlier in the year.

william leigh at bc archives

William Leigh 1815-1884

Recently, I was very pleased to discover additional info on William Leigh in the Victoria Times of April 14, 1917, in correspondence between his son Ernest A. Leigh (1849-1935) of San Francisco with Victoria Times columnist Edgar Fawcett, who had been a school chum of Ernest in Victoria in 1859. Ernest noted that his father left England in 1854 and arrived in 1855 in the employ of the HBC, and his family joined him in Victoria later that year.   He worked as superintendent of several construction projects, including the Victoria District Church and the Colonial School, as well as a structure at Governor Douglas`s residence, and the steamers Emily Harris and James Douglas,  before going to the Uplands Farm to supply food for HBC personnel, and then commencing with the city as assessor in October 1862.  In December 1862 Leigh continued his assessor work and succeeded Algernon  Austin as Victoria`s second city clerk.

After Leigh`s  death, the Colonist noted “he was a man of herculean strength, remarkably suave of manner, and unquestionable ability,” and “one of Victoria`s most genial and kindhearted pioneer citizens.“

Leigh`s sudden, unexpected death was a shock to the community.  After an autopsy, his physician, Dr. Helmcken (founder of the B.C. Medical Association), noted that Leigh`s heart, lungs and liver were “extensively diseased“, according to the Daily Colonist report.

At the request of City Council, Leigh was honoured with a public funeral on Sunday, May 4, 1884.  The funeral train assembled at the Leigh residence on Dallas Road, James Bay, and proceeded to the Reformed Episcopal Church for the service, and then to Ross Bay Cemetery for burial.  Led by a band playing the Dead March in Saul, the order of the funeral procession was: the Victoria Fire Department; the City Police Force; the Hearse; Right Hand Pallbearers; E.C. Baker, MP; Thomas Russell, city assessor; W.D. McKillican, councillor for James Bay Ward; Dennis Harris, ex-city surveyor; Left Hand Pallbearers; ex-mayor Redfern; His Worship Mayor Carey; T.N. Hibben; the Chief Mourners; City Councillors and officers of the corporation; about 30 citizens in carriages; followed by other citizens walking.

I find it fascinating that, even though he was a burly builder, William Leigh began to be involved with the Victoria Philharmonic Society in 1861, and was a flautist with them between 1869 and 1882, often performing for charitable causes.

In addition to Carrie and Ernest, children of William Leigh and wife Matilda Sarah Capron included William Thomas Leigh (1843-1873), Rose S. Lee (1850-?), and Edwin Alfred Leigh (1857-1885), who was clerk of the Supreme Court.

It is interesting to note that William Leigh`s granddaughter Shirley Vanderleur Torrens Leigh (1865-1945), a daughter of Wiiliam T. Leigh, married in 1883 George Ferdinand Donald Simpson (1858-1926), grandson of the famous HBC governor-in-chief, Sir George Simpson (1787-1860).

ernest and alma leigh

Ernest Leigh and wife Ella Lees, from a passport image on ancestry.com

After leaving Victoria for California at age 21, Ernest Leigh gained prominence in the San Francisco real estate industry as a partner in the Davidson and Leigh firm.  Like many in the Bay Area, that company suffered substantial losses in the 1906 earthquake.  A Davidson and Leigh employee, Colbert Coldwell, left the company and started his own business, which became Coldwell Banker, which today is among the world`s leading real estate companies.

A few years ago I visited Victoria and looked for William Leigh`s grave at the historic Ross Bay Cemetery.  With assistance from cemetery staff I found the site where William and his children William T., Carrie and Edwin were buried, but there were no stones or identifying markers – just a patch of open grass.
Apparently, as the caskets below deteriorated over time, the stones sunk steadily into the often-wet ground and disappeared from sight.   Hopefully someday an identification marker will be erected on the gravesite in memory of the HBC man and city clerk who helped establish Victoria through its difficult early years.

Dewdney Trail timeline since completion in 1865

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Here is a timeline of significant events and circumstances with the Dewdney Trail since its completion in the fall of 1865.

1865-1898 – Dewdney Trail was the main east-west link between Kettle Valley and Columbia Valley.

nov11 2015 0301905 – West Kootenay Power and Light built a transmission line west of Rossland, using parts of the Dewdney Trail for their access road and right-of-way.

Early 1920s – Cascade Highway built between Christina Lake and Rossland.  The new road crossed the Dewdney Trail many times, but did not follow it for any distance.  Dewdney Trail continued to be used by local ranchers and farmers for moving their cattle and as a horse trail, while the Cascade Highway became important for larger conveyances.

1949 – Completion of Hope-Princeton Highway

1962 – Highway between Christina Lake and Castlegar completed.

Oct. 13, 1963—Ribbon-cutting for Salmo-Creston Highway.

1972 – B.C. Parks Branch did a reconnaissance of the Christina Lake to Patterson portion of the trail and found that 70% of the original trail was still intact.

1972-1975 – Parks Branch in cooperation with the Forest Service works to restore Dewdney Trail section between Christina Lake and Paterson, including interviews with old-timers.

Mid-1970s – archaeological study done on portion of the Dewdney Trail between Grand Forks and Christina Lake by M. Friesinger.

Late 1970s – B.C. Highway installed lines parallel to the West Kootenay Power line, but on a grander scale.

96plan00011985 – A forest fire burned over the 2 km section of the Dewdney Trail along the Wild Horse River, which was the best-preserved section of the trail in the East Kootenays.

1989 – Corridor Plan for the Dewdney Trail produced under the Recreation Corridors program.

April 10, 1991 – Portions of the Dewdney Trail were designated as a Historic Site by provincial Order-In-Council.  Designated portions on Crown Land along the Wild Horse River; near the headwaters of Summit Creek and down to the Kootenay River; and from the Rossland Summit (Record Ridge – Mount Sophia Pass) to Christina Creek.

May 24, 1995 – Memorandum of Agreement on Heritage Trail was signed by the Ministry of Forests and the Ministry of Small Business, Tourism and Culture.  The trail has also been designated as a forest recreation trail under the Forest Practices Code of B.C., and as an Archealogical Site under the Heritage Conservation Act.

March 1996 – Dewdney Trail Management Plan for Trail Portions on Public Forest Lands in the Nelson Forest Region published and distributed.  The Dewdney Trail Corridor is considered to be 100 meters on either side of the trail centerline.

October 1996 – In line with the Management Plan, the Ministry of Forests commences a procedure of Alteration Permits established under the Heritage Conservation Act, including rehabilitation measures for disturbed parts of the trail.

September 1998 – Mapping and assessment conducted by Champion Contracting for the Forest Service on sections of the Dewdney Trail, including the Santa Rosa Summit, Santa Rosa Creek, Big Sheep Creek to Corral Creek, Corral Creek to Cascade Summit, Cascade Highway Summit, Lost Creek,

closeup of installing dew trail sign1999 – Location of the trail is plotted using a GPS unit.  The GPS plot corresponds to the location found by B.C. Parks in 1972.

September 2015 – incorporation of the Dewdney Trail Heritage Society, focusing on protection and preservation of the section of the Dewdney Trail between Christina Lake and Rossland.

Presentation on The Two Edgar Dewdneys April 24, 2015 at the Rossland Museum

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By Sam McBride

I am looking forward to giving a presentation on The Two Edgar Dewdneys at the Rossland Museum on Friday, April 24, 2015 between 6:30 pm and 8 pm.

For quite a few years I have been collecting images and stories of Edgar Dewdney which I will show in my slide presentation at the museum as part of the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Dewdney Trail through the Kootenays.   I offer my perspective as a descendant with material on Edgar that has not previously been organized and presented to the public.

Edgar Dewdney never lived in the Kootenays but his nephew Edgar E. L. Dewdney (my grandfather, known as Ted within the family and to close friends) was a prominent resident of Rossland, British Columbia in the early 1900s as a young Bank of Montreal clerk and lieutenant in the Rocky Mountain Rangers militia, and then again in the 1920s as bank manager and community leader.

weir cropped

A story about the Dewdney Trail in the Cominco Magazine in the 1960s is among the material on display at the Rossland Museum this year in conjunction with the 150th anniversary of completion of the Dewdney Trail across southern B.C.

Ted Dewdney was not famous like his Uncle Edgar, but in many ways his story as a community builder in southern B.C. is just as interesting.  Unlike his uncle Edgar, there were no scandals or improprieties associated with Ted Dewdney, who was highly respected for his integrity and compassion throughout a 43-year career with the bank, followed by 12 years of service with community organizations before his death in Nelson in 1952.

The date April 24, 2015 is also significant for the Dewdney family because it will be 100 years since Ted Dewdney`s brother-in-law Private John Francklyn Peters died at the Second Battle of Ypres in the First World War.  He was the first of three of Helen Peters Dewdney`s brothers to die in the world wars

In conjunction with the Two Edgar Dewdneys talk, memorabilia of Edgar Dewdney and Ted Dewdney will be displayed in two of the Rossland Museum`s display cases.  The displays can be viewed before and after the presentation.

Last week I was interviewed about the Two Edgar Dewdneys presentation by Chris Stedile of Rossland News.  His story can be viewed on the following link: http://www.rosslandnews.com/news/298486611.html

UPDATE TO POSTING, MAY 2015

The Two Edgar Dewdneys presentation at the Rossland Museum went very well.  Extra chairs had to be brought in to the theatre room to accommodate an audience of about 50 local history enthusiasts.    The displays of Dewdney family memorabilia associated with the presentation will stay up as part of the display commemorating the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Dewdney Trail through the Kootenays.