When the steamship Ancon entered Pacific waters on Aug. 15, 1914, transportation between North America’s east and west coasts changed forever. The Ancon made the journey from the Atlantic to the Pacific in hours. The journey normally took months and risked unpredictable weather and currents.
The Ancon’s passage marked the long-anticipated opening of an engineering marvel, the Panama Canal.
From one day to the next, the sea journey from New York to San Francisco became 12,600 kilometres shorter. Steamships carrying goods from this coast to Atlantic markets could — and did — cut months off their journeys.
The immediate effect of the canal’s opening on the day-to-day lives of most people living in Victoria and British Columbia, however, turned out to be anticlimactic.
Through the century’s first decade, optimists had touted the coming Central American shortcut as the dawn of a golden age for our region. Local boosters rallied for the new Canadian Northern Railway to make Victoria its west-coast terminus so the railway would be those few miles closer to ocean shipping lanes leading to the canal. Speculators took advantage of the unbridled optimism to sell land for new subdivisions near Sooke and elsewhere. Business throughout the region boomed, and houses were built fast and cheaply.
But, by 1914, the bubble had burst.
And by that time, West Coasters had come to rely on the railways to reach North America’s Atlantic ports. The days were long past when a person travelling from Britain to British Columbia had to endure a five-month, dangerous sea voyage around the tip of South America. Sarah Crease documented such a journey aboard the Athelstan, when she followed her husband, Henry Pering Pellow Crease, B.C.’s first attorney general, to British Columbia in 1859. Her journals and sketches of the journey can be viewed at the B.C. Archives.
Even before Crease’s adventures around Cape Horn, the Isthmus of Panama offered up its own railway option. The world’s shortest transcontinental railway shortened the journey from Atlantic to Pacific and back again for passengers and small freight.
Beginning in 1855, travellers from Europe could voyage to New York, board a vessel to Colón, Panama, then transfer to a small train to rattle through 77 kilometres of jungle, over the 110-metre continental divide, to arrive at the Pacific Coast. There, they would board another steamship to take them to San Francisco, and northward from there.
A number of early B.C. women settlers left records of their journeys over this route, as documented by Kathryn Bridge in her 1998 book By Snowshoe, Buckboard & Steamer. For example, Eleanor Caroline Fellows came to Victoria over the isthmus in late 1861. She later described the railway journey:
“For several hours we sat on the leisurely moving train traversing the 40 miles of winding railway, watched the fascinating landscape, and consumed the luscious fruit which, whenever a stoppage was made to feed our insatiable locomotive with its wooden diet, the picturesquely clad natives importuned us to buy.”
Helen Kate Woods, who arrived at Esquimalt Harbour in March 1865, wrote less floridly about the route: “We crossed the Isthmus on a little railway train; in retrospect it seems it was not much larger than the original streetcars which we were to enjoy in Victoria many, many years later ....”
As transcontinental railways were built across North America, they became the transportation of choice for people travelling from the Atlantic to B.C.’s coast — first by the Union Pacific line through the U.S. to San Francisco, and then by the Canadian Pacific Railway after 1885.
In fact, when the first troops left Victoria for the war in Europe on Aug. 26-28, 1914 — less than two weeks after the Panama Canal officially opened for business — they took one of the CPR’s coastal liners to Vancouver, and then shipped to eastern Canada by train. They stopped for several months in Valcartier, Que., before embarking for Europe.
By 1919, however, some troop ships bringing soldiers home after the war sailed directly from England to Victoria — via the Panama Canal.