Olympia oysters: food of the BC gold rush

Olympia oysters were a much sought after delicacy, starting from the California gold rush through the Fraser River gold rush and to the late 1860s.

Label on a can of oysters 1850s

Label on a can of oysters 1850s

Wild oysters were abundant in the San Francisco area but soon became depleted as demand outstripped supply. As a result, people looked for Olympia oysters further north. They became a lucrative source of trade for people living in the Puget Sound area. The town of Oysterville, Washington, sprung up directly because of the demand for oysters. Vancouver Island was another source for oysters.

Despite the fact that they were serving the same species of oyster, many saloons distinguished between the source of their oysters – either referring to them as Olympia oysters or Island oysters.

In Victoria, there were oyster saloons. Some oyster saloons were attached to another larger saloon as in the case of the Theatre Saloon, or they stood on their own. Here is a notice from June 27, 1859:

“Fire! Last evening the roof of Rudolf’s Oyster Saloon, Waddington street, was discovered in a blaze . Fortunately the rain prevented the shingles burning.  Had it occurred a day or so ago when the roofs were dry and the wind blew furiously, no one could guess at the result…”

Oysters were eaten on the half shell, fried, or they were made into soup, sauce, patties and as a main ingredient in many other creations and combinations. Oysters were typically served with other types of seafood and meat. They were also served with welch rarebit (known today as welsh rarebit) and even ice cream.

The Occidental Hotel in Victoria had its own oyster stand where oysters were sold by the “bag, gallon, quart, etc.”