A Short History of the Masthead Restaurant And Cowichan Bay

The Masthead building figures prominently in the history of Cowichan Bay. Built in 1863 as “The Columbia Hotel”, it replaced the old “John Bull Inn” across the causeway where the pub is now located.

In the mid 1800’s, the main route from Victoria was a rather crude one-lane wagon road. The trip took days not hours, so roadhouses such as The Columbia were an essential part of the trip. They provided food, beverages and lodging to the travelers. It was only 40 miles from Victoria (by the old road), but at an average speed of about 5 miles per hour, it was quite a journey north.

Cowichan Bay was founded by Samuel Harris and only narrowly missed being called Harrisville. Harris had a falling out with the government of the time and sold his real estate to Giovanni Baptiste Ordano who had a store up by the top of the bay. The first thing Ordano did was to build the Columbia Hotel. The second thing he did was renaming Snugleave, the cove across the bay, to “Genoa Bay”. Even though he built a hotel in Cowichan Bay, he lived in Genoa Bay.

Up until 1886, when the railway was constructed, the hotel prospered. Once the railway was built, wagon traffic fell off a bit. Ordano being an enterprising fellow had started a small shipyard where he built rental boats to serve the now expanding tourist industry. The docks at the foot of the hotel were the location of a thriving salmon fishing operation. For a time the “Guinness” world’ record for a woman catching a salmon was held by the Ordano fishing business. The entire main floor was converted to a tackle and machine shop. An apartment was upstairs, and just in case you are wondering, there is no memory of there ever being any stairs from that second floor door at the front. Generally the outside has survived in its original form.

Cowichan Bay has been a fishing and logging area nearly its entire 150 plus years. Many things have changed, but some are the same. The docks below the Masthead have roots in a time long before commercial fishing. The area has figured prominently in history both of Britain and Spain. The British Navy participated in the defeat of the slave trade right outside Cowichan Bay. Nearby areas supplied coal and apples for the Alaska Gold Rush. Robert W. Service, “The Bard of the Yukon”, lived at the top of the bay before he moved to the Yukon.

Cowichan Bay was a famous fishing Mecca for many celebrities. John Wayne’s boat could be seen most summers off Cowichan Bay. Bing Crosby was a regular visitor as was Bob Hope and many other Hollywood notables…


Tom Wagner, a local resident, 2002

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