British Columbia Penitentiary’s Goose Island: help is 20 km away, or 9 to 17 hours as the pigeon flies

By Caitlin Webster

Two brief notes in Library and Archives Canada’s holdings of the British Columbia Penitentiary illustrate the dangers of running prison work gangs in remote locations. At various points throughout its 102 years at the New Westminster site, the penitentiary operated a prison farm as well as carpentry, metal work and masonry shops. But in the early 20th century it attempted to establish an off-site logging and quarrying operation approximately 20 km from headquarters.

In 1903, the penitentiary acquired the deed to Goose Island through an Order in Council. Also known as Wright Island, Pen Island, and even Convict Island, this 140 acre property sits in the centre of Pitt Lake towards the eastern edge of B.C.’s Lower Mainland.

A handwritten page that reads, “On a Memorandum, dated 21st January, 1903, from the Minister of the Interior, stating that application has been made by the Minister of Justice for the transfer to his Department, for the purposes of the British Columbia Penitentiary of Goose Island, situated about the center of Pitt Lake, in Section 25, Township 5, Range 5, west of the Seventh Meridian, in the Railway Belt in British Columbia, the said island being required for the quarrying of stone thereon for use in connection with the penitentiary. The Minister recommends, as the land is vacant in the records of the Department of the Interior, that, under Clause 31 of the Dominion Lands Act, it be transferred to the Department of Justice for the purposes of the British Columbia Penitentiary as above mentioned. The Committee submit the same for approval.” [Signed by] Wilfrid Laurier.

The Order in Council granting Goose Island to the British Columbia Penitentiary, approved February 4, 1903. It was printed in the Canada Gazette (volume 36, number 34, February 21, 1903, page 4)

The penitentiary’s plan was to set up a work camp on the island to extract its lumber and mineral resources, and in June 1906 two guards and seven convicts travelled to the island from the New Westminster site. The group, which was later joined by seven additional convicts, cleared roads, built log houses and a wharf, cut 200 cords of wood, and quarried 96.5 yards of granite. Additional crews were sent in the spring and summer of 1907 and 1908.

As Goose Island was such a remote location at the time, prison guards were supplied with twelve carrier pigeons each week for communication purposes. One pigeon was sent from the island to the New Westminster site each day to provide a routine status report. For urgent matters, guards were to send two pigeons in quick succession, and for emergencies such as escapes, three or four pigeons were to be sent at short intervals.

A typed, mimeographed page describing how regular and emergency communication will take place by carrier pigeon between Goose Island and the New Westminster Penitentiary.

Page 2 of the British Columbia Penitentiary draft instructions for officers in charge of the Goose Island gang (MIKAN 4936751)

On May 27, 1908 such an emergency was encountered at the camp. At 3:55 pm, guards sent the first of at least two carrier pigeons, which arrived at the penitentiary at 9:00 am the following morning to report a “murderous assault” by two inmates. A follow-up message indicating that the prisoners had been handcuffed and that no injuries were incurred was sent at 8:10 am on May 28th and arrived at 4:30 that afternoon.

A handwritten note glued onto a typed page with a description of the note’s content and titled, “Message from Wright Island to the Penitentiary via Pigeon – May 28th, 1908.”

Message sent by carrier pigeon from Goose Island at 8:10 am May 28, 1908, arriving at the British Columbia Penitentiary at 4:30 pm the same day (MIKAN 4936749)

In addition to this attack, escapes and attempted escapes were also reported to have occurred from this camp. Predictably, the challenges of controlling a convict work gang in such a remote location led to the disuse of the island site. By 1919, the log cabins were in disrepair, and penitentiary staff erected “no trespassing” signs on the property to prevent vandalism. Despite some sporadic interest in the island’s stone, lumber, and recreational potential in the intervening years, little activity took place on the site before it was sold in 1953.

A newspaper feature titled, “Pitt Lake’s ‘Pen’ Island Re-discovered” accompanied by four black-and-white photographs of the work camp in disrepair.

Photographs by Charles Jennings accompanying a June 14, 1955 article by Jimmie McPhee in the newspaper, The British Columbian. (MIKAN 4936750)

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