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1908::The First Stake of the Malahat Highway

Updated: Apr 26

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)

In the early days, traversing Vancouver Island was daunting. The best options were to walk along its dense forest trails or rely on boats and horses. As the island's population grew, the trails expanded to accommodate wagons for mail delivery and trade. In 1886, the island's first train provided a North-South connection, but roads remained essential for many areas unaffected by the rails. 

1900::Petition For A New Road Along Finlayson Arm

"1900::Petition For 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 (Ma Miller's Pub) 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 change. Island residents petitioned for an alternate route, but the government's priority was the island's water supply and the readiness of Victoria's harbour for increased activity upon 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 might 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)

Over the long weekend of July 1907, 40 people in 14 automobiles embarked on a road trip from Victoria to Port Alberni. This journey, organized by Victoria's new Motor Club, aimed to showcase the poor condition of the road connecting Victoria and Duncan and its impracticality for horses, carriages and even motorcars. Along for the ride were influential 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::The Auto Club's Speedometer Readings

"1907::The Auto Club's Speedometer Readings "

Clip: Victoria Daily Times (1907)

Victoria, British Columbia

Most club members began their journey by ferrying their vehicles by barge across the Saanich Inlet, avoiding the treacherous roads of the Sooke Hills. The remaining members who braved the ascent of the old wagon road spent their day assisting each other's vehicles over the summit. The road was considered fair, but its canyons and ravines made the journey arduous. It was enough to convince the motorists that the road was surely impassable by horse-drawn carriages, further highlighting the need for a better road.

1907::A British Beeston Humber Breaks Speed Record From Nanaimo to Port Alberni

"1907::A British Beeston Humber Breaks Speed Record From Nanaimo to Port Alberni"

Photo Clip: The Graphic (1908)

London, England

By mid-afternoon, the traversing vehicles arrived in Duncan and met up with the rest of the club that 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 that did, however, did so in record time. It was a big weekend for the club. In the end, the road trip convinced the politicians that a new road between Goldstream and Mill Bay was necessary for the future development of Vancouver Island. 

1908::A New Island Highway

"1908::A New Island Highway" Clip: Victoria Daily Times (1908)

Victoria, British Columbia

On April 22, 1908, almost one year after the Victoria Motor Club's memorable Port Alberni run, work on the new road began. A stake was driven into the ground roughly 400 yards East of the Goldstream Hotel 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. The construction process was challenging. The terrain was rugged, and the weather was sometimes unforgiving. Accidents were frequent, and many immigrant workers were maimed or injured. Despite these hardships, the new highway saw its first official automobile traverse its bends and climbs less than three years after construction began. 

1910::The Inspection Walk Between Goldstream and Mill Bay

"1910::The Inspection Walk Between Goldstream and Mill Bay"

Photo: City of Victoria Archives (M00679)

In 1910, months before the new island road was complete, an unexpected guest became the first to drive over its summit. This guest was Canada's Prime Minister, Sir Wilfred Laurier (the old five-dollar bill guy). Laurier and his crew of travelling newspapermen were so captivated by 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 photographed the road, the workers and the views from the summit before opening the road for public use. In January 1911, the new Mill Bay Road officially opened, heralding a new era in Vancouver Island's social and economic climate. 

1911::Malahat Highway's First Customers

"1911::Malahat Highway's First Customers"

Clip: Times Colonist (1911)

Victoria, British Columbia

Developing a road between the Goldstream Hotel and Mill Bay was a monumental task, considering it had never existed before. Engineers initially considered a route that would skirt the base of the Finlayson Arm to the north side of the Saanich Inlet. However, after careful consideration, they made a strategic decision. They realized that the best way to attract money-spending automobile tourists to the island, thereby helping finance the road, was to elevate it as high as possible to capitalize on the panoramic views. This foresight was the right call and set the stage for the Malahat Highway's success.

1911::First Official Automobile On the New Malahat Highway

"1911::First Official Automobile On the New Malahat Highway"

Photo: City of Victoria Archives (M00679)

On January 24, 1911, less than three years after Civil Engineer D. R. Harris drove the first stake into the ground near the Goldstream Hotel, 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 its first summer, islanders had renamed the Mill Bay Road to Malahat Highway to honour the history of Mount Malahat and its people and the old trail and wagon road to Duncan.

1913::First Driving Map of the New Malahat Highway

"1913::First Driving 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 Malahat Highway was designed in 1907-1908 with the world's earliest automobiles in mind, but most of these autos were slow and built for touring. By 1911, when the highway was complete, automobile designs had advanced significantly. They were now bigger and faster. Changes to the new highway's roadtop and the levelling of its bends and climbs were necessary to accommodate the new speedy automobiles of the rapidly advancing world.

1912::Posting Road Safety Signs Along the New Malahat Highway

"1912::Posting Road Safety Signs Along the New Malahat Highway"

Photo: BC Archives (E-00422)

The Malahat Highway made headlines for many years and, as predicted, attracted automobile tourists and hobbyists worldwide with its panoramic views. Its completion marked a significant milestone in the island's transportation history. It provided a faster and more passable route for islanders and opened up new opportunities for trade and tourism. Before celebrating the fourth birthday of the highway's first stake on April 22, the Victoria Motor Club, which had initiated the building of the Malahat Highway in 1907, journeyed once again along the route to post helpful road signs for motorists. These signs mainly were road hazard warnings and directions to the nearest towns. The only permittable commercial signs on the route were directions to the nearest mechanic with gasoline.


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