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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

    Early Salt Spring home builders
    By Morton Stratton

    Four very young Portugese youth 
    (two sets of brothers) were among the earliest settlers on Salt Spring Island, 
    arriving about 1860 just after Willis and Sylvia Stark, the Jones brothers and 
    other pioneer families. Estalon and Manuel Bittancourt established claims on the 
    shores of Vesuvius Bay and the fertile land to the cast; John and Delarvo Norton 
    (the family name was adopted from the captain of the ship bringing them from 
    Portugal) took up their claims on the gently rolling uplands between the present 
    golf course and Lady Minto Hospital. Manuel and Delarvo disappear from the 
    record; but Estalon Bittancourt, Manuel's son, Reid and John Norton put their 
    roots down on the island, raised their huge families here, and erected some of 
    the substantial homes which graced central Salt Spring Island at the turn of the 
    century. It is particularly unfortunate that three of the finest homes built by 
    the Bittancourts no longer exist (One demolished and two destroyed by fire) and 
    hence cannot be represented in the photographic exhibit of old homes scheduled 
    by the Canadian Arts Council for June 20 in Mahon Hall. But happily, several 
    others are still well preserved, as are two houses built by John 


    Estalon Bittancourt had a particularly romantic and interesting career. Born in the Azores about 1845 he developed a roving disposition and a longing to go to sea. At the age of about 15 or 16 he swam out to a sailing ship bound for the goldfields of Australia. 
    Soon after, the lure of the sea brought him to Vancouver Island. Refused shore 
    leave by his captain he waited until nightfall and swam ashore at Royal Roads. 
    Purchasing a sloop, he did a good business for several months carrying sawdust 
    from Mill Bay to Victoria. Then disaster struck; a driving gale piled his frail 
    craft on the rocks at ten mile point just north of Cordova Bay; but fortunately 
    his ability as a swimmer saved him after a hard struggle with the swift running 
    current. Perhaps tiring of his adventures on the sea he took the advice of his 
    fellow countryman, John Norton, who already knew something of Salt Spring, and 
    established his land claims behind Vesuvius Bay. 


    For a full generation, from the 
    1860's until death in 1917, the story of Vesuvius is in a real way the story of 
    the Estalon married, raised a large family of nine children, became a 
    substantial businessman and farmer and developed the agreeable habit of building 
    substantial homes for himself and his family. The earliest and the finest, his 
    own home above the docks at Vesuvius, existed in its later days as the Vesuvius 
    Bay (An annex was built in 1886 for son, Fred, and wife, Annie). This big house 
    was the centre of Estalon's enterprise. Hero he ran a general store (supplied by 
    a sloop with which he delivered goods to and from Victoria) and a friendly 
    little neighborhood pub (a decent enough establishment, but still off limits to 
    the strict Methodists at Central Settlement.) Later he developed the store into 
    the Vesuvius Bay Hotel. A major source of income for the growing Bittancourt 
    family came from the operation of the sandstone quarries at Vesuvius, originally 
    developed in 1860-61 by five partners who took of for the goldfields of the 
    Cariboo in 1861.
    In the 1880's the sandstone quarry 
    was running at full strength and the family operated three sloops carrying stone 
    to Victoria and Esquimalt. The Esquimalt dry dock, the original causeway in 
    front of the Empress Hotel and several churches in Victoria were constructed of 
    Vesuvius sandstone. Coal was also mined at the Bittancourt place; especially at 
    nearby Dock (now corrupted to Duck) Bay. Bea Hamilton tells us this coal 
    retailed for 25 cents a bag! Since the Vesuvius docks were the principal window 
    on the world for settlers north of the Divide, the Bittancourts were often the 
    first to welcome newcomers to the island. One of the early priests working this 
    mission field, Father Kremera, was once flung from his canoe into the waters at 
    Sansum Narrows. He made it to shore and staggered through the bush where he was 
    found by Bittancourt. Years later (1894) it was Bittancourt who greeted the Rev. 
    E.F. Wilson upon his first arrival at Salt Spring on a cold February morning and 
    directed him on his way to Mrs. Stevens; Boarding House. Meanwhile, over the 
    years the Bittancourt land holdings were expanding (some of the acreage farmed 
    with the help of his son, Charlie) until at the time of Estalon's death in 1917 
    at the age of 74 there were 437 acres registered in his name. 
    The family home - turned hotel was 
    destroyed by fire on 1975 but five houses still attest to the prosperity of this 
    enterprising pioneer. Best known are the three "dowry houses" that ringed 
    Vesuvius Bay (photo in Toynbee's Snapshots), built by Bittancourt for three of 
    his married daughters (one house has since been moved to the top of the hill 
    where the road descends to the bay). A house built across the road from the 
    wharf for his son, Fred, about 1892 was recently moved to the Farmer's Institute 
    property on Rainbow Road and will serve the community as Salt Spring Island's 
    first museum after remodeling is "The Ark" the jewel of them all. The 
    Bittancourt family was Catholic and had originally installed a chaplin in the 
    attic of the old family home where once a month a Catholic priest attended to 
    celebrate mass. Later, Estalon built a small chapel up the road from son Fred's 
    home. This pretty little building, now a residence, still stands with a bell in 
    the gable, a fitting testimonial to the devout Catholic family whose legacy 
    lives on at Vesuvius Bay.

    Equally well known to the next 
    generation on Salt Spring, including many now living were Estalon Bittancourt's 
    nephews, Reid and Arthur Bittancourt. After he moved here in the 1880's Reid's 
    life was intimately related to the development of the Ganges area. Arthur, on 
    the other hand, made his name in Alaska but he is remembered locally for the 
    meticulous care with which he dismantled the Methodist chapel at Central board 
    by board and window by window and reassembled it on Hereford Avenue. Here the 
    structure now stands as the street side portion of the Legion Hall. Complete 
    with a new roof, the operation cost $300. Arthur also did some exceptional 
    carpentry work in the early 20's in the home of Dick Toynee on Churchill Road. 
    Abraham Reid Bittancourt was an outstanding carpenter and builder. (See Valerie 
    Richards comment on his craftsmanship in a recent Driftwood). He apparently 
    developed his skills before moving to the island. In 1890 he worked with Mr. 
    Herd of Somenoa in the construction of the T. W. Mouat house which still stands 
    on the ridge west of St. Mary Lake. 


    Certainly the biggest commission 
    was building the impressive Henry Bullock mansion in 1892 for a contract price 
    of $2,000. Subsequently, he erected several houses in the village of Ganges; for 
    example, the home at the corner of Rainbow Road and Lower Ganges Road across 
    from the health office. But better known was the splendid home and store put up 
    in 1904 at the foot of Ganges Hill, known more recently as the Dr. Francis 
    nursing home (demolished in 1967). Reid's career as a storekeeper boat operator 
    and patrol officer for Canada Customs are beyond the scope of this article. In 
    concluding these comments on the Portugese pioneers, mention must be made of 
    John Norton (born Delavera). Like Reid Bittancourt, he raised a fine family on 
    Salt Spring. His children were contemporaries and playmates of some of Salt 
    Spring's older living residents (see Toynbee's school snapshots). John Norton 
    was a prosperous farmer in the area west and north of the present Valcourt 

    Here he constructed for his second 
    wife the family home which stands on the left up Norton Road and is now 
    surrounded by so many lovely flowers and overgrown shrubs. Incidentally, this 
    house, owned by a granddaughter of John Norton, is the only house in the 
    Heritage House Committee's survey which is still in the hands of a descendant of 
    the builder. John Norton also built a house for A.J. Smith about 1903 which 
    stands on the left of Blain Road above Greenwoods, commanding a panoramic view 
    of Ganges Harbour. The Nortons and the Bittancourts, only recently so well known 
    on the island are gone now. But the houses they built stand as a tribute to the 
    contribution they made to the growth and diversity of our fascinating island. 

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