Mill Bay was the site of British Columbia’s first commercial whaling operation.
And herein lies a tale of liquor and murder!

In 1865, two enterprising young Scotsman named James Dawson and his nephew Alexander Donaldson, seeing huge profits in world demand for whale oil, built a plant on the shore at the southern end of Mill Bay, on land now part of the Malahat Nation.

Dawson’s operation consisted of half a dozen buildings and a wharf along the beach and a creek with a lagoon (now filled in for a parking lot). Their camp and works were already proving themselves on the pre-empted 100 acres of land for which they’d received approval in 1865.

In October, 1866, a coastal bootlegger, George Phillips, and two companions, one a Hawaiian named Jim Holland, heaved into the whaling plant with barrels of “bootlegged whisky”. A dynamic brew of badly-distilled liquor hopped up with red peppers to give it the necessary “bite.”

Dawson unsuccessfully attempted to eject the three undesirables, consenting instead to retain custody of the whisky. In spite of these sensible precautions, things got out of hand with an extra barrel of liquor they had not disclosed. As the night wore on Phillips and his companions decided to take back the other barrels, raid the station’s larder and make their getaway by stealing one of the company’s boats. The trio then set sail for American territory, creating devastating consequences.

Although sunrise was two hours away, James and Alexander hotly pursued the thieves with the remaining whaling boat. They overtook their quarry on Saltspring Island. Force was required to subdue Phillips; as Dawson kept him restrained, Donaldson chased Jim Holland into a dwelling situated above the beach. A fight between the men ensued; fearing for his life as he was being strangled by Holland, Alexander in self-defence, stabbed him with his knife. The wound proved fatal and Jim Holland died instantly.

Panicking, Alexander took off and hid for a few days before returning to the whaling plant. At the inquest, held at Mill Bay and presided over by magistrate Anderson, the jury returned a verdict of self-defence. Donaldson was acquitted.

But as usual, all things come to an end. So it was by the spring of 1869 the once plentiful number of whales in the gulf had been depleted, and that spelled “Finis” to the Mill Bay operation.

From the book ‘Seeking A Fortune’ written by Elaine V. Clay (great-granddaughter of Alexander Donaldson)
Also with permission of TJ Paterson and Pauline Hyde;
Mill Bay/Malahat Historical Society