Tofino History

One of the most enchanting things about this neck of the woods is that the area has remained largely unchanged for eons. Next time you’re on a beach contemplating the rolling surf, try and imagine the foreshore dotted with hand hewn canoes manned by First Nations fishermen or, as it turns out, warriors embarking on a raiding party.

Such was the case in the mid-16th century, when a “Tla-o-qui-aht” (anglicized to Clayoquot) chieftain led his warriors on a series of raids against his neighbours - the original inhabitants of Clayoquot Sound.

The architect of of these rather unneighbourly acts was a chief by the name of “Wickaninnish”, which, depending on who you talk to means, “No one goes before him” or “He-who-no-one-sits-in-front-of-in-the-canoe.”

Clearly, no one dared to sit in front of him or his offspring, because by the end of the 18th century a Wickaninnish descendant had become the undisputed ruler of most of Vancouver Island, with territories extending from Estevan Point to the Straits of Juan de Fuca. Not that voting was a factor, but his riding consisted of over 13,000 First Nations people.

Around this time, European explorers were starting to take a real interest in the area. And no, it wasn’t because of the fabulous sunsets and invigorating winter storms. Furs – particularly from sea otters were becoming an increasingly popular and profitable commodity in Asia. And this area had a seemingly endless supply. Enter the Felice Adventurer in 1788 captained by John Meares, a British trader who, with no official sanction from London, flew the Portuguese flag.

The Tla-o-qui-aht people proved savvy traders and initially relations were cordial, even friendly. But eventually, due to acts of treachery and a general mistrust on both sides, the situation devolved into outright hostilities - culminating with the 1811 attack and ultimate destruction of the American ship Tonquin.

So much for free trade.

The mid-19th century saw a decline in coastal traffic to Clayoquot Sound, save for occasional survey voyages, the occasional shipwreck, patrols or punitive actions by ships of the Royal Navy, and sporadic visits from whisky traders.

In the early 1870’s a trading post was established on Stubbs Island, also known as Clayoquot Island, just across the channel from where the village of Tofino now stands. The post boasted a hotel with British Columbia’s first official liquor license, a post office, and a provincial police station. If you can imagine today’s Wickaninnish Inn at full occupancy – that was the entire population (about 150) back then.

By 1913, the fledgling community expanded its services and amenities to rival and eventually surpass those of Stubbs Island.

It’s unclear exactly who turned a storm into something worth experiencing, rather than avoiding, but around this time the steamer Princess Maquinna began to service the village on a regular basis and provided a means for the first tourists to visit.

As tourism sunk its roots, the mining, lumber, fishing and farming industries thrived. There was even a short-lived gold rush up the coast, which saw the arrival of the first scheduled seaplane service to the area.

Soon after the outbreak of World War II, the Dominion Government felt it prudent to build an air base on the West Coast and Tofino was chosen as the location. If you’ve ever gone for a walk in the bush here, you’ll know what a feat that must have been. Nonetheless, it was built and to this day serves as Tofino and Ucluelet’s airport.

Though Tofino had always been accessible by sea and then by air, the most significant transportation link was the opening of a logging road through to Port Alberni in 1959. The road opened up markets for fish and logs and a few adventurous tourists began to venture out to the Island’s West Coast.

By the late 1960’s, the area’s beaches became havens for pioneer surfers, conscientious objectors and wayward hippies.

At the same time, there was a grass roots movement (spearheaded in part by Dr. Howard McDiarmid, the area’s MLA at the time) to have the area designated a National Park and so in 1971, the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve came into being.

The park’s opening and the paving of the road the following year attracted visitors from far and wide and an infrastructure to cater to their needs began to develop.

By the mid-1980’s whale-watching had become de rigeur and thanks to the McDiarmid vision, so too has storm watching during the fall and winter. Coinciding with this growth in tourism, Clayoquot Sound was thrust onto the world stage for an entirely different reason. In 1993, concerned environmentalists faced off against the timber industry over logging in the Clayoquot Region, culminating in the largest act of peaceful civil disobedience in Canadian history and the introduction of the Clayoquot Sound Land Use Decision in 1995 – still a hot topic today.

It’s hard to imagine in a place as untouched as Tofino, but from 16th century tribal raids to 21st century award winning accommodation, the history here is as rich as the area is beautiful.

There’s always plenty of information to be found online, but if you’re in town and would like a close up glimpse of local artifacts (and a complete gray whale skeleton), visit the the Tofino Whale Centre in Tofino. It’s small, but admission‘s free:

We hope this glimpse into our past enriches your understanding of Canada’s Pacific Rim, and we look forward to welcoming you!

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