It was a nostalgic day for many local residents and train buffs alike when on a March day in 1988 they witnessed the last train from Youbou as it moved slowly through town on its final run before hastening on into oblivion.
As it crossed the trestle over the Cowichan River (now the town’s main footbridge – near the Duck Pond) it slowed down acknowledging the many people who lined the road for a glimpse of what was to be, the end of an era. The Canadian National Railway (CNR) had laid the rails many years earlier for the express purpose of transporting untold numbers of railcars carrying lumber, made from timber logged locally and milled at Youbou. In those days it seemed the forests would last forever.
Sixty-eight years prior to the last run, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) first passenger train arrived at Lake Cowichan June 12, 1913. It was welcomed with much fanfare by local dignitaries (such as they were) and townsfolk. Its first run, the train was filled with CPR and government dignitaries, special guests and the CPR train crew. Behind the fanfare was the fact that “a new era had opened up for the residents of Cowichan Lake” (source Kaatza Vignettes by T. Green).
The historic new era had actually started the year prior (1912) with the arrival of the first train after the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) rail extension to the community. This event changed the course of local history forever.
Until then, logs had been transported downriver to tidewater (river drives), an expensive and dangerous method which would no longer be used. Great numbers of newly felled logs could now be transported out by railway car, a faster and more efficient method. The increase in the amount of timber being exported would be enormous and would go on for many decades.
Since railcars did not carry passengers, several passenger cars were added the following year. It was then possible for locals to ride the train to Duncan on a regular basis (scheduled three days a week – an hour per trip). People no longer had to subject themselves to the somewhat tortuous four-hour journey by horse-drawn stage (coach) between Lake Cowichan and Duncan. If one wished to stay the night, Duncan offered accommodation at three hotels, the Quamichan, Tzouhalem and Alderlea. There was also a generous selection of restaurants, stores and businesses. If one wished, they could continue on to Victoria, via train.
Although the train ride to Duncan was, in today’s standards, “hardly scenic”, it made three stops with the first being at Charter (railway) Siding, near the present day Skutz Falls turnoff. The next stop was at Mayo (later named Paldi) with the last stop at Old Hillcrest not far from Duncan. A fourth stop, between Cowichan Lake and Duncan, was added near the end of the First World War with the train stopping below Hill 60 to load the “ore car” with recently mined magnesium, used for the war effort.
In addition to passenger cars, a quota of loaded flatcars of logs was regularly transported, some to the Chemainus mill. Locally, freight from Nanaimo and Victoria could now be transported directly to the Lake whereas previously it was brought in by horse-drawn wagons.
Continued next week