1101-115 Fulford-Ganges Rd. Salt Spring Island
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History of Salt Spring Island

Named by officers of the Hudson's Bay Company for the cold and briny saltwater springs on the north end of the island, Saltspring Island is the largest, most populated, and most visited of the Southern Gulf Islands.

The setting is West Coast Canadian; forested islands, wide meadows and beautiful landscapes surrounded by emerald ocean and wonderful vistas.

Saltspring has been a seasonal home of the Coast Salish First Nations since the time of European settlement, and evidence suggests that permanent settlements existed for centuries prior to that, on the south coast of the island where the Tsawout Band Reserve is located today. The Wsanec people of the Saanich Peninsula and the Cowichan people from the Cowichan Valley frequented the island's shores and harvested its resources.

The island was explored by the Spanish and British in the 1700s, and settled in the 1850s by early pioneers who had abandoned their Fraser River gold rush hopes. A group of 9 Negro slaves, who had purchased their liberty in the United States, arrived at Vesuvius in 1857.

Further black settlers, mainly from California, were followed by European immigrants from Portugal and Scandinavia, and British and Hawaiian (Kanakas) settlers originally recruited by the Hudson's Bay Company. Early island pioneers lived under the constant threat of attack by hostile natives.

In 1859, Captain Richards named the highest peak Mount Baynes, in honour of Rear Admiral Baynes who was in command of the Pacific Station at the time. He also named the island Admiral Island, but islanders continued to use the name Saltspring Island, which became the official name of the island in 1905. The township of Saltspring was incorporated in 1873, but strong anti-government sentiment by island residents resulted in the reversal of the incorporation by the BC Legislature ten years later.

Is the island named Saltspring or Salt Spring? The Oxford Dictionary of Canadian Place Names indicates it was called Salt Spring Island by the Hudson's Bay Company in the early 1800s. In 1910 the name was changed to Saltspring by the Geographic Board of Canada, which often fused multiple-word place names. So, officially it is one word, but local usage tends to prefer two words, although it is not unanimous. Canada Post accepts both spellings of the name.

The year-round residents of Saltspring Island include an eclectic mix of artists, musicians, and entrepreneurs. Many vacationers come to Saltspring simply to enjoy the relaxed atmosphere and soak in the quiet island lifestyle and spirit. If you raise an issue or express an opinion, expect a lively debate from the locals.

Saltspring Island is the most densely populated of the Gulf Islands and is also home to the biggest Gulf Island provincial campground, Ruckle Provincial Park. The island's shoreline is varied and beautiful, offering rocky shores, tidal pools to explore, shell beaches for beachcombing, and a wide variety of sandy beaches. Of the 22 ocean beaches, 4 are designated for swimming.

The island has 225 farms and is known for its sheep-raising; be sure to tour the rolling pastures on the north end (visit in the spring, and you'll never order rack of lamb again). Saltspring is also known as a centre for arts and crafts, and has an impressive selection of shops, restaurants and tourist accommodations. While a few of Saltspring's attractions can be seen in a whirlwind two-hour drive, a thorough exploration of Saltspring could take weeks. Allow at least a full day or more...the serene island offers a tranquil respite for solace-seeking travellers.

Saltspring Island has been engaged in one of BC's most high profile environmental wars between local residents and the Texada Land Corporation. In late 1999 the private logging company purchased 10 percent of Saltspring Island and promptly proceeded to log it. Efforts to raise funds and support included the publication of Preserve & Protect 2001, a tasteful best-selling calendar featuring nude photographs of 35 island woman.

The rugged and mountainous southern end of the island is dominated by Mount Tuam and Mount Bruce, separated from the equally mountainous mid-island region by the Fulford Valley, located between Fulford Harbour and Burgoyne Bay. The north end of the island has a lower elevation, with rolling pastures, deciduous forests and the majority of residential developments, mainly around the village of Ganges.

The local economy is service-oriented and heavily reliant on the tourist industry, with a high level of services on the island, concentrated mostly in Ganges. Saltspring offers 2 Hotels, 2 Motels, 8 Resorts, and many Bed & Breakfasts and self-contained cottages and suites. There may well be more B&Bs per capita on Saltspring than anywhere else in Canada.

Farming is important on the island, which bills itself as the Organic Gardening Capital of Canada, and local farmers and growers form the backbone of the popular Saltspring Market. Farms include sheep and lamb products, poultry, llamas, cheese, fruit orchards, and certified organic growers.

Saltspring is 17 miles (27 km) long and 9 miles (14 km) wide, with 83 miles (133 km) of shoreline (182 square kilometres). The island attracts visitors and prospective residents with its mild climate and annual sunshine in excess of 2,000 hours.

Today, the cost of property on Saltspring Island is amongst the highest in Canada, an indication of the popularity of this lovely, trippy, safe and secluded island. Vast tracts of protected land and strict building restrictions have also increased property prices, with limits imposed on development and population density. Land use on the island is governed by the Islands Trust, which aims to preserve and protect the unique qualities of the Gulf Islands. Popular with retirees who like the openness and sense of community on the island, the median age of Saltspring is 47.6 years, more than 9 years older than BC average.

There are no bus facilities or public transit services on the island, so a car or motorbike, even a scooter or bicycle, is a must. Visitors can rent a car or motor scooter and take in some of the breathtaking views to be seen on Saltspring Island.

Population: 10,000

Location: Saltspring Island is located in the sheltered waters of the Southern Gulf Islands of British Columbia, off the west coast of Canada. Because of its close proximity to Vancouver Island, Saltspring is the most accessible of the Gulf chain of islands, with the most frequent ferry sailings on three routes to three ferry terminals. BC Ferries links Fulford Harbour with Swartz Bay (near Sidney), and also links Vesuvius to Crofton on Vancouver Island. There's a BC Ferries dock in nearby Long Harbour with links to both Swartz Bay on Vancouver Island and Tsawwassen on the BC mainland. Floatplanes also link the village of Ganges to Vancouver and Seattle.

Bird's-eye view of Saltspring Island

Mount Maxwell, Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, Panorama, original is 6 'x1'

Mount Maxwell, Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, Panorama, original is 6 'x1'
• original photo by Kmax, Kmax Multimedia, Salt Spring Island, BC

Ganges: On Saltspring, all roads lead to the village of Ganges, in mid island, the biggest town in the Gulf Islands. There are more shops, services, amenities, restaurants, and galleries (not to mention tourists and cars) crammed into Ganges than exist on any other island. After browsing the galleries, walk down to the water for lunch. Ganges was named after HMS Ganges, the flagship of the Royal Navy's Pacific Station between 1857 and 1860. Built in 1821, the Ganges was the last British sailing battleship commissioned for duty in foreign waters.

Fulford Village, at the southern end of the island, bustles with activity when the ferry arrives from Swartz Bay terminal on Vancouver Island. The decidedly laid-back atmosphere of Fulford Village, the historic grocery store (now updated), the Rock Salt Restaurant and Cafe, and the few crafts shops all combine to add to the unique character of Fulford Harbour and the ferry terminal. 

Fulford Harbour was named after Captain John Fulford, commanding officer of the HMS Ganges, the flagship of the Royal Navy's Pacific Station between 1857 and 1860. Built in 1821, the Ganges was the last British sailing battleship commissioned for duty in foreign waters. Charming Fulford Harbour provides temporary anchorage in the shallow waters at the head of the long inlet, a favourite destination among cruising boats.

Fulford Harbour - Bruno Gonzalez
Fulford Harbour taken by Bruno Gonzalez

Tiny Vesuvius Bay on the northwest side of Saltspring offers more studios, hiking trails, and spectacular sunsets! BC Ferries operates a ferry service from Vesuvius to Crofton on Vancouver Island. This is one of the few ferry docks where you can park your car in line and wander the village. A popular family beach is close to the facilities at Vesuvius Bay. Park on Langley Street, then go down a flight of stairs to the beach. Amateur geologists will find some deeply inclined rock strata to study, and warmer ocean waters make it a good spot for swimming. Vesuvius Bay was the home of the first settlers on Saltspring Island (1857), the nine American blacks who had purchased their freedom from slavery. Vesuvius is named after the Royal Navy's paddle sloop Vesuvius, which did duty in the Black Sea during the Crimean War (1853-1856).

The fourth community on the island is Fernwood, facing Galiano Island on the northeast coast of Saltspring. Fernwood is a good launching spot for those wishing to cross Houston Passage to visit Wallace Island Provincial Marine Park in Trincomali Channel. Fernwood provides a restaurant, cafe, government wharf at Fernwood Point off Walker Hook Road, and a boat launching ramp over tidal sand flats at Hudson Point, north of the Fernwood Dock off North Beach Road.

Saltspring Island even has its own currency! Saltspring Island Dollars are available on a one-to-one exchange with the Canadian Dollar and accepted on Saltspring on the same basis as the national currency. The goal of the local currency, which was introduced to the Island in September 2001, is to raise funds for worthwhile community projects while promoting local commerce and goodwill. Limited editions of Saltspring Island art are featured on the back of the notes, which help to make the bills collectible after the two-year expiry date. The not-for-profit Saltspring Island Monetary Foundation facilitates the process of returning the proceeds of the venture back to the community. Legally considered gift certificates, the Saltspring Island Dollar is Canada's only local legal-tender currency in circulation.
The 14 salt springs located on private property on the north end of the island are the only springs in the Gulf Islands. The brine springs are rather unspectacular, and vary in size from one metre to 25 metres in diameter.

Overlooking Fulford Harbour is the tiny stone Roman Catholic St. Paul's Church, built between 1880 and 1883. The church can be viewed from the ferry when sailing into Fulford Harbour.

Head to the heart of Ganges every Saturday to see the wares and talents of the islanders on display at the local Farmer's Market (April to October). The colourful event includes a variety of impromptu musical performances and the occasional theatrical or dance exhibition. Ganges, the largest bustling seaside village in the Gulf Islands, is located 7.5 miles (12 km) north of Fulford Harbour.

Enjoy theatre and live entertainment throughout the year at the ArtSpring Theatre in Ganges, Saltspring Island's premier venue for concerts, theatre, exhibitions and much more. Graffiti Theatre Company utilizes the talents of island artists whilst engaging theatre professionals from away to enrich and broaden their work.

Saltspring is also known as a centre for arts and crafts. Many local artisans open their studios for tours, including spinners and weavers, sculptors and glass blowers, painters and potters. Studios showcase ceramics, woodcraft, jewellery, furniture, metal craft, stained glass, moulded candles, wool and fleece products, and many other unique island products. Pick up a Studio Tour Map from the Visitor Info Centre in Ganges. The unique tour is a self-guided visit to over 30 resident properties of artists and artisans, showcasing their individual talents and creations for your enjoyment and purchase.

One of the biggest events of the year is the annual Fall Fair, held on the third weekend of September just outside Ganges. The two-day fair attracts thousands of visitors who attend to see award-winning displays of fruit and vegetables, prize-winning livestock and riding exhibitions by local equestrians.

Be sure to stop by in July for the annual Saltspring Festival of the Arts, which presents a diverse and culturally rich program of talented performing artists.
Other annual events include the Garlic Festival, Fulford Days, and the Street Dance in August, the Terry Fox Run and Apple Festival in September, and the Guilds of Christmas, Saltspring Singers, and Santa Ship in December.

Island Hopping

Travelling between the Southern Gulf Islands and Northern Gulf Islands can be accomplished in small hops. Each of these islands is a world unto itself, each with its own history, culture and colourful characters - each island deserves at least a day or two for exploring.