Sayward's sawmill was Victoria's first

by Danda Humphreys, January 2011

On Vancouver Island, the name Sayward is synonymous with the lumber industry.

One name, three locations. A North Island community, a Saanich road, and a commercial building in downtown Victoria are all, in one way or another, connected to a family by the name of Sayward.

Patriarch William Parsons Sayward was an American, born to English parents near Thomaston, Maine in 1818. He left school at 17 and apprenticed as a house carpenter. In the late 1830s he travelled down the coast to Florida, working his way up to being a contractor and builder. In 1849, when news came of a gold find in California, Sayward journeyed to San Francisco, where he worked as a builder and carpenter. He soon moved on to Sacramento, but instead of digging for gold, he opened a bakery. Staples such as bread being in short supply, he quickly made a fortune feeding the hungry hordes. 

As the gold rush slowed, he moved back to San Francisco and entered the lumber trade. His timing was perfect; the city was growing fast, and business was brisk. Then came news of another gold find. Sayward sold up and sailed north, arriving at Esquimalt in the early summer of 1858 with hundreds of other eager prospectors. Once again, his aims were more practical. Victoria was about to boom, and Sayward could see that a steady supply of lumber would be needed for building.

Interestingly, although the little town was surrounded by beautiful tall trees, there were no facilities for cutting and milling wood. Redwood was imported from California. Oak was imported from England. Sayward quickly opened a lumber yard on Wharf Street, at the foot of Courtney (where the Old Customs House stands today). Before long, he was having lumber towed from Sam Shepard’s mill at Mill Bay. He bought the mill in 1861, and married that same year. His wife Ann was a widow who had been living with her small son Walter on View Street west of Blanshard (now the site of a city parkade). 

Sayward chose native woods for the home he built for his new family on nearby Collinson Street. Barns, stables, a creamery and a root house identified “Woodvine Cottage” as a farm. Cows and horses grazed in the fields west of the house, and a huge elderberry tree graced the front lawn. Son Joseph Austin was born there in 1862. Sadly, Ann Sayward died when Joseph was eight years old, and some years later, her husband moved to a mansion on the north side of what was then called Upper Fort Street. 

As Victoria thrived, so did W.P. In 1878 he established a mill at the north end of Store Street, in the heart of Victoria’s industrial district. Before long, Rock Bay Saw Mills was dealing exclusively with native lumber—Douglas fir and cedar from the Island’s east coast. By 1889, Sayward’s mills, lumber camps, scows and steamer employed 50 workers. By 1891, the Rock Bay mill was cutting from 60,000 to 70,000 feet of lumber per day, and employees now numbered more than 100. Sayward’s lumber empire expanded up-Island and onto the mainland, until by 1894 he was reported to own about 30,000 acres of timberland. 

By the time W.P. retired, in 1896, Joseph had already taken over the day-to-day running of the business. Joseph spent his whole life in the city of his birth. He and his Scottish-born wife Margaret had one child, a daughter of the same name. In later years, Joseph developed a farm at the northern end of Elk Lake. He also built Victoria’s first commercial skyscraper, just down the street from where his mother and half-brother Walter were living when W.P. entered their lives, some 50 years earlier. 

Sayward’s building answered the need for commercial space in the pre-First World War economic boom. Plain and functional, it owed its external Chicago School features to local architect George Mesher. Inside, the central lobby featured a marble floor and panelling, and a marble-walled staircase with metal balustrades and newel posts. Constructed at a cost of $200,000—a fortune in those days—the building was completed in 1911. 

By that time, the lumber business had been sold and W.P. was long gone. He had moved to San Francisco soon after retiring, and died there in 1905. He and his son are remembered in the North Island community and district of Sayward, first settled in the 1890s as Port H’Kusum and (although he never visited it) renamed in W.P.’s honour in 1911; in Sayward Road at Elk Lake; in Sayward Street in Victoria; and in the Sayward Building, which stands to this day on the north-east corner of Douglas and View, a monument to the pioneer lumbermen who helped build this town.

Danda Humphreys has written several books about Victoria’s early pioneers.