Roads Waiting To Be (RE)-Opened

It was in 1874 that British Columbia’s surveyor-general Stanhope Farwell came staggering back to Victoria after a two-day expedition in what author-historian Maureen Duffy describes as “very rough weather” with “snow, hail, and rain” and reported to the BC Commissioner of Lands and Works that it would be a waste of taxpayer’s money to build a road alongside Saanich Inlet from Goldstream to Mill Bay.

“There would never be a pound of freight over it,” he wrote. “A few people might ride over it, and farmers might drive stock over it occasionally.”

He suggested that if they wanted a better return on road building costs, they should improve the main road between the farms in the Duncan-Cowichan-Mill Bay area and Nanaimo, a community growing at a tremendous rate courtesy of coal mining and destined to become the main market for farmers and their produce.

The Daily Colonist sniffed in a comment that Farwell may be getting a little long in the tooth for in-the-field surveying and “was not as physically agile as his guide (W.C. Duncan after whom the city is named), so found the really steep climbs beyond his limited ability.”

Farwell did make a second recommendation if the thought of making Nanaimo the go-to centre for trade and commerce was too much for Victoria; road improvement money could be spent on “the present trail (which) if improved and bridged would in my opinion answer every purpose for years to come.”

“The present trail” was just that, a roughly hewn slash through the forests called a wagon road. However, in reality, it was a three-day, high-risk traverse for anything on wheels testing the run from Shawnigan Lake through Leechtown, then following the Sooke River to a road link to Victoria. The road exists today, although blocked by a tall fence a few kilometers north of where Leechtown once flourished. The fence is to protect Greater Victoria’s watershed, but the rest of the trail is as it was when it was the only land route from the north to the provincial capital. Today it’s called The Galloping Goose Trail, nicknamed for gasoline-powered freight trains operating between Victoria and Shawnigan.

Two years after the Farwell report in 1876, another surveyor, A. R. Howse, took a look at the road being demanded along the coast on the east side of the Malahat. His report was unequivocal: “I am of the opinion this line is quite impractical for a wagon road and moreover I am convinced that no suitable line can be found east of Goldstream and Mallahat [sic] Range of Mountains.”

Howse had also checked out “the western side of the hills” dividing east and west Vancouver Island. His recommendation was clear – abandon thought of a Malahat highway – “the only practicable line for a (north-south) road (is) from Victoria to Cowichan.”

Ten years later in 1886, the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway – coal baron Robert Dunsmuir’s pride and joy, was completed. It came close to following the Farwell-Howse “west of the hills” route recommendations.

The E & N lies silent these days, its tracks getting rustier by the day. Talk of a second highway running north and south stirs once in a while but basically sleeps, forgotten for the most part like the once “vital” railway.

A few days ago, there was a flurry of second highway chatter when an oil tanker was involved in a two-automobile collision and the Malahat was closed to all traffic for about 19 hours. The event prompted loud lamentations from stranded travelers and a knee-jerk response from government that it would study what happened and work to make sure it won’t happen again. It’s the same response echoing over the decades since Major James Francis Lenox MacFarlane led the fight to persuade the government to hack, blast and build down the side of the Saanich Inlet to give him and his fellow farmers easier and shorter access to Victoria markets.

Major MacFarlane’s fight is the stuff of legend. Readers can command Google to find volumes at the mention of his name. For a good look at his character, I recommend a Jack Knox Times-Colonist column of 2017. A taster quote: “…it was MacFarlane – mule-headed, hard drinking, charming, considered barmy by friend and foe alike – who almost single-handed cajoled and browbeat the government into building a road over the Malahat just over a century ago.”

A search of “Mill Bay/Malahat Historical Society/Major MacFarlane” will captivate – especially the documentary One Man’s Dream – The History of the Malahat Highway.

And provides good reading. One article includes a brief quote from a letter he wrote to the Victoria Times in 1938 to correct errors in an article referring to the opening of the Malahat Drive “built by the provincial government in 1914 to replace the Old Summit Road.”

Writing from his retirement address at 1353 Pandora Avenue, the Major gently chided “there are two mistakes in this: First there never was an “Old Summit Road”; second, the present road was finished and opened for traffic a week before Christmas, 1911. I had the honour be the first to drive over and ‘hanseled’ it with a bottle of Burke’s whiskey to the road gang.”

With “hanseled” being a new word for me, I checked. Readers can do the same with no extra charge for a new neat word learned. The Major was correct of course – there never was an old road, just a rugged trail. There still is – and not so rugged anymore. It remains a well-marked, well-used track which could be brought up to emergency road standard with far fewer millions than the Malahat demands to keep it safe and open 24/7/365.

There is a third north-south link in existence but waiting for a place in a modern transportation system. It’s a little remote for everyday use but could be of immense value a few years hence as the tourist industry continues to grow and thrive. Round-the-world travelers are seeking new horizons, and stay-at-home islanders are setting out to discover roads they never knew existed. Like the road from Port Renfrew to Port Alberni via Bamfield, Sarita River and east alongside the Alberni Canal to Port Alberni and then, if you can afford another tank of gas a long run down the valley to Courtenay-Comox.

Try another Google search, this time for a map: Port Renfrew to Bamfield and Port Alberni. It may surprise you, but it’s been an Alberni Valley dream for decades. However, it takes giants in provincial governments to make dreams come true – and we have been a little short of political giants for quite a while now.

And Major MacFarlanes have always been far too rare.




  1. That backdoor road down island from Port Alberni is driveable, or was when we used it to get to Carmanah and to hockey games down island, and the road from Alberni to Cumberland Comox has been used for the Alberni/Comox marathon which was run in years past but unfortunately not by me now with my metal knee and sore back. Thanks JIm for the summary. Glenn

  2. I lived in Port Renfrew when there were no roads, and in Port Alberni, when there was not a road to Port Renfrew – at least, I think not. But, to crest the Malahat on route from Victoria, to Port Alberni (and later, to Great Central Lake), well MAGNIFICENT!

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