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Our History: The E&N’s long journey from dream to doubt

The saga of the Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway, and its rocky beginnings as the “consolation prize” offered by Ottawa to secure Vancouver Island’s participation in Confederation, is among the stories contained in Whistle Posts West, a lively collection

The saga of the Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway, and its rocky beginnings as the “consolation prize” offered by Ottawa to secure Vancouver Island’s participation in Confederation, is among the stories contained in Whistle Posts West, a lively collection of tales spanning 150 years of grit, glory and intrigue on the railways of western Canada.

The future was filled with promise when the Colony of Vancouver Island was founded in 1849. Across the Strait of Georgia, and adding to the region’s aspirations, came the 1858 establishment of the Colony of British Columbia. In 1866, the two outposts aligned politically, and New Westminster on the mainland relinquished its role as capital to Victoria on Vancouver Island, a status made final when British Columbia joined the Dominion of Canada as a province in 1871. In view of the city’s increased stature, the federal government promised that Victoria would become the western terminus of Canada’s national railway network.

John A. Macdonald had been knighted for his role in nation-building on July 1, 1867, as the new country came into being with him as its first prime minister. Along with the designation “Sir,” Macdonald could have as easily been labelled “the railway promiser.” His later, much-trumpeted commitment to build a rail link from central Canada across the prairies to B.C. had eventually clinched the deal for B.C.’s entry into the Dominion.

In fact, a defter “promiser of trains” was George-Étienne Cartier, Macdonald’s minister of militia and defence. During Macdonald’s first term of office, he was frequently sidetracked by illness. When that happened, Cartier acted as Macdonald’s stand-in.

It was on such an occasion, in spring 1870, that a delegation from B.C., composed of Victoria’s Dr. John Helmcken, Joseph W. Trutch and Dr. Robert William Carrall from the Cariboo, visited Ottawa seeking a wagon road to the West. It was Cartier who upped the ante to a railroad. Cartier subsequently took the lead in negotiations of the B.C.-Canada terms of union, and it was his initiative that led to the creation of the CPR, creating the groundwork for Victoria’s destiny as the orphan of the transcontinental railway family.

Macdonald was an adamant supporter of B.C. entering Confederation and the building of the railroad. Less so was Parliament, but it eventually supported the terms of union. Flowing from this was the prime minister’s further promise that Victoria would be the final western stop of tracks on Canada’s national railway.

The initial plan was to directly link Montreal by rail all the way to Vancouver Island within a period of 10 years. The plan called for tracks to be laid to Bute Inlet, over 200 kilometres up the mainland coast from Vancouver. From where the tracks ended on the mainland, a bridge would be built to carry them to Sonora Island and then Quadra Island and on to Vancouver Island. The rail line would continue to Victoria, the promised terminus.

In spring 1873, the federal government adopted this flawed plan, bred of politics that wanted to secure new borders for a growing country at all costs. The proposition lacked the practical base of in-depth surveying and engineering studies. Contrarians felt a southern route to Port Moody would more affordably meet the obligations of a transcontinental railroad. From Port Moody, freight barges could service Vancouver Island.

Victoria was not amused.

In 1873, Macdonald took steps to address this discontent with a compromise. He now promised that the shipping and naval port of Esquimalt near Victoria would become the southern terminus of a railway between there and resource-rich Nanaimo, the home of large coal deposits. The House of Commons passed an act of Parliament that would have given birth to the Esquimalt-Nanaimo Railway, but the Senate rejected it in 1875.

Victoria was not alone in its frustrations. The country’s rail promises seemed in disarray and perhaps undeliverable. The government finally contracted a syndicate for the transcontinental railway’s construction in 1880. Clearly, the prime minister’s pledge to connect “the seaboard of B.C. with the railway system of Canada” within 10 years had not come about.

British Columbia’s government, unhappy with the delays in beginning railroad construction on Vancouver Island, threatened to withdraw from the legal deal that had brought it into Confederation, knowing the border to the south would prove flexible if B.C. wanted to join the U.S.

Understandably, the U.S. cast a covetous eye toward the colony-turned-province. The U.S. had recently acquired Alaska from Russia in the summer of 1867 (for $7.2 million). Annexing B.C. to its jurisdiction would provide continuous land between the continental U.S. and its new northern territory.

B.C.’s threat of separation was a viable alternative. Although completing the transcontinental railway and appeasing Vancouver Island were both part of what Macdonald called “a solemn bargain made between Canada and British Columbia,” securing B.C. and its Pacific Ocean access as part of Canada was Macdonald’s truer aim.

The flamboyant Amor De Cosmos, founder of the British Colonist and pro-Confederation activist, argued for the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway as a member of Parliament. In May 1880, De Cosmos stood and delivered a passionate speech in Parliament, demanding that Ottawa make good on “its general expression of intention to keep faith with British Columbia.”

In answer to excuses of cost concerns, he admonished that “the expenditure will fall so lightly on the country” and pushed for the completion of the “continental portion” to Burrard Inlet, from where goods would use a “ferry to Nanaimo” and then freight and passengers would complete Canada’s railway promise on the “Island Section of the Pacific Railway.”

As was typical in North American rail construction, land grants, access points and development privileges were perhaps even more important than the rights of trackage. Private interests, such as those of Nanaimo coal-mine baron Robert Dunsmuir, competed with the government-influenced (but cash-short) CPR. The winner would be enriched: the eventual land grants would approach 10 per cent of Vancouver Island’s 32,000 square kilometres.

Dunsmuir’s proposal prevailed, and his Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway Company came into being in summer 1886. The prime minister was invited to visit Victoria, but Macdonald had a peculiar relationship with the recalcitrant city. When his Conservative Party won the election of 1878, Macdonald lost his own seat due to the Pacific Scandal, in which he was seen to have taken funds in return for granting a railway contract. Although he was enthusiastically acclaimed as a member of Parliament for the Victoria electoral district, allowing him to sit in Parliament, he never visited the place as its representative.

Prime Minister Macdonald made his only sojourn to B.C., and his former riding of Victoria, in 1886. He disembarked from his special train in Port Moody on July 9, four days after the CPR’s inaugural passenger train had arrived at the terminus. From there he travelled to Shawnigan Lake, where he swung a silver hammer to drive home a railway-completing gold spike at Cliffside. The E&N was a railroad, though Victoria was not yet serviced. Expansion of the rail line followed in 1887 and 1888, the year tracks finally reached Victoria.

Though controversy would not let go of Dunsmuir and the syndicate he headed (of which he owned 50 per cent) the railway did not suffer. Fish, lumber (finished or raw for export), fruits, vegetables and cattle — separated, of course, from the travelling public — all moved to market as the E&N prospered. Its reputation as a steam railway, home to workers with pride, grew. Even so, the E&N has been called a “consolation prize” from a government whose railway promisers failed to deliver.

In 1905, the CPR would get its hands on the E&N with a $1-million purchase from James Dunsmuir, the coal baron’s son and a former premier of B.C. That payment was for the railway alone; the lands not sold or leased by the Dunsmuirs were purchased separately. CPR extended the E&N northward to Comox and westward to Port Alberni, in total exceeding 200 kilometres of rail on Vancouver Island.

The E&N’s service on Vancouver Island since its construction eventually became a hallmark of inconsistency, with passenger service interrupted for many years at a time and currently suspended, though the rails are used for limited freight traffic. The ownership has varied over the years, and the changes in responsibility for maintenance and scheduling have contributed to a reputation of unpredictability, including name changes — though to Islanders, it has always been known as the “E&N,” even when that was not its official name.

Rumours often bolster hope, more so than unfulfilled government promises, despite the former suggesting at the time of this book’s publication that the E&N passenger train will soon be refashioned into service for travellers. Could it be, after nearly a century and a half since B.C. joined Confederation, that Macdonald’s promise to link the country by rail might permanently come true?

Whistle Posts West: Railway Tales from British Columbia, Alberta, and Yukon © Mary Trainer, Brian Antonson, and Rick Antonson, 2015. Heritage House Publishing,