Tofino History and Clayoquot Sound History

Sepia photo from the top of Lone Cone, Clayoquot Sound
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A Brief Tofino History

Voices from the Sound

PO Box 1021  •  Station A
Nanaimo, BC  •  Canada V9R 5Z2
1-888-858-5455  •  salalbooks@voicesfromthesound.com

Filled with personal stories and a vivid sense of time and place, Voices from the Sound by Margaret Horsfiled brings alive the history of Clayoquot Sound and the west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia.

Tofino is located in a geographical region called Clayoquot Sound, comprising about 400,000 hectares of land and marine inlets, all draining into a central marine catchment area. The Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations have made Clayoquot Sound their home for several thousand years.  The Tla-o-qui-aht Village of Opitsaht (across the water from Tofino on Meares Island) is thought to have been continuously inhabited for at least the past 5,000 years, according to carbon dating of a long-buried stash of discarded clamshells. The word Clayoquot comes from Tla-o-qui-aht.

The earliest recorded European contact with Vancouver Island’s First Nations residents occurred just north of Clayoquot Sound, between Estevan Point and the Escalante River. In 1774 Captain Juan Pérez was sent north by the viceroy of New Spain to reassert the long standing Spanish claim on the west coast of North America. Pérez reached the Queen Charlotte Islands in July, 1774. After some trading with the Haida people from aboard the Santiago, Pérez turned south and made contact with Hesquiaht people near what are now called Perez Rocks, approximately 40 km north of Tofino. Curiously, Pérez and his crew did not go ashore.

History buffs will appreciate that Pérez preceded the more celebrated Captain James Cook, who arrived three years later at Nootka Island, in the spring of 1778. Cook claimed the region for Britain, giving rise to heated interactions between the British and the Spanish. War was averted through various agreements outlined in the three Nootka Conventions signed between 1790 and 1794.

During the 1792 exploration of Vancouver Island by Captains Galiano and Valdez, Clayoquot Sound’s southernmost inlet gained the name Tofino Inlet. The name honoured Vincente Tofiño, a Spanish hydrographer who taught Galiano cartography during the expedition.

The current townsite of Tofino was officially established in 1909 on the Esowista peninsula, taking its name from Tofino Inlet. Until this time, the outpost called Clayoquot was the main European settlement in the area. Located on Stubbs Island, about 1.5 km across the water from the current site of Tofino, Clayoquot had been a fur trading post on and off since the late 1850s. By the turn of the century it boasted a store, post office, hotel, saloon, dock, and a small resident population.

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By the late 1890s, a scattered bunch of homesteads had appeared on the Esowista Peninsula, across the water from Clayoquot.  Gradually, the new townsite of Tofino took shape here, as more settlers arrived, mostly Norwegian, Scots, and English.  The Anglican Church (still standing at Second Street and Main) was built in 1913 after the Church of England provided funds, instructing that a church be built on the most beautiful spot on Vancouver Island.

The idea of Tofino as a tourist destination has been around for a long time but the reality grew slowly decade by decade. Tourism in the region dates back to the late 1800s when the occasional adventurous traveller would hitch a ride on the steamships transporting miners, fur traders and their equipment up the coast from Victoria. But through the early decades of the 1900s this region was mostly known as an isolated maritime trading town, earning the nickname "Tough City" for its long, rainy and tempestuous winters.

In 1959 a long-awaited logging road was punched through the mountains between Port Alberni and the coast. The earliest road travellers, eager to reach the ocean, could only use the logging road on the weekends when loggers had days off. Over time, restrictions on road use eased, and Tofino became an increasingly popular destination. By the late 1960s young people arrived in droves, striking up makeshift camps at a few different beaches in the Long Beach region. At around this time, surfers began to appear on the beaches, at first just a few, the forerunners of today’s thriving surf culture. In 1970, Pacific Rim National Park was created. The road was paved in 1972, making it Canada’s only paved road to the open Pacific Ocean.  Accordingly, Tofino became the official western terminus of the Trans Canada Highway, as evidenced by the official sign at the First Street dock.

In 1993 Tofino and Clayoquot Sound found themselves in the limelight, both nationally and internationally. After a contentious summer in the woods, 856 activists were arrested for protesting the practice of clearcut logging at Kennedy Lake, just south of Tofino. The protest garnered world-wide media attention and stood as the largest mass arrest in Canadian history, until June 2010 when 900 protesters were arrested at the G20 Summit in Toronto.
The recognition of Clayoquot Sound by the United Nations as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in January 2000 is the region’s most recent international distinction, recognizing the area as one of unparalleled natural and cultural riches.

Today, Tofino is Tourism.  Clayoquot Sound welcomes between 750,000 and a million visitors annually. These folks migrate here with, and sometimes because of, other returning visitors. Every year in March about 25,000 grey whales pass through Clayoquot Sound en route from Baja to Alaska. Every April and May hundreds of thousands of shorebirds stop to gorge themselves on Clayoquot Sound’s nourishing mudflats and sandy beaches before following the whales north.  And then there are the salmon. Millions of salmon – five different species in all – mingle and feed in the inshore and offshore waters throughout the summer before the fall rains point them to the rivers and streams where they return to spawn.

Accessible, environmentally rich areas like ours are rare treasures, found in few other locations on the planet. Many residents take preservation of the environment hyper-seriously, evidenced by how local people banded together to save an 800 year old tree in the town centre in 2001. The effort to save this tree, known as the Eik Cedar (pronounced ‘ike’) attracted significant media attention. 

Looking to the future, Tofino’s residents and visitors aim to collaborate on projects that will enhance and build upon our vibrant community. And we think big. One of our dreams, scheduled to be completed in 2011, is to build a hiking trail through dense forest and over rocky ocean headlands. This trail will be an extension of the short Tonquin Trail, connecting it with the Multi-Use Path near MacKenzie Beach. Another dream, still in the planning phases, is to build the West Coast Recreation Centre, including an Olympic-sized pool and ice skating facility near the airport.

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