Long before Olive Street Common was known as such, the small piece of land between 179 and 185 Olive St. was home to a stream called South Fairfield Stream. The stream flowed from the swampy wetlands where Cook Street Village now is, into Ross Bay near the cemetery that also bears the same name. Another stream, now called Empress Creek, flowed from the same wetlands to Victoria’s Inner Harbour.
Originally the streams cut across the wetlands of Cook and Moss streets and, because of the nature of the wetland area, in rainy weather the creek would rise and fill, making it navigable by canoe. First Nations allegedly used this water passage as an alternate route to move between Ross Bay, James Bay, and the Inner Harbour during heavy storms or wet winter periods when the tides were high and surging waves made travel dangerous along the exposed south coast of the Island.
Construction of the Empress Hotel began in 1904. The muddy wetlands and the creeks of the Inner Harbour meant that much prep work of the unstable land had to be completed first before any sort of structure could be erected. The mud and silt were dredged, swamps were drained, and streams were culverted. Empress Creek still runs through the sub-basement of the Empress Hotel today, and is part of the larger system of Victoria’s “Lost Streams” that were culverted. Several streams still flow throughout the city, even if they are now hidden from sight.
In Fairfield and at Olive Street Common, the South Fairfield Stream remains culverted as a storm drain. Running beneath and bisecting the city lot diagonally, the stream is not the lot’s only ecological value. The Common is habitat for a variety of bird and plant species as well as Ash, Hawthorne and two large Red cedar trees. In fact, the wetlands of the Fairfield area were once a breeding ground for many different animals such as Black Tail deer, sparrows, starlings, grey squirrels, finches, robins, woodpeckers and even hawks.
Wetlands make for ideal habitats due to the variety of both native and exotic flora they possess. It is not surprising that this, in combination with the mild wet winters and cool dry summers of Victoria, meant that life was thriving in the Fairfield wetlands at one time. Some of the types of flora that would have been in the Fairfield wetlands are skunk cabbage, coastal Douglas fir, salmonberry, honeysuckle, bluebells, foxglove, hawkweed, Kentucky bluegrass, mock orange, Morning Glory, crab-apple trees, hazelnut trees, and many others.
The site at Olive Street Common as a whole is depressed into the ground, and often there is the presence of standing water, implying poor drainage. The soil on the site is predominantly clay with a suspended sandy diffusion, ultimately making the site overall a poor choice for building upon.
This is likely why the site was never commissioned for a property, while other lots on nearby streets along the course of the South Fairfield Stream were built upon. As the whole of Olive Street and the Fairfield area in general eventually became populated with many homes, Olive Street Common remained bare of structures and instead has become one of the few remaining green spaces in Victoria that is neither officially a city park nor a private property, but instead is a gathering space for children, neighbours, and the ever present wildlife–a place to come together at and enjoy.
CLICK PHOTO TO ZOOM. An example of a culverted stream in Victoria at Bushby and Eberts St. // Photo credit: Peter Ronald