Secrets below: Exploring the hidden basements under downtown Victoria sidewalks

Secrets below: Exploring the hidden basements under downtown Victoria sidewalks

People stroll downtown Victoria sidewalks day after day, but they may not realize that beneath their feet lie literal pieces of history.

The purple glass blocks in sidewalks aren’t just for show — they are portals to a bygone era, and for historian John Adams it’s a tale worth telling.

Back in the early 1900s when the Yarrow Building was built, the space under its rear sidewalk on Broughton Street was extra storage.

“It’s an extension of the basement, under the city sidewalk,” Adams told CHEK News during a basement tour. “In order to let light in and to avoid using the electric light, they put the glass ceiling in.”

Though small in size, the skylight-like blocks weren’t cheap to install or replace, so now they’re rare gems.

“Over the years, the glass breaks, the metal framework corrodes, the sidewalk deteriorates… these days, almost all of them are filled,” he said.

Some passersby were oblivious to the blocks.

“I didn’t even notice that,” one person told CHEK News. “Do they have purpose beyond the aesthetics? I would have said no, I would have expected just aesthetics,” added another.

But the ones still here aren’t like they used to be. “…the manganese over the years has oxidized and turned this beautiful amethyst colour, which is very distinctive,” according to Adams.

“People don’t know. You walk on them every day, and you don’t even think that they had a purpose at one time,” said one passerby.

And it’s stories like these that keep Adams on his toes. After all, he is the man behind Discover The Past Walking Tours — a group of history buffs and ghost-story enthusiasts who are often asked: Are there secret tunnels here?

“Although Victoria doesn’t have what we might term ‘secrets tunnels,’ we do have areaways,” said Adams. “There were some other tunnels that, perhaps, are quite well-known.”

He’s talking about the tunnel that ran from the Empress Hotel, under Douglas Street to a construction site, and another that connected the B.C. legislature with the Douglas building.

But that’s about it, so instead of searching for tunnels, Adams says people can marvel at the blocks from above, acknowledging the rich history below.

“People are fascinated with how diverse Victoria’s history really is, and even without making up stories of secret tunnels, how exciting some of our past can be,” he added.

As he gears up for another tour in Victoria — a bustling city full of life and stories of today and yesterday.

Ethan MorneauEthan Morneau

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