Vancouver Island's Malahat Drive
"... quite impracticable for a wagon road"
(Based on research for Old Langford: An Illustrated History)
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Malahat summit, ca. 1914 Automobiles pass very carefully on the narrow road between jutting cliffs and a steep drop down the mountainside - no guard rails, just a Go Slow Here road sign.
(Image E-00422 Courtesy of BC Archives - Adjusted from Original)
Pictures showing automobiles driving on the left in British Columbia can be dated before January 1, 1923, when the province switched to conform to rules-of-the-road in the rest of Canada - and in the United States to avoid confusion at border crossings. One internet source suggests that an American car with steering on the left side, a Model T Ford, was produced as early as 1908.
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The automobile stopped part way up the steep hill from Goldstream was one of many that couldn't make it on a single run. Overheated radiators and flat tires on the Malahat section of the Island Highway were normal for many years on the gravel road. (View Royal Archives, Pearce collection)
The Malahat Drive is the scenic mountain highway north of Victoria that finally replaced a tortuous 19th century wagon road that meandered from Goldstream to the Cowichan Valley.
The three-day trek over the inland route was a major inconvenience for the settlers who relied on a weekly steamer from Victoria for supplies. Farmers on the rich agricultural land in the Cowichan valley agitated for years for a quicker way to get produce to Victoria, but government bureaucrats insisted a road on the east side of the mountain was an impossible dream.
Two government surveyors in the 1870s said it would be a waste of money and should never be built.
"There would never be a pound of freight over it. A few people might ride over it, and farmers might drive stock over it occasionally," wrote Stanhope Farwell in his 1874 report to the Commissioner of Lands and Works.
In 1876 A. R. Howse echoed his conclusions: "I am of the opinion this line is quite impracticable for a wagon road and moreover I am convinced that no suitable line can be found East of the Goldstream and Mallahat [sic] Range of mountains."
Farwell's report described his miserable two-day expedition, accompanied by Mr. W. C. Duncan, after whom the city of Duncan is named. In very rough weather, through snow, hail and rain, they followed a trail blazed the previous year by John Nicholson for "the proposed road from Saywards Mill [Mill Bay] to Goldstream."
They worked their way along the west shore of the Saanich Arm up to the Malahat Indian village, over miles of rocky ground and many detours searching for a way to cross "a large creek that flows into the back of the Mallahatt [sic] Indian Village, distance from the mill about 4½ miles - ditto from salt water about ¾ mile." When they began the southward descent they found the blazed line was "very crooked meandering round rocks and bluff ... very steep and long ... much of it over broken ground, loose rock and boulders, and in a great many cases bed rock is visible."
His detailed measurements record innumerable turns and twists and the steep grade to the Goldstream flat "where it joins the Cowichan trail and runs along it near the side of the Goldstream House." (The remains of this old trail are now part of the trail system in the Goldstream Provincial Park campsite.)
He suggested that "the present trail if improved and bridged would in my opinion answer every purpose for some years to come." Money would be better spent, the exhausted surveyor concluded, on improvements to the road north to Nanaimo where the development of the coalmines would prove to be the settlers' principal market.
(Image A-01295 Courtesy of BC Archives - Styled from Original)
The Daily Colonist of August 27, 1875, suggested that Farwell the civil servant "was not as physically agile as his guide, Mr. Duncan, so found the really steep climbs beyond his limited ability."
Two years later F. G. Vernon, the commissioner of Lands and Works, heard from staff surveyor A. R. Howse, who took an equally dim view of the difficult terrain. "The surface of the mountain side is principally rocky slide, bed rock and boulders with patches of gravel at intervals." Difficulties increased as he neared Goldstream with "steeper grades, rock slides and bed rock being the chief features."
To reinforce his recommendation to abandon the idea of a route along the Saanich Inlet Howse also and reported on his exploration of the western side of the mountain range from Sooke Lake to Shawnigan Lake which, he felt confident, was "the only practicable line for a road from Victoria to Cowichan." (This appears to be more or less the route used by coal baron Robert Dunsmuir's Esquimalt and Nanaimo railway, completed in 1886.)
Wagons struggled up and down the old road for another 30 years before anyone else made a serious attempt to survey the shorter route. Major J. F. MacFarlane, formerly of the Royal Artillery serving in India, was highly motivated to find an easier, shorter route from his 100-acre farm at Cobble Hill to the markets of Victoria.
He began his remarkable one-man survey in 1903, working through the mountainous country with hand compass and aneroid barometer, sometimes traveling the tracks of the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway on a borrowed handcar. Working south, he mapped out a route to the Goldstream lowlands, but Victoria officialdom showed little interest - until a provincial election loomed.
McFarlane and other Cowichan farmers collected hundreds of signatures for the ten-foot petition they took to the legislature. Politicians hopeful of re-election jogged the bureaucrats into action. Two independent surveyors who were contracted to check the route were astonished at the Major's achievement, completed on his own with his team of horses and a borrowed railway handcart.
Richard McBride and the conservatives won the 1903 election. Work on the road began.
The gravel road was completed in 1911, a considerable engineering accomplishment at the time. Major MacFarlane is believed to have been the first to drive over it with his team of horses.
Driving an automobile over the Malahat was not undertaken lightly in the early years. Preparations for the journey included checking the spare tire, filling containers of water for overheated radiator, packing rations in case of breakdowns. Hairpin curves, occasional rock or mud slides, flat tires and broken axles were all commonplace on this single lane mountain road with no guard rails.
But even then it was welcomed as an accessible route from Victoria to the rest of the island. Now, over 100 years later, this winding strip of pavement is one of the most scenic stretches of the Trans Canada Highway. It begins at what's left of a coastal rain forest at the Goldstream River flats and rises to the 350-metre summit with its breathtaking views of the Saanich Inlet and Peninsula, the Gulf Islands and the faraway mountains of the mainland.
The early surveyors make no mention of the panoramic views which add another dimension to the original purpose to 'the road that farmers might drive stock over occasionally.'
Note: Some references erroneously claim that the Malahat Drive was originally a cattle trail and wagon road in the 1860s and '70s, but until 1911 the rough wagon trail west of the mountains was the only route north from Victoria.
Read more about the Malahat and Major J.F.L. MacFarlane in a story by Major MacFarlane's great-grandson John, Malahat Drive: MacFarlane's Folly.
Also visit the Mill Bay/Malahat Historical Society for more information on the Malahat. They have also put together a documentary about Major MacFarlane called One Man's Dream, the History of the Malahat Highway.
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