Monday, August 10, 2009

Heritage lover finds beauty at ground level

Janis Ringuette on Broughton Street in Victoria. Photograph by Deddeda Stemler.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
August 10, 2009


At this time of year, the creature turistico fotografo wanders city streets, lens pointed skyward in search of steeples and other heavenly wonders.

They’d be advised to follow the example of Janis Ringuette, a resident who has made it her practice to keep her head down.

Ms. Ringuette, 69, is a retired elementary school teacher with a penchant for enumeration. On her perambulatory inspections, she takes it as her duty to note the historic delights “hidden in plain sight.”

She spotted sidewalk prisms, hitching posts, and mooring rings, all nods to the city’s mercantile beginnings. She noted street names spelled out in ceramic tiles imbedded in the concrete on sidewalks. Out in the street, she dodged traffic to read the cast letters on manhole covers.

She sees these mostly ignored utilitarian features of the streetscape as a neglected tourist attraction.

Come to Victoria. See the majestic Legislature. Smell the roses at Butchart Gardens. Crawl our gutters in search of century-old storm drains.

“It sure seems a missed thing the city could be promoting,” she insists. “But there’s no signs. Nothing.

“I think it adds interest. We can have a bland experience walking down the street. It isn’t necessary.”

Take manhole covers. (Not literally. We’d lose too many tourists.) The oldest to be found are in Oak Bay. On some, a waffle pattern is interrupted by letters reading:


Those four words and ampersand are the found poetry telling the story of a venerable hydraulic and sanitary engineering firm whose Scottish foundry cast all manner of iron sewerage works. It is thought these manhole covers, cast in the late 19th Century, came across the oceans as ballast in sailing ships.

The covers have a square-knob pattern, designed to offer a grip for horses’ hooves.
See. With a little imagination, we’re already back in horse-and-buggy days.

Lest wandering the asphalt seem dangerous in a city where an automobile’s turning signal may go unattended for several blocks, if not kilometres, a safer examination can be made at the southeast corner of Douglas and Yates. The sculptor Illarion Gallant’s eccentric bench, named Re:Assemblage, incorporates castoff grates and covers of cast iron. Locals refer to the street furniture as the Burnt Waffles.

Speaking of horses, the city has but three remaining hitching posts in the city, all on residential streets.

Ms. Ringuette has also found eight mooring rings along the shoreline — one at Ogden Point, two at Clover Point, and five on the Inner Harbour, off Wharf Street, including two that are the only remaining fragments of the original Fort Victoria, built in 1843. The fort’s last original buildings were dismantled 135 years ago, but a stroll along the boardwalk leading to the Red Fish, Blue Fish restaurant offers a view of the rings on which sailing ships loaded with furs once moored.

Early in the past century, street names in ceramic could be found in the sidewalks of every downtown corner. Now, only two can be found downtown, while another 60 are scattered in several neighbourhoods.

The city maintains a stock of replacement letters at the Garbally Works Yard, something of a wonder as the company in Zanesville, Ohio, that manufactured the ceramic tiles went out of business during the Depression. A surplus of some letters — B, C and G — is offset by a shortage of others — only a handful of M and D remain. The stock of A and L has been long since exhausted, making it difficult to repair some sidewalk signs.

Like many residents, Ms. Ringuette chose Victoria as a place to retire. She moved here from Terrace in 1992. Born in Juneau and raised in Seward, Alaska, she grew up hunting moose, a pastime which she says offers no insight on governance, contrary to the statements by a certain former Alaska governor. One of her strogest memories of growing up in Alaska involves running down to the dock with the rest of Seward’s human and canine population to greet the arrival of a steamship. Perhaps it was this lack of entertainment as a child that fuels her dogged pursuit of the city’s hidden treasures.

For many years, she walked on sidewalks speckled by colourful glass squares without ever knowing their purpose. On learning they were sidewalk prisms designed to cast light onto basement storage areas extending beneath sidewalks. Three years ago, she completed her census of the once ubiquitous prisms. She counted 11,155 intact sidewalk prisms in seven downtown locations.

The largest collection can be found at 624 Broughton St., in front of the Yarrow Building.

It is her fond wish that someday the city place an interpretive plaque explaining the prisms, which, over the years, have turned a striking shade of purple from the oxidization of the manganese once used in the manufacture of glass.

She thinks they’d look swell at night if illuminated from below.

“It’s a wonderful heritage feature,” she said, “and we just stomp on it.”

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