By Daniel Marshall

Some years ago, an out-of-town friend was surprised to see that there existed a Shawnigan Lake.  'What a coincidence," she said. "Your lake has the same name as Jean Chretien's riding." Of course, as a good Vancouver Islander, I pointed out her mistake immediately. "No, actually it is pronounced Shawn-i- gan, not Sha-win-i-gan, and it is a name of ancient and mysterious origins," or some such words which effectively demanded further discussion.

There are countless explanations of how Shawnigan Lake received its name.  Some have suggested that in the distant past there occurred a significant and bloody battle between warring First Nations. Shawnigan is supposed to translate as the lake that does not give up its dead or the abode of evil spirits.  Others, such as local historian Alice Gibson in Green Leaves and Fallen Branches (1967), recorded many other meanings: the lake of many shadows; a shady gulch; or something is happening that I don't understand.  Native origins appear to be the most predominant, with the exception of a story that claimed that Shawnigan. was actually composed from the names Shaw and Finnegan, two early white settlers who lived near Mason's Beach. There appears little evidence for this story, particularly as Shawnigan first appeared on a British War Office map in 1859, well before any white settlement had occurred.

In fact, a better explanation for the lake's name is to be found in R. I. Dougan's Cowichan, My Valley (1973). The author's father, pioneer Nathan Dougan, interviewed Canute and Josephine Leemo of the Cowichan Tribes. "What," he asked, "is the meaning of the name Shawnigan?"

"It means,' said Canute, 'as near as I can explain it,'— and a mystical expression crossed his countenance — There is something down there, something I cannot understand.' Continuing my queries, I now requested Canute to utter the old Indian word, Shawnigan. At this, he again turned to Josephine — she evidently having a deeper knowledge of the ancient mythologies than he — and once again they had a long, serious discussion ... before Josephine essayed an answer, but after making several ineffectual attempts to enunciate the word, with a delighted chuckle, she desisted. 'Neither of the intelligent old people could enunciate the word. The deduction is obvious: the word Shawnigan is — and very probably similar to many Indian place-names — of great antiquity."

This story corresponds with Jack Fleetwood's information obtained from August Paul of the Cowichan Reserve: Shawnigan means a place where something took place that I do not understand.

If Shawnigan is an ancient mystical word from the Hul'qumi'num language, then what exactly was the mystery of the lake? A few years ago, I was most privileged to work with the well-known Native historian and Elder, Abner Thorne, in translating, some of the oldest oral histories known to the Cowichan Tribes. One such story, confirming both Dougan and Fleetwood, tells of Syalutsa and Stutson, the first two Sky-men of Cowichan tradition who, it is said, fell to earth from the heavens.   Stutson apparently embarked upon a spirit-quest throughout the Cowichan Valley, to such places as Mount Prevost, Cowichan Lake, and ultimately to Shawnigan Lake or sha-weluqun as it was to be known. In each of these locations, Stutson encountered supernatural beings such as the two-headed flying, snake, also known as the lightning snake. Upon his return, Stutson told his older brother of the mysterious things that he had experienced during his travels, all of which were familiar to Syalutsa, with the exception of a strange occurrence at Shawnigan. Here, while bathing in the pristine waters of the lake, Stutson encountered a large, fierce creature of a blue-green colour.             .

"I was bathing in the lake when I saw the water begin to ripple excitedly," stated Stutson. ''The calm of the lake continued to be churned back and forth, back and forth, until finally the surface broke with a fleeting appearance only to have the mysterious being re­ submerged just as fast. I decided to back out of the lake slowly, leaving only my feet in the water. It then followed a little closer while continuing its zigzag-like dance.  Back and forth, back and forth, was the endless motion of this wild beast gliding below the surface. It seemed as if it was trying to entice me further, but I stood motionless, neither entirely in nor out of the cool lake, and finally it disappeared back into the depths from which it came.  All of a sudden, a brisk wind roared across the lake, just as it had done at Lake Cowichan."

For the first time in their conversation, Syalutsa appeared mystified. "Like you, I do not know its name," Syalutsa confessed, "and so it will be up to you whatever it is." Hence, the mysterious origin of the name sha'weluqun, or Shawnigan, is neither associated with a battle between First Nations nor associated with white settlers' names, but indicative of an unknown supernatural force present within the lake and beyond the immediate understanding of human comprehension. It should also be noted that though Hul'qumi'num-speaking peoples, such as the Cowichan, would hunt and gather in the vicinity of the lake, there have never been any permanent Native settlements along its shores.

Dr Daniel Marshall is an historian and fifth-generation Vancouver !slander who lives in Cobble Hill. He is the principal of Reach Consulting Ltd and author of Those Who Fell from The Sky: A History of the Cowichan Peoples (1999).


People of Shawnigan Lake

The first known visitors to Shawnigan Lake hunted and fished near the lake but never settled permanently. Arrowheads and small Native artifacts have been found around the lake providing material evidence of their activity in the area. The East Shawnigan Lake Road, which was part of the Goldstream Trail (built in 1862), is based on a much older Native trading route.

Late in the 19th century, homesteaders were encouraged by the Government to settle in the Cowichan Valley. Only a few hardy settlers made their way toward Shawnigan Lake. Then, in 1885, a year before the E & N rail line was complete, Charlie Morton built a hotel on the waterfront at Shawnigan Lake.

The E & N rail line was instrumental in the development of the community of Shawnigan Lake. By 1890, a sawmill on the lakeshore, and logging operations around the lake attracted workers from India, China, Japan and other countries. Many of these workers had come to British Columbia to build the railroad and, with that done, turned their efforts to sawmilling and logging. The Shawnigan Lake Lumber Company was an integrated company that owned its timber, and the mill which processed it. The E&N Railway was used to transport the dressed lumber to markets.
Read More on the E&N by Lori Treloar

By 1900, a second large hotel, Strathcona Lodge, was in operation on the lake. Both of the Shawnigan Lake hotels relied on the railroad to bring hundreds of people, from Victoria, every weekend. The lake became a popular resort destination.

The area also attracted a large group of upper-class British Colonels who had served in India and China, for the British Army. They chose to settle at Shawnigan Lake, on their retirement, rather than returning to Britain. According to the 1901 census, Shawnigan Lake had a permanent population of 265 people at the time.

The Shawnigan Lake Lumber Company Sawmill, and the logging activities, played a significant role in the economic development at Shawnigan Lake. Many employees chose to buy property, marry and raise their families in the area. It was a tough blow to the community and the local economy when the sawmill burned down for the third time, in the mid 1940s, and was not replaced.

Private Schools also attracted people to Shawnigan Lake and continue to provide employment. Since 1916, Shawnigan’s many well-respected boarding schools have brought students and educators to the area. The clean air at Shawnigan Lake with its purported health benefits was one reason that parents chose the schools here. Many properties around the lake were also bought based on the same premise. Shawnigan Lake was known as a recuperative place for health issues.

The Malahat Drive portion of the Trans Canada Highway, built in 1911, improved access to Shawnigan Lake. However, the train continued to be the important transportation link until well into the 1930s as most people did not own automobiles. The Malahat Drive, which was improved in 1958, shortened the driving time to the lake and by then most people had cars. The number of summer homes around the lake increased dramatically in the late 50s and through the 1960s.

Shawnigan Lake has had a small, but permanent, population since the turn of the 20th century and the community has always been strong and vibrant.  A 1960s and 1970s residential housing boom made the Cowichan Valley one of Canada’s fastest growing areas, and Shawnigan Lake felt the impact with a large influx of residents. Since that time, many summer homes have been transformed into permanent residences.

Shawnigan Lake’s proximity to urban centres and amenities continues to attract residents seeking a mild climate and semi-rural lifestyle. Now, with a population of just over 8500, and rampant residential development in the area, the community of Shawnigan Lake is poised for yet another major growth spurt.

Shawnigan Lumber Company
Shawnigan Lake Lumber Co. # 2
Shawnigan lake School 1916

What to Find at the Museum

Contact The Museum 
Provided by The Shawnigan Lake Historical Society

The Shawnigan Lake Museum
1775 Shawnigan-Mill Bay Road , Shawnigan Lake, BC Canada V0R 2W0
Phone: 250-743-8675