Reflecting on Prince Rupert’s Sunken Gardens

Aerial view of Prince Rupert from 1st to 6th Avenue taken by John R. Wrathall in 1950 with the scale and splendor of the courthouse grounds clearly highlighted and the outline of the Sunken Gardens also on display (Photo courtesy of Prince Rupert City and Regional Archives)

Entering Prince Rupert’s downtown via McBride Street is a journey that puts on display some of the best Prince Rupert has to offer. In the distance can often be seen an anchored cargo ship whose blazing horn holds the attention of all while the harbour, which eventually spills out into the great expanse of the Pacific Ocean, and tree-covered mountains that cradle the city can too be seen. You’ll have to forgive me for the overly pastoral scene I have just described, I am new here. I have lived essentially my entire life in Ottawa; a city of flat terrain where bureaucratic buildings loom large and “getting back to nature” means driving outside of the city limits. To answer the frequently asked question I receive, I am in Prince Rupert because I have been given the terrific opportunity to work as the Curatorial Assistant Intern at the Museum of Northern B.C. 

While I am starting to understand that the sounds and sights I have described are common in Prince Rupert I still rejoice in the way that the sun, when it makes a rare appearance, falls over the mountain peaks outside my office window. It does so little by little until the mountain is subsumed by a striking auburn colour that makes so clear the dense trees I sometimes think I can count each individual one. I love seeing signs for Alaska one way and Prince George another. The short time I have spent in Prince Rupert has led me to discover the profound way in which places and experiences from the past inform perceptions and interactions with places of the here and now. 

Missing from my description of downtown Prince Rupert from McBride Street is the architecturally remarkable courthouse. When I first encountered the courthouse, I was struck by the grandeur of the building with its carefully manicured front lawn and Georgian façade. While the courthouse piqued my interest it was upon hearing what lay behind the building that I knew my curiosities would need to be answered. The story of the Sunken Gardens seemed to have taken on a certain mythology in the city and as someone interested in local history and the relationship between inhabitants of a space and the way that history is disseminated, I was eager to discover more. Ultimately, I would discover the story of the Sunken Gardens to be a story spanning many decades involving many different players and seminal events that go far beyond Prince Rupert alone.

The Sunken Gardens was nowhere on the minds of the pioneers who instead saw the building of the courthouse as an opportunity to put Prince Rupert on the map. These ambitions were articulated in a front page article published by the Prince Rupert Journal in May of 1913 which captured feelings of anticipation, excitement, and urgency. The building was to “be among the best in the province of British Columbia.” Not only was the new courthouse going to rival those in the province’s larger cities like Victoria and Vancouver, but it was also part and parcel of the change that was coming to Prince Rupert with the impending arrival of the railway. The railway would bring carts of people who in turn would bring “great increase in business,” it was surmised.

A.A. Cox was an architect who hailed from Prince George and chosen to be most capable of making these dreams a reality. Cox was much revered and respected by supporters of the project as evidenced by the attention that his visits to Prince Rupert received in the local press. His arrivals were announced alongside dignitaries and others of the upper echelon. Though only ever a temporary denizen of Prince Rupert, Cox was held as a forward thinker who understood the importance the new courthouse was to play in the ever changing landscape of Prince Rupert. Cox was said to be “looking far into the future and designing the layout so that there may be nothing to undo as time goes by.” This sentiment situates Prince Rupert in a wider twentieth century phenomenon of modernity and rapid industrialization. 

The commencement of World War One in 1914 put a halt on the construction of the building. Along with this, it was discovered that the ground that had been excavated to provide the foundation for the courthouse, was unsuitable and a new foundation would need to be laid elsewhere. 

The project was taken up again in 1921 and was key in providing jobs and thus helping to stabilize the economy after the devastation of World War One. A new architect, Henry Whittaker, was selected to complete construction. Whittaker was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to an English family and completed his apprenticeship as an architect in Dudley, England eventually emigrating to Canada’s West Coast in 1913. His résumé boasted the completion of a plethora of other provincial government buildings throughout the province. 

Construction of the courthouse already well under way in August of 1921 (Photo courtesy of Museum of Northern B.C.) 

Though put on hold, the grand ambitions for the courthouse did not diminish in the almost ten years that had passed since the project began in 1913. In fact, the second attempt did not stray very far from the initial plans with Whittaker using and fulfilling Cox’s original designs. With the original excavation deemed unsuitable for a courthouse of the great stature they desired, a new area needed to be dug to build the foundation. Fixed on 100 Market Street for the panoramic views of the city it offered, the new area excavated for the building was put directly in front of the first. The courthouse as it stands today was completed in 1923 as a result of the dedication of people like A.A. Cox and Henry Whittaker in addition to people whose names might not have appeared in the newspapers, but without whose contributions, the courthouse would not be.

The completed courthouse before the breathtaking mountains taken by William W. Wrathall in 1923 (Photo courtesy of Prince Rupert City and Regional Archives)

While there was much to be celebrated in light of the completion of the Prince Rupert Provincial Courthouse, still, there was the issue of the enormous hole directly behind the building. With many people in Prince Rupert needing work, the city launched an initiative to transform the area into a garden.

A closer look at the Sunken Gardens from the Phylis Bowman Collection (Courtesy of the Prince Rupert City and Regional Archives)

Not only did the garden initiative answer the need for jobs in the city, but it also added tremendously to the overall texture and character of Prince Rupert. It also speaks to the spirit of the community for taking something that was rooted in human error and otherwise destructive to the environment and turning it into a space of beauty and creation. The hole could just have easily been filled, but it was instead used as an opportunity to benefit the city and its inhabitants. Moreover, when considering the deprivation that the thirties would bring, the tranquility and hope that the Sunken Gardens represented would have been even more meaningful. 

Previously known as a small fishing town World War Two found Prince Rupert playing an important role in military defence especially after the events that transpired at Pearl Harbour. This was a result of the city’s prime location on the coast and its clear passage to Japan. Canadian and American troops alike began appearing in high numbers and Prince Rupert experienced a boom in population reaching 21,000 which has been unmatched to this day. With a pronounced military presence in the city so too came the technologies of war which needed a place to be contained. The Sunken Gardens answered this need by acting as the necessary munitions storage throughout the war.

With the end of the war and the military presence exiting Prince Rupert en masse what was used as storage for munitions was restored back to the Sunken Gardens. 

 Today, the Sunken Gardens is maintained by the Prince Rupert Garden Club who have been doing so since 2003. The space exists as a place of tranquility, beauty, reflection, and gathering by dwellers of Prince Rupert and visitors alike.

Vibrant sign welcoming visitors to the grounds made possible by a $50,000 donation from the Prince Rupert Port Authority in 2016

Throughout its history, the Sunken Gardens has adapted to be whatever it needed to be in the context of its time. When there was a need for work, the Sunken Gardens provided, when Prince Rupert found itself in the midst of the Second World War, the Sunken Gardens adapted itself to become needed munitions storage, and the Sunken Gardens today remains steadfast as an inspiring place of creation and tranquility adding to the distinct character of Prince Rupert. It has existed as a space of leisure, work, and even work and home to people like Lloyd Ernest Bud Pierce who was born and raised in the only home located on the courthouse grounds and served as the groundskeeper for 33 years. His memory is commemorated on a plaque in the garden.

From the Phylis Bowman collection displaying several buildings in close proximity to the Sunken Gardens including the Department of Forestry (Photo courtesy of the Prince Rupert City and Regional Archives)

Picturesque as the Sunken Gardens may be, we must not let this beauty distract us from acknowledging the land that the garden was built on. Like so much else in Prince Rupert, the Sunken Gardens was built on Tsimshian land, and that is a fact we must confront daily.
The story of the Sunken Gardens can offer much guidance to those willing to hear it. Namely, the importance of patience in the face of great adversity, the power of adaptability, the potential for creation over destruction, and the importance of unity. Ultimately, as I see it, the most profound aspect the Sunken Gardens is that it means different things to different people. 

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