Long before the days of fast cars, 747 airplanes or high-speed trams – the best way to get around was by train. With their quick speed, ability to carry heavy loads and lots of people, plus the abundant supply of coal, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, train transportation was king. It even played a large part in bringing Canada together, as the promise of a transcontinental railway was part of the agreement to unite BC with the rest of Canada under Confederation in 1867.
On Vancouver Island, the idea of its own railway was considered a necessity for the public, politicians and entrepreneurs alike as a way to connect parts of the island and transport resources, goods and people. In 1883, the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway (E&N) was formed to complete this mission.
While not officially part of the transcontinental CPR railway, the E&N railway was still part of the dream to truly connect Canada by train from coast to coast. Famed coal baron and opportunist Robert Dunsmuir was eventually awarded the contract to construct the railway. However, he was likely more interested in the land grants than the railway as these generous grants included mineral rights and all coal deposits.
Construction of the E&N railway moved swiftly, with the first section completed in just three and a half years thanks to the hardworking workers like those pictured above, in what was a true achievement in technology at the time on both a local and national scale. On 13 August 1886, the last spike was driven by Prime Minister John A. MacDonald himself at Cliffside, about 40 kilometres north of Victoria. A few different extensions were completed in the following years, linking important stops like Victoria and Courtney, and of course Robert Dunsmuir’s mine at Wellington.
All said and done, the E&N Railway, standing today as the Southern Railway of Vancouver Island, is an impressive 234 kilometres in length and one of the only remaining relics of a bygone era where train transport was king.