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BC Archives image of early bamfield showing a lifeboat coming in to the harbour

BC Archives image of Bamfield
Bamfield shot from a dock
Bamfield mermaid
Bamfield as the sun goes down
Bamfield on a hot summer day
West side of Bamfield from main town

West coast Vancouver Island

Settled by Ed Banfield in 1859, Bamfield gained fame when it became the North American landing point for the first trans-pacific telegraph cable, the All-Red Line. As the only form of trans-pacific communication at the time of its inception, the station was extremely important, and a crew was maintained at the site year round. In 1908, Bamfield also became the terminus of the West Coast Lifesaving Trail from Port Renfrew. Later in life, the small town would become an important fishing community, as well as the home of the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre, a marine education/scientific research station operated by the Universities of Victoria, BC, Calgary, Alberta, and Simon Fraser.

48°49’N 125°08’W

In 1859, due to the increased shipping traffic in the area, the Government of BC sent their agent, Ed Banfield, to the south side of Barkley Sound to begin a settlement. He found a suitable spot, and began clearing a village site that he named Banfield’s Creek. (It would be a series of spelling mistakes later that would rename the village Bamfield.) He remained in the area, charting much of Barkley Sound on his many boating trips, and gradually building up the site. Due to the plethora of shipwrecks on the coastal reefs, nicknamed the Graveyard of the Pacific, a remote telegraph line and post was deemed necessary, and the first section was hung from Victoria to Cape Beale, initially to serve the lighthouse located there. In 1899 the line was extended to Bamfield, and then on to Port Alberni, completing what would become the Bamfield road.

The All Red Line

The largest expansion of Bamfield came when it was selected to be the North American terminus for the trans-pacific portion of Britain’s around-the-world telegraph cable. As a sheltered, yet far westerly portion of Vancouver Island, the site was deemed suitable in 1901 and construction began immediately. A dormitory for the workers, a managers house, various support buildings, and the cable station, designed by renowned BC architect Francis Rattenbury, were erected, and once the cable was laid, the first round-the-world telegraph message was sent on November 1, 1902.

This moment was a milestone in worldwide communication, and demand for time on the cable grew so quickly that a second cable was laid in 1926, vastly improving the number of messages that could be sent. To house the two cables, a new cablehouse was built, and the Rattenbury building was converted into more living space for the growing town. While the second cable was being laid, another 12 houses were built for additional staff of the new cable station.

Paralleling the development of international communications in Bamfield was the role it was playing in west coast shipping safety. In 1906, the SS Valencia, a passenger steamer, wrecked off of Pachena Point, part of the notorious Graveyard of the Pacific, and lost 136 of her 163 passengers, including every woman and child on board. Catalyzed by this tragedy, pressure on the government to do something about the constant shipwrecks resulted in the building of the West Coast Lifesaving Trail from Port Renfrew to Bamfield, in order to facilitate speedy rescue efforts. A lifesaving station, with a state of the art 36 foot diesel powered rescue boat, was also established in Bamfield in 1907, and the full-time manning of the station brought additional settlers to the area.

Technology continued to advance, and though considered fast when built, the trans-pacific cables quickly became obsolete. The Canadian Government assumed control of the station in 1950, and sold the cable station and operating rights to the private communications company Teleglobe. On June 20, 1959 the last messages left Bamfield, and the cable station was officially decommissioned. With no chance at restarting due to the early 1959 opening of a new, state-of-the-art cable station in Port Alberni, the Rattenbury building and many others were demolished in 1965 in order to reduce the property taxes on the site.

BMSC and Present Day Bamfield:

In 1968, the National Research Council of Canada asked five western universities, Calgary, UBC, UVic, SFU, and Alberta, to select a site for an advanced marine biology station on the west coast. Though Victoria was at first the front runner, Bamfield was eventually selected as the site, and in 1969, the Western Canadian Universities Marine Biological Society purchased the former cable station property and all existing buildings. In 1971 construction began, and while the first classes were offered in the summer of 1972 (marine phycology and marine ecology), construction did not finish until the winter. Open since then, the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre has remained Canada’s most active university-run marine centre, teaching classes year round to undergraduate and graduate students, as well as supporting countless research and development efforts by universities and the private sector.

The town of Bamfield, for all its growth in the early 20th century, remains quite small, with a population of about 250, most employed in fishery, tourism, or at BMSC. There was a small active commercial fishing fleet in the town until about 1985, when fishing tapered off, and now most fishing occurs on a charter basis. The lifesaving trail became the West Coast Trail, an internationally renowned hiking trail leading from Bamfield to Port Renfrew, and is frequented by tourists all throughout the warmer months of the year. Bamfield is accessible from Port Alberni along a well maintained gravel road, from Cowichan Lake on a series of rough logging roads, by boat, or by seaplane.


Web site ©: The Institute for Coastal and Oceans Research (ICOR) at the University of Victoria, British Columbia Canada.