Railways in the Cowichan Valley

Much publicity has been given to the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway. Due mainly to the attempts to keep it running over the years. There have been other railways in the valley. Not much seems to have been mentioned, they have all disappeared.

Robert Dunsmuir, the infamous “Coal Baron” from Nanaimo is directly responsible for the E&N being built. Part of the promise of provinces joining Confederation was that a railway would be built from Sea-To-Sea. Vancouver Island wanted to be included, so the train had to be extended. Dunsmuir along with a couple of partners promised to get it built at $750,000 and a considerable land grant. Naturally its biggest job was to bring coal from Nanaimo to the Navy ships of Esquimalt and the expanding town of Victoria. Food for hotels, stores and passengers were a bonus. The land was a bonus to the E&N, and the Dunsmuir family, as they were rights to 20% of the land and minerals on Vancouver Island. They literally drew a line through the middle of Vancouver Island and gave all the rights to the East side to the E&N, which at the time was still under personal control of Dunsmuir.

But, that railway was not the only one. The CNR built a railway from Sidney to Duncan (and beyond). It was intended to connect to Powell River on the mainland as part of the CNR extension to the docks there. A ferry dock was built near Patricia Bay to bring trains from Vancouver. It never caught on, the tracks have long since been removed but there are still signs of its existence, notably the Koksilah Trestle.

With the exception of some copper mines at Mt Sicker, logging has always been the main industry of the Cowichan Valley. Logging railway lines were extended deep into the woods. Early logging was a local operation with mills being built to harvest the forest stands nearby. Mill Bay owes its name to the sawmill built in 1861. Genoa Bay had a mill, but logs were dragged there. Cowichan Bay became the shipping hub for lumber. Docks and a rail ferry terminal were constructed. Different logging companies built railways. Mayo Lumber Company extended all the way to Mackay Lake. Mayo Singh's personal track car was a converted 1938 Rolls Royce. Parts of the track “right of way” to Lake Cowichan can still be seen to this day. A short trip to the present Westcan terminal will result in the discovery of tracks to the north of the present access road. The track rise to the old overpass over the highway south of Duncan can still be seen. The Alberni historical railway still uses the old tracks that the lumber was moved on. The Duncan forest museum is still running locomotives that the logging companies used.

It is hoped that the E&N can be kept running. Communities are working very hard to preserve it. Who knows, maybe some day we will have a real year round commuter railway up and down the island. The Malahat may foul up with weather and accidents, but the E&N Railway soldiers on.

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

cut line for photo, “1938 Rolls Royce owner's car – Ladysmith Archives”