Fighting to build the Malahat highway

I recently told you of "Big Frank" Verdier’s role in the building of the Malahat Highway, the paved link to Greater Victoria that we take for granted.

As I noted, it wasn’t always there. Nor, incredibly, was it always wanted!

The original "road" wound its way through Sooke to the south end of Shawnigan Lake. This was a circuitous route, to say the least, and a challenge to horse-drawn wagons and the first automobiles even in the best of weather. Hence Mill Bay’s Maj. J.F.L. MacFarlane’s determined efforts to survey a shortcut over the ‘Hat in the hope that the provincial government would construct a road.

According to a history of the Victoria Motor Club, they, too, had lobbied for years for such a short-cut, but had encountered stiff resistance from Valley farmers, among others, who, as taxpayers, didn’t want to help finance it. (Besides the EN Railway, I should point out, the Cowichan Valley was linked, weekly, to Victoria and Nanaimo by steamship via Maple and Cowichan Bays and this seems to have sufficed for many.)

"At various times through 1906 deputations organized by the Club waited on the Provincial Government, and ever they went away with promises that the matter would be looked into. Every delegation was succeeded by a storm of written and oral protests from the farming elements on the Island. The opposition centred on two points: first, the taxpayers would not agree to wasting the public money on unnecessary roadways for the use of visitors and the wealthy who could afford motor cars, and even more urgently the farmers objected to noisy motors rushing along their rural roads, scaring their horses and tearing the gravel highways to pieces…"

Finally, the VMC received a curt note from the government to the effect that the continual deputations were useless "as the roadway was unnecessary, impossible to construct, and if attempted would result in the loss of enormous sums of money to no purpose".

Rather than being discouraged, the Club’s directors "resort[ed] to strategy". They invited MLAs, members of the Victoria Board of Trade and city council to accompany them on a Dominion Day weekend motorcade from Victoria to Alberni – "and also every person who had taken a strong attitude against the construction of the road". Three days with two overnight stops were scheduled for the round-trip! All this in the expectation that "the ride would cause a change of heart among the guests who accepted the invitation". All expenses,

including meals, gas and oil, were picked up by the Club and participants were "insured against breakdowns

as far as possible". (This is 1910, remember-TW.) All of this amounted to "large sums of money so [Club] members charged themselves a heavy per capita fee. This was paid without a murmur by every member approached by the finance committee."

And they had to pay up front so that the necessary gasoline and oil could be purchased and arrangements made for their delivery along the route.

The Club’s generous offer was so tempting that, come the day of departure from Victoria, they had to hire extra touring cars ($105 apiece) from a rental company.

So, how did it go? We again quote from the record: "Early on the morning of June 29 the cars got away, some of them taking

the road over the Sooke mountain, now disused. The guests who took that route vowed they would never agree to make the trip if any other practicable route could be discovered. Narrow hairpin turns, steep climbs which often required the passengers to walk while the cars laboured up the loose roadside hill surface, and storms of gritty dust as one car surged by another, all combined to convert many an opponent into an advocate of a better road."

How did the others avoid the nasty Sooke route? Why, they were ferried across Saanich Inlet by tug and scow, courtesy of quarry owner R.P. Butchart.

The next time you drive the Malahat, spare a thought – and a thank you – for those publicspirited members of the Victoria Motor Club who helped to make it possible!

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