by Lori Treloar
Prior to the Malahat highway there were two land routes to the Cowichan Valley. The first, known as the Goldstream Trail, was a five foot wide trail carved through the wilderness in 1862. Although this was upgraded, it never achieved the status of a real road. The second land route, which made the Cowichan Valley accessible by automobile, was the Old Victoria Road. This road passed by the Goldstream Hotel then carried on out to the Sooke Lakes before following the east side of Shawnigan Lake to Cobble Hill and on to Cowichan Bay. Cowichan Valley residents began petitioning in the late 1800’s for a new road.
The Malahat Drive was built in response to pressure from the increasing number of residents and automobile owners who demanded that the Government provide a decent, direct route to access up-island communities.
The new 17 miles of highway over the mountain were constructed in 1910 for approximately $200 000. The first vehicle to take the trip over the new Malahat road did so in January 1911 through 18 inches of snow. The Native 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 other 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 can tell stories of harrowing trips over the Malahat. At the entrance to Goldstream Park there was a tight curve known as “Suicide Corner” that was the scene of many accidents. Fortunately for us the ‘Hat was “modernized” in 1956.
Even in the early days the Malahat was the scene of regular speed traps. In those 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 inspired enough after his trip over the mountain to write a poem titled “Malahat”. In 1911, only the privileged owned a vehicle. By the 1920s, cars 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.