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1908::The First Stake of the Malahat Highway

Updated: Apr 24

The road that changed the course of Vancouver Island's development forever.

1905::A View from Humpback Road Towards the Goldstream Hotel

"1905::A View from Humpback Road Towards the Goldstream Hotel"

Photo: BC Archives (C-03750)

Vancouver Island was a difficult place to get about in its earliest days. Walking along its thick-wooded trails was about the only way without a boat or a horse. As the island's population grew, these trails were expanded to accommodate wagons that delivered mail and brought island goods to market. In 1886, the island's first train provided a much-needed North-South island connection, but roads were still necessary for accessing places where the rails didn't go.

1900::A New Road Along Finlayson Arm

"1900::A New Road Along Finlayson Arm"

Clip: Victoria Daily Times (1900)

Victoria, British Columbia

In the 1860s, a wagon road extended out to Sooke Lake from the area behind the Goldstream Hotel and wound its way through the Sooke Hills towards Leechtown and Shawnigan Lake. By the turn of the century, the old wagon road, still the only road to Duncan, had fallen into disrepair and was rendered almost impassable. Something had to be done. South Island residents petitioned for a new route, but the government was more concerned with the island's water supply and readying Victoria's harbour for the opening of the Panama Canal. In 1902, however, everything changed when Victoria saw its first automobile roll down its city's streets. New motorized vehicles changed how people and governments thought about roads and how they would revolutionize the development of island communities.

1907::141 Miles From Victoria to Port Alberni

"1907::141 Miles From Victoria to Port Alberni"

Photo: BC Archives (D-03675)

On the long weekend of July 1907, 40 people in 14 cars left Victoria for Port Alberni on a return road trip arranged by Victoria's new Motor Club. The trip's sole purpose was to demonstrate the poor condition of the existing road between Victoria and Duncan and to prove how impractical it was for carriages and motorcars alike. Along for the ride were local politicians with enough power and government influence to finance a new road that could change the lives of island residents forever.

"Make as good time as you can, but bring back every man and every machine." - Victoria Motor Club Motto

1907::141 Miles to Port Alberni

"1907::Climbing the Sooke Hills"

Clip: Victoria Daily Times (1907)

Victoria, British Columbia

Most club members began their journey by transporting their vehicles across the Saanich Inlet on a barge. It was all they could do to avoid driving their machines on the treacherous roads of the Sooke Hills. For the rest of the members who braved the ascent of the old wagon road, their day was spent helping each other's vehicles over the summit. The roadway was considered fair, but its canyons and impassable ravines made the transit difficult. It was a challenge for every make and model of vehicle, and the motorists all agreed that if their autos were experiencing such difficulty, the road was surely impassable by horse-drawn carriages. They were determined to fix this disconnection between the North and South Island communities by building a better road.

1907::Cowichan Lake Road

"1907::Cowichan Lake Road"

Photo Clip: The Graphic (1908)

London, England

By mid-afternoon, the traversing vehicles arrived in Duncan where they met up with the rest of the club who had sailed across the inlet by barge. After a quick lunch, they continued their journey and arrived in Nanaimo 7 hours and 20 minutes after leaving Victoria. They stayed in Nanaimo for an overnight rest, but for many, it was their last stop. The old wagon road had tested their early-model cars to the max, and they would likely not survive the road to Port Alberni. The ones who did, however, did so in record time. It was a big weekend for the club. In the end, the decision-makers were convinced that a new road between Goldstream and Mill Bay was necessary for the future development of Vancouver Island.

1908::The Beginning

"1908::The Beginning" Clip: Victoria Daily Times (1908)

Victoria, British Columbia

On April 22, 1908, almost one year after the Victoria Motor Club's famous Port Alberni run, work on the new road began. A stake was driven into the ground roughly 400 yards east of the Goldstream Hotel (Ma Miller's Pub) at the base of Skirt Mountain. This stake marked the beginning of construction on the Goldstream to Mill Bay Road, later renamed the Malahat Highway. After three years and many accidents that maimed and injured the road's immigrant workers, the new highway saw its first official customer traverse its bends and climbs.

1910::The Inspection

"1910::The Inspection"

Photo: City of Victoria Archives (M00679)

In 1910, months before the new road was completed, an unexpected guest was the first to drive over its summit. This guest was Canada's Prime Minister, Sir Wilfred Laurier. Laurier and his crew of travelling newspapermen were so impressed with the view from Mount Malahat's summit that they became the first advocates of Vancouver Island's new road. Weeks after they left, Victoria's soon-to-be mayor inspected the road on a long walk with the President of the Vancouver Island Development League. Together they took photos of the workers and the views from the summit before opening the road for public use. In January 1911, the new Mill Bay Road was officially opened and destined to change Vancouver Island's social and economic climate forever.

1911::Malahat Highway's First Customers

"1911::Malahat Highway's First Customers"

Clip: Times Colonist (1911)

Victoria, British Columbia

A road between the Goldstream Hotel and Mill Bay had never existed before, which made its development a sizeable undertaking. It was first thought that the new highway could skirt the base of the Finlayson Arm to the north side of the Saanich Inlet. However, after much deliberation, it was decided that the best way to attract money-spending automobile tourists to the island to help finance the road was to raise it as high as possible to maximize the view. It was the right call.

1911::The New Malahat Highway

"1911::The New Malahat Highway"

Photo: City of Victoria Archives (M00679)

On January 24, 1911, less than three years after the first stake was driven into the ground, Mill Bay Road's first customer traversed its hills and bends on a return trip to Ladysmith from Victoria. The same customer also became the first to experience a 5-mile drive through snow over its summit. By the end of the new highway's first summer, the Mill Bay Road had been renamed 'Malahat Highway' to honour the history of Mount Malahat and its people and the old trail and wagon road to Duncan.

1913::Map of the New Malahat Highway

"1913::Map of the New Malahat Highway"

Clip: British Columbia Auto Touring Guide (1913)

Map Left: Goldstream Hotel to Malahat Summit/ Right: Malahat Summit to Shawnigan Lake Turnoff

The Mill Bay Road was designed and built to suit the world's earliest automobiles which were often slow and built for touring. By 1911, when the road was completed, automobile designs had already significantly advanced. They had become bigger and faster. Changes to the new highway's road top and the levelling of its bends and climbs were necessary to accommodate the new speedy automobiles of the rapidly advancing world.

1912::Safety Sign Posts on the Malahat Highway

"1912::Safety Sign Posts on the Malahat Highway"

Photo: BC Archives (E-00422)

The Malahat Highway made headlines for many years and, as predicted, attracted automobile tourists from around the world. Before the end of its first year, the Victoria Motor Club that had initiated the building of the Malahat Highway journeyed along the route to post helpful road signs wherever a sign was needed. These signs were mostly road hazard warnings and directions to the nearest towns. Directions to the nearest mechanic with gasoline became the only permittable commercial signs on the route.

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