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The Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway: The Dunsmuir Years: 1884-1905

By Donald F. MacLachlan

Review By Bruce Hodding

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 181 Spring 2014  | p. 178-179

Originally, Robert Dunsmuir, the founder of the Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway (E&N), had intended the southern terminus to be Esquimalt and the northern terminus to be Nanaimo, as the name suggests, but before he had completed construction in 1886, he extended it south to Russell’s Station in Victoria West and north to his coalmine at Wellington. Immediately, people in Victoria petitioned for an extension from Victoria West, and on 29 March 1888, a passenger train rolled across the swing bridge and into downtown Victoria for the first time. The Victoria Colonist called it “a red letter day in Victoria’s history — a day always to be remembered.” Daily passenger service started at Wellington near Nanaimo in the morning and headed south, crossing around Cobble Hill with the passenger train heading north from Victoria. This service was everything people wish for today.

Donald MacLachlan’s popular narrative of the E&N concentrates on the working history of the railway. Although he discusses the constitutional controversies surrounding its establishment — the 1871 Terms of Union between British Columbia and Canada required the completion of a railway to the Pacific seaboard — his focus is on the early day-to-day operations. MacLachlan’s own private experience as a lifetime employee of the E&N, alongside that of his father and brother, coupled with his use of rare dispatcher’s records and invaluable personal communications, creates an intimately detailed history. He fills his stories with the names and careers of engineers, conductors, and even baggage handlers. He has organized this account along topical lines suggesting a working and intimate history, such as “Survey and Construction,” “Weather, High Water, and Wreck,” and “E&N Presidents and Other Personalities.” Regarding MacLachlan’s discussion of the birth of the City of Duncan because of the railway station (47), I am able to add from my own research that Chief Charlie Quitqarten of Somena, who addressed Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald, wanted the station at “Duncan’s” to benefit his own people. Anyone interested in the history of the E&N, Vancouver Island, or Canadian railways in general should read this book.

A work of this type has, of course, certain inherent drawbacks. MacLachlan makes no attempt to place the history of the E&N in a larger interpretive framework, whether of labour, railway, or Canadian history. Despite a short bibliography, the book lacks documentation and footnotes, but perhaps it is unfair to expect this of a non-academic work aimed at a local audience. The many wonderful photographs benefit from the book’s size, but oddly, the designer has placed quotations in shaded boxes so that they appear to be sidebars rather than part of the main text.

In 2011, the E&N discontinued passenger service because of the condition of the railway, but it expects to restore passenger service some time later this year. We can only hope that the E&N will also restore daily passenger service in the morning heading south into Victoria as well as north from Victoria, as the schedule was originally established.

The Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway: The Dunsmuir Years: 1884-1905
By Donald F. MacLachlan 
Victoria: British Columbia Railway Historical Association, 2012. First published 1986 
Sono Nis Press, 2012. 168 pp, $29.95 paper