by Lori Treloar.
Prior to the Malahat highway, the only land route to the Cowichan Valley was the Goldstream Trail which was carved through the wilderness in 1862. At roughly five-feet-wide it was barely adequate for wagon travel and, in 1864, it was widened. Although it was upgraded, it never achieved the status of a real road. The Trail came over the hills from Goldstream, passed by the Goldstream Hotel, and carried on to the Sooke Lakes before following the east side of Shawnigan Lake to Cobble Hill and then on to Cowichan Bay. This route then became the Victoria Road, which was the only route accessible by automobile to the Cowichan Valley.
In the late 1800’s Cowichan Valley residents began petitioning for a new road. The Malahat Drive, built in 1910, was built in response to the pressure from an increasing number of residents and automobile owners who demanded that the Government provide a decent, direct route to access up-island communities.
17 miles of highway over the mountain was constructed in 1910 for approximately $200 000. The road opened in 1911 and the road was immediately acclaimed a scenic wonder. The First Nations name “Malahat” was officially adopted in the summer of 1911. The new highway was not for the faint of heart. The original gravel road was mostly one lane with turn-outs so that vehicles could pull over when cars were approaching from the opposite direction. The road was steep and narrow, with no railings, and with stretches that went on forever with no place to turn around. Accidents were frequent and brakes were often destroyed in a single trip. Many old-timers told stories of harrowing trips over the Malahat. At the entrance to Goldstream Park there was a tight curve known as “Suicide Corner”. It was the scene of many accidents. Fortunately for drivers today, the ‘Hat was “modernized” in 1956.
Even in the early days, the Malahat was the scene of regular speed traps. In the early days the speed limit was 12 miles per hour. If you exceeded the limit, you would receive a $20 fine which was a princely sum at that time…and, apparently, it was impossible to argue your way out of paying.
The Malahat Drive is a scenic route through coastal rainforest, old growth forest and over mountain tops that provide spectacular views for travellers. Bliss Carmen, Canada’s first poet laureate, was so inspired after his trip over the mountain that he wrote a poem titled “Malahat”.
In 1911, only the privileged owned a vehicle. By the 1920s, cars had replaced many family horses. Today, thousands of commuters use the route daily to access jobs in Victoria. And, as they say, “history repeats itself…most residents today would agree that we are due for a new or, at the very least, an up-graded route to the Cowichan Valley.