Winter Harbour is located on the northern portion of Quatsino Sound close to the west coast and is the western-most settlement on Vancouver Island.
Today Winter Harbour is within the asserted territory of the Quatsino First Nation.
In the past there were a number of different tribes around Quatsino Sound and the North-West Coast of the island, but with the ravages of smallpox and inter-tribal warfare, the number of First Nations people in the sound declined dramatically through the 1800’s.
At one point, prior to the time of the first European contact, it’s believed the Nuu-chah-nulth speaking First Nations may have inhabited this area, although today the Nuu-chah-nulth speaking First Nations’ claimed territories does not extend north of Brooks Penninsula.
In October 1890 the steamer Boscowitz dropped off a surveying party of five men to map out a new townsite near the mouth of Quatsino Sound.
An island newspaper once reported the location was “said to possess certain distinct and original claims upon public favour,” and reported the party went “well provided with stores, and will employ Indian assistants.”
In a historical interview with Ken Hole, he said he remembered old timers saying the area had originally been considered for a western Canada navel base.
Jobe (Joseph) Leeson pre-empted land in the area, originally called Queenstown, and later known as Winter Harbour, in 1891.
Leeson was accompanied by his wife Anna and child Benjamin.
Joseph was a miller by trade, but set up a trading post in this new location called J.L. Leeson & Son Trading Post. Most of the trade was with local First Nations and passing whaling ships.
Leeson subdivided his property in 1892 and tried to sell lots both in England and at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.
Later that year a portion of the subdivision was set aside for an Indian Reserve.
Leeson started a crab and clam cannery across the inlet in 1904, the Winter Harbour Canning Company Ltd., which employed up to 40 Chinese workers.
He later sold the enterprise to the Wallace brothers, who moved the operation and opened it as a fish plant near Mahatta in 1911.
Joseph’s son Ben was a talented photographer, and his pictures of the local community and First Nations in the early 1900’s are a treasured historical record of the North Island area.
Thomas Ildstad and his wife Bertha arrived in Winter Harbour in 1904 with their seven children, prepared to work on a project dyking Browning Inlet.
Ilstad was hired to supervise construction of a dyke which was to create farmland from a large marshy inter-tidal area.
The original plan called for a dyke over a thousand feet long and more than twenty feet high in spots.
The project quickly went over the anticipated budget and the investors walked away from the project.
The Ildstads moved to Quatsino, which helped the colony have enough enrolment in their school to have it reopened.
The Ildstad Islands just west of Quatsino are named for these early colonists.
Browning Inlet was partially dyked by settlers who hoped to ranch cattle.
A dyke was constructed at the south-west corner of the flats which enclosed a rectangular area of about five acres.
Over time the area was abandoned and the dyke eroded away.
In 1928 Albert Moore, who was a former logging manager for Whalen Pulp and Paper in Port Alice, branched off to start his own logging operation.
He originally operated a floating logging camp and, in 1950, his son Bill moved the operation ashore about two miles from the Winter Harbour site. The W.D. (Bill) Moore logging company had distinctive company trucks and logging equipment which was coloured ‘salmon pink’.
In the 1940s the community reached its maximum population, and at that time petitioned to change its name officially to Winter Harbour.
Bill Moore was a big fan of jazz and would bring groups up from San Francisco and other places for a jazz festival in Winter Harbour in the 1960s and 70s, pulling in fans from around the North Island.
In the 1970’s, at the height of highliner fishing, Winter Harbour was a gathering place for the Pacific salmon fleet.
It was not uncommon to have 200 boats waiting in Winter Harbour for a fishery opening.
Today Winter Harbour boasts a seaside boardwalk, and a population which is mostly seasonal.
In the summer the community is the base for a number of recreational fishing guides who fish both in Quatsino Sound and the adjacent offshore area.
Brenda McCorquodale lives in Port Hardy and is a North Island history enthusiast. If you have any stories or North Island information that you’d like to share, please e-mail Brenda at firstname.lastname@example.org.