North Cowichan’s ‘progress report’ of 1973, part 1

In 1889 North Cowichan residents protested about the cost of improving the trail to Cowichan Lake “because it will never be used”.

In 1889 North Cowichan residents protested about the cost of improving the trail to Cowichan Lake “because it will never be used”.

In 1973 Donald C. Morton, seven-time reeve (1961-68) of North Cowichan, looked back upon the municipality’s first century by going through the minutes of council meetings. Some of his findings on the road to change and to “progress” are illuminating:

“…On Mar. 17. 1900, North Cowichan Council, in its 28th year, approved a resolution to purchase 12 buckets, 2 fire extinguishers with refills, 2 axes and 3 ladders. This was the public-paid fire protection equipment of the Cowichan Valley. [This is before Duncan incorporated and founded its own volunteer fire department.—TW]

This year [1973] four new fire trucks, valued at about $200,000, were delivered to the four North Cowichan fire departments and it is expected that a similar truck will be obtained this year by Duncan. In addition there are 10 other departments, adequately equipped, in the Cowichan [Valley] Regional District; this takes no account of the industrial and privately owned fire fighting equipment.

This year, less than 75 years since the resolution was passed, there is an estimated $4 million dollars worth of fire fighting equipment owned by North Cowichan and Duncan and $500,000 worth of buildings in connection to it. We have no estimate of the cost of 1900 equipment but it is not significant.

This is not a comparison of costs or of fire protection but rather a consideration of the great growth in the district as a whole. If citizens will give $1,500,000 for some assurance of safety from fire and if 100 men are willing to give a great deal of time and skill and effort for the same reason then it is reasonable to assume that there is a vast amount of valuable property and possessions to be protected.

Take a somewhat different example of progress — roads. In 1873, the first North Cowichan council (whose area included Duncan) had a total budget of $2,082 with one item calling for ‘$100 to build a cattle trail to Duncan’s’. This trail was from Maple Bay, where the council met in the agricultural building, to Mr. Duncan’s crossing [today’s Trunk Road and the E&N]. This year the municipality’s budget for public works is $597,000 and to make this comparison realistic the Duncan City total should be added to it.

Perhaps one of the most interesting items of road work history can be found in the minutes of 1876 when $1,000 was divided into seven parts and each councillor used his share to repair the roads in his own ward as he saw fit. Nearly all road work was done by what was known as ‘statute labour’ which enabled land-owners to do road work instead of paying taxes. In June 1880, for example, there were 22 men in Comiaken Ward alone who did such work; four of them were from the Flett family.

Protests were made in 1889 to the B.C. government about wasting money on improving the trail to Cowichan Lake ‘because it will never be used’. Yet, in 1939, the council was arranging a trip to ‘tour the new developments at Youbou’. In 1925 was the first year ‘tarvia’ was suggested for road surfacing and today even the least used roads are surfaced.

When the railway came through in 1886 the first big changes started. From then on, very slowly, farms developed, the lumber industry diversified, people came and communities grew. It went on slowly but steadily with the big mill at Chemainus being the main industrial area for more than half a century longer. During this period the mining and smelter boom of Mount Sicker and Crofton came and went.

Just as today councils have to deal with a certain amount of trivia, so in December 1877 a councillor succeeded in getting approval for a resolution that “50 cents a dozen be paid to any man or boy for bluejays destroyed in North Cowichan”. By January 1879, with a change of council members, it was rescinded…”

We’ll conclude Mr. Morton’s look back in Friday’s Chronicle.