A train back in time
By Danda Humphreys
The rail line that lured BC into Confederation —not exactly as promised.
The now-demolished E&N Railway Station before the Johnson Street Bridge was replaced.
The little railway station at the east end of the Johnson Street bridge stands lonely and under-used. A spur that once crossed Store Street to Scott and Peden’s warehouse (today’s Swan’s Hotel) ends abruptly at two bright yellow buffers. This is the end of the line. Every morning, a train crosses the Blue Bridge and makes its way slowly past a hotel and condominium buildings in varying stages of development and a sturdy brick Roundhouse amid a tangle of railway lines.
Those railway lines remind us of a time, back in the late 1860s, when some Victorians considered annexation to the United States more tempting than joining in confederation with the rest of Canada. Why, we asked, should we join a country on the other side of the Rocky Mountain range, reachable only by sailing around the American coastline?
Rather than risk losing us, the quick-thinking Dominion government dangled a carrot: the promise of a rail line within 10 years, stretching from sea to sea, linking the East Coast and Ontario with—you guessed it—Victoria (Esquimalt to be exact). Mollified, Victorians rose to the bait, and in 1871, BC became the sixth province to join Confederation.
Then we sat back and waited. Ten years came and went and still no train. Then, in a brutal about-face, the federal government announced that the rail line would not, after all, end in Esquimalt. Instead, it would terminate on Burrard Inlet at a sleepy fishing village called Granville, soon to be re-named Vancouver...in honour of the island it was destined never to reach.
Premier George Walkem threatened to pull the province out of Confederation. However, his successor, William Smithe, saw the potential for Vancouver and agreed to the CPR’s demands for access to prime Burrard Inlet. Vancouver’s future was secure, but Vancouver Islanders were incensed.
Amid renewed talks of annexation, Nanaimo-based businessman Robert Dunsmuir saw an opportunity to move coal from his mines more efficiently, at no cost to himself. In return for substantial land grants and subsidies, he agreed to build a railway line between Nanaimo and Esquimalt. It wasn’t the original, hoped-for link with the mainland line via Bute Inlet, but it was better than nothing. Dunsmuir had saved the day.
The first CPR passenger train from Montreal arrived in Port Moody on July 4, 1886. Two years later, Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald drove the last spike on the E&N line at Shawnigan Lake and congratulated Dunsmuir, a fellow Scot, on “successful completion of the extension of the Canadian Pacific line.” On March 29, 1888, thousands of people cheered madly as the first train rumbled over the recently constructed swing bridge (predecessor of today’s Blue Bridge) to the new Store Street depot. Their long-awaited railway had arrived.
Dunsmuir died a year later. In 1905 his son James sold the E&N to CPR, who in 1913 developed a railway service centre in Esquimalt. At its hub was a red-brick and timber-truss Roundhouse containing 10 stalls and 11 tracks fanning out from a 22-metre turntable. A heavy repair pit, machine shop, car shop and stores buildings completed the complex.
By 1925 the E&N line had been extended to Courtenay and Port Alberni. After World War Two, diesels replaced the old steam locomotives and shortened travelling time. But by the early 1970s, ridership was way down and the train was in trouble. Over the years, several attempts have been made to either discontinue the service or to enhance it as a tourist venture. Today, it continues its once-daily run, leaving Victoria early in the morning and returning late in the afternoon. Commuters say they would support an expanded service, but that can’t happen without a major overhaul and upgrade of the tracks.
Meanwhile the old brick Roundhouse near Catherine Street, one of the last complete structures of its type in Canada, silently awaits its fate. The historic brick buildings and the turntable have been recognized as a National Historic Site and as Municipal Heritage Property. Passenger cars are still repaired in the one operational bay of the Roundhouse, the Stores building houses millwork shops, and an enthusiastic developer seeks local community support for his plan to rehabilitate and revitalize the complex during proposed development of the adjacent lands.
During this past December’s snowstorms, when slippery roads made car travel difficult, railway ridership between Victoria and Courtenay rose almost 50 per cent. People re-discovered the magical journey through the winter wonderland of the Malahat, where cars and roads seem as far away as they were back in 1886. If you haven’t tried it lately, why not treat yourself—take a train back in time.
Train-travel enthusiast Danda Humphreys has written several books about the early history of Victoria. www.dandahumphreys.com.
This story was published in the February 2009 edition of Focus Magazine.