Nuu-chah-nulth people have lived in Clayoquot Sound and in balance with the land and ocean for tens of thousands of years.
Trade brought explorers into the region in the 18th Century. First contact was in August 1774, near Hesquiat, when Juan Pérez sailed Spanish frigate Santiago into the Sound searching for gold, silver and more.
Gifts were exchanged but the crew did not go ashore. Further interest in the region and its plentiful sea otter pelts was aroused after Captain Cook spent time in nearby Nootka Sound in 1778, which Pérez had also explored.
Conflict between Spanish and British interests soon escalated and friendly trade deteriorated after American Captain Robert Gray burned down the Tla-o-qui-aht village of Opisaht in 1791. During an attack on American ship Tonquin in 1811, Tla-o-qui-aht lost several hundred people when a crewmember detonated a powder magazine.
Nearly a half-century would pass before traders returned, seeking seal pelts, and a trading post was established in 1854 on Stubbs Island – evolving into Tofino’s original village site.
Settlers were attracted to the area, especially when the Canadian government offered land for pre-emption in the years before WWI. A ranching community developed on Vargas Island, home to the Kelsemaht people. The ranchers were required to clear land and make improvements before they could obtain a Crown grant, but soon enlisted to fight on Canada’s behalf. Only a few returned to the area, settling in the newly relocated village of Tofino – in the community’s present location.
In the 1920s, Japanese fishermen brought new methods for salmon fishing, introducing the use of trollers, but were later interned during WWII. During wartime, an Air Force base was built on the site of present-day Tofino-Long Beach Airport and a rough gravel road built between Tofino and Ucluelet.
While Tofino, BC attracted some tourism in its early days, it could only be reached by ship until an active logging road was built in 1959. Locals used the road after daylight hours until its official public opening as a highway on September 4, 1964. In 1970, the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve was established, and with its spectacular rainforest setting overlooking the ocean, enhanced the region as a camping destination.
Tofino’s focus shifted from commercial fishing and logging to eco-tourism after the “War in the Woods”. The Nuu-chah-nulth and environmental activists worked together to block logging and Tla-o-qui-aht declared Meares Island the first Tribal Park in 1984.
Tofino’s first surf shop opened in 1984 and by 2010, Outside Magazine named Tofino “best surf town” in North America. Clayoquot Sound has become a great destination for sportfishing and crabbing, kayaking, camping and hiking, and watching whales & wildlife, including seals and sea otters – reintroduced into the area.
To learn more about the community’s history visit Tofino Clayoquot Heritage Museum or join one of their summer walking tours. The museum’s collection includes a permanent display devoted to the commercial fishing industry, along with four model boats, and marine artefacts — a depth sounder, and a ship’s wheel from the Lionsgate.
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