The E&N has always been a hot potato

“We would rather never have the Railway than have one at the price proposed by the last parliament.”—letter to the editor.

“We would rather never have the Railway than have one at the price proposed by the last parliament.”—letter to the editor.


The likelihood of the E&N Railway ever running again grows remoter by the day. But, like that ad for the lottery, you never know. The very fact that it came into being in the first place was a miracle in itself, of sorts; one that few people today seem to know about.

So let’s go back 130-plus years ago, to the early 1880s, when much of the Vancouver Island population was up in arms over its proposed building. There were public meetings at which settlers concerned for their property rights expressed outrage over the generous land grant (still remembered as the Great Train Robbery) with which government was hoping to bribe its construction and angry newspaper editorials and letters to the editor even questioned the point of the whole exercise. All in all, it was B.C. at its histrionic best.

The Island Railway, as it was known, was still on the drawing boards in mid-1883, amid rumours that coal baron Robert Dunsmuir and business associates had just secured the contract for its construction. One of the most vociferous of the many critics wrote to the Nanaimo Free Press. His views, in the light of a century and more’s insight, are illuminating. The true worth of the land grant with its timber and mineral rights (and riparian rights, although these aren’t mentioned) through a land zone already known to be rich in coal fields, he wrote, were no less than $100 million, whereas the building of the railway wouldn’t cost more than $1.2 million — and be worth, when finished, less than nothing because no one could be found foolhardy enough to run it as a commercial enterprise.

“Indeed it is palpable that it was not the Railway but the coal lands that beguiled the prospective contractors [he’s referring to Dunsmuir] into the consideration of the subject. If the construction of the Island Railway did not involve the alienation of so vast an amount of public property, probably the people outside of Victoria would feel less like opposing the scheme. But, when it is known that the proposed Railway Company was composed of men largely interested in opposing the opening up of any other coal mines than those now existing, I say, and I am satisfied the people of this place will bear me out, that we would rather never have a Railway than have one at the price proposed by the last parliament.”

The generous package to which he and many others objected included $750,000 cash, 2.1 million acres of the best land on Vancouver Island (“the head of Saanich Inlet” to Seymour Narrows), including timber and mineral rights, and a further 3.5 million acres in Peace River country. In accordance with one of the articles of Confederation, the government of B.C. had agreed to convey to the Dominion Government, “in trust, to be appropriated in such a manner as the Dominion Government may deem advisable in the furtherance of the construction of the [transcontinental] railway, a similar extent of public land along the line of the railway, through its entire length in British Columbia, not to exceed…20 miles on each side of the said lines…”

So contentious was the delayed construction of a sea-to-sea railway that, just three years after joining Confederation, B.C. proposed to drop out. Premier W.O. Walkem sailed for London to personally present the province’s grievances to Her Majesty Queen Victoria. It was agreed that Earl Carnarvon, Colonial Secretary, arbitrate for the provincial and dominion governments, his decision to be final. Among his rulings was that Esquimalt and Nanaimo be linked by rail. When, despite Parliament’s having passed the bill by a slim majority, the Senate rejected the Island Railway proposal in 1875, the sense of betrayal by British Columbians was so intense that threats of secession again prevailed.

The personal intervention of Governor General Lord Dufferin failed to calm the waters and Her Majesty was formally presented with a ‘memorial’ of secession in August ’78. The impasse appeared to be broken, the following May, with Sir John A. Macdonald’s re-elected government’s announcement that construction would begin. This proved to be premature, as it was not until March 1881 that it was formally decided that such a line be built. This came as small consolation for Islanders then digesting another bitter pill, that the Pacific terminus would be on the lower Mainland rather than in Victoria. They were further aggrieved when the provincial legislature favoured an American proposal. But this syndicate failed to secure adequate funding and, with the CPR declining involvement, Sir John cobbled together a deal with coal magnate Robert Dunsmuir and his American partners. On Aug. 13, 1886, the last spike was driven at Cliffside, Shawnigan Lake.

The E&N has had close calls with closure before but the latest, after five years of idleness, is increasingly real. One could argue that the CPR, which made so much money off the land, timber and mineral rights, could have well afforded to carry the E&N as a small cost of doing business.

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