Proposed Island ferry service drew ‘wrath’ of Mainland papers

"…To put the whole in a few words, no ferry system could be made practicable…" Vancouver Advertiser.

Whoever heard of such a preposterous idea? Imagine it – a daily ferry service between Nanaimo and the Lower Mainland?

Today, we take such service for granted; 130 years ago, the concept met ridicule and downright hostility in some quarters. How times change!

"The idea of connecting the Canadian Pacific and Island [EN] Railways by means of a ferry does not find favour in the eyes of our New Westminster friends," noted an editorial in the Nanaimo Free Press, "but we are afraid they will have to bow to the inevitable."

If the Nanaimo newspaper is to be lauded for its prescience, it must also be pointed out that it had arrived at this conclusion through somewhat muddled reasoning: that the Pacific terminus for the transcontinental railway must be a port "that has free access to the open ocean, and [is] clear of foreign territory".

Because of a potential military threat from the United States, the editor contended that loaded rail cars should be ferried to Victoria, then the best B.C. shipping point, via Nanaimo. Although it’s not stated, the likely conclusion to be drawn from this is that Nanaimo, until Tsawwassen was built as a ferry terminal in the late 1950s, and then only because of the automobile, was more practical and convenient than would be a direct sea link with the capital.

"The signs of the times plainly point to the fact that the actual and practical terminus of the Canadian Pacific Railway will be at some port on Vancouver Island, which proudly stands as a sentinel in front of the mainland, and even the dredging of the Fraser will not be likely to prevent such a consummation. Vancouver Island holds the key to the position, and those in power fully understand and appreciate her importance."

When several Mainland newspapers, notably the Vancouver Herald, "waxed wrath" at the very thought of it, the Free Press blithely dismissed their criticisms: "We can assure our mainland contemporaries that the establishment of such a ferry may be classed as an accomplished fact,

"and that in a few weeks time [the EN was about to commence full service], they will see passengers and freight carried across the Gulf to Nanaimo, there to connect with the Island railway and thence to Victoria. It requires no engineering skill to see that the actual terminus must eventually be located on Vancouver Island, and our contemporaries are not blind to the fact, but it is not in their interest to do so.

"They abuse the Island papers simply to keep up their courage. Stick to it."

As it happened, the Nanaimo savant had back-pedalled slightly on the barging of loaded railcars, and he was a wee bit premature so far as passengers and freight go. But, within days of his prediction, direct mail service was established by means of sea and rail between Nanaimo, Victoria and the Gulf Islands, there was talk of linking up with New Westminster and Vancouver and, best of all, going to daily delivery.

This, too, was premature as was shown by the announcement by Dominion postal authorities – who had to contend with capricious weather conditions on the Strait of Georgia – that Atlantic mails would be delivered to the Island on a twice-weekly schedule, monthly in winter.

The argument against a railcar ferry service between the lower Mainland and Nanaimo, as expressed by the Vancouver Advertiser, was that the cars must be returned empty: "Why in the name of reason and common horsesense should loaded cars be sent to Nanaimo for transmission to Esquimalt, Victoria or any other point of the Island, and what would be the benefit to the province at large? …To put the whole in a few words, no ferry system could be made practicable…"

Until the completion of the EN, Nanaimo was linked to Victoria by the People’s Navigation and the Canadian Pacific Navigation companies, the latter to become the Canadian Pacific Steamship Service. In fact, the Hub City would not only have regular ferry service to the Mainland but its very own CPR ferry, the Princess of Nanaimo. Today, of course, Nanaimo has multiple daily sailings by B.C. Ferries to Horseshoe Bay, way-port to Vancouver.

Not even the Free Press’s Nostradamus could have foreseen these developments back then.

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