Before the Malahat... The Cowichan Trail

The small village of Cowichan Bay in early days never even had a name. They had a road North but it was not complete. There were no bridges over a lot of rivers along the way.

For most of the settlement and transport of the Cowichan Valley the only way was by water to Cowichan Bay at Samuel Harris' dock (and pub). It was a gala event when the boat arrived. Everyone showed up. When the boat was late, as was usual, they had a few pints in Sam's pub.

The merchants in Victoria needed a more convenient, and often faster, method of going up island. In winter the boat would not run for days at a time. It was decided that a “Wagon Road” was needed. A route was surveyed, but in actual fact they just started cutting trees and hacking through the underbrush.

The first road was about 8 feet wide. One of the means of locomotion were oxen as the hills were very steep and the horse could not pull the required weight. It started off in Victoria near the present Goldstream Park and went behind the mountains, past Shawnigan Lake and eventually ended at Cowichan Bay. The drivers of ox carts slept on the ground over night. The trip could take almost a week, oxen did not move very fast. There was a demand for passenger service, and there was no way they would spend the night sleeping under the wagon. So the road was expanded and improved. It was still refered to as the “Cowichan Trail”, but now coaches could be used. The trip “up island” was still a couple of days as the average speed was less than 10 mph. So, Roadhouses had to be built. The first one was not in Cowichan Bay but just between there and Cobble Hill. Built by the Dougan family, it still exists as a farm house to this day. The second one was in Cowichan Bay as the Columbia Hotel. By this time Harris had sold out to a chap named Ordano. Cowichan Bay was named in honour of the local natives, the Cowichan Tribe. He also renamed his home bay, Snug Leave, in honour of his home town in Italy. We now know it as Genoa Bay.

Road Houses were built all along the road to Nanaimo and beyond. Most of them were hardly used. They were all killed when Dunsmuir built the E&N railway. They did not abandon the trail but it eventually became a fact that a real road had to be built. The automobile became the main method of transport so a road was carved over the Malahat. The road houses still exist, with a few exceptions, as Pubs. The Columbia became a fishing tackle and charter store. Now a very nice restaurant with an apartment upstairs. For a while there was a sail making loft in the attic. Fortunately for history we can still follow some parts of the original paths that the trail took. If you do travel around the Cowichan Valley pay particular attention to the road names. We even have a “Lover's Lane” (more on that later). They all tell a story.

Thomas Wagner is a writer and historian living in Cowichan Bay. For more information on Cowichan Bay