Major MacFarlane Monument

The monument to Major MacFarlane at the Malahat Summit.

The Malahat Drive: MacFarlane's Folly
100 Years in the Transportation History of Vancouver Island British Columbia

by John M. MacFarlane 2002

One hundred years ago it would take Major James Francis Lenox MacFarlane three days by horse-drawn wagon to reach Victoria from his farm at Cobble Hill. The wagon road wandered across the hills in a grueling route through the giant trees of Goldstream, turning toward Sooke Lake, emerging at the shore near Mill Bay. The road, consisting of a single set of wagon tracks, was often rutted and slow going with stretches of switch-back negotiating the hills. The only alternative at the time was to travel by boat or rail.

Major MacFarlane settled in Alberta in 1898 after a career as an officer in the British Army. In 1903 he owned a farm near Cobble Hill where he helped to form the Farmer's Institute. Transportation in those days was in a Democrat wagon pulled by a plucky mare. On his first trip to the farm that he had purchased sight unseen with his friend Arthur Flint they planned to stop overnight at Flint's Shawnigan Lake home. The trip was a physical trial for all concerned. He recalled later that "When we reached the rising ground beyond Goldstream we got off the wagon and walked until we got to the top and then looked down the steep hill. I thought we could now have a welcome rest. Not a bit of it! It was much too steep. Having no brake I tied the wheels together and got down "by degrees" the way they say that the lawyers get to heaven." "While we were enjoying our lunch and thankful to be on level ground again, I turned to Flint. "Never again" said I, "will you find me driving on this so-called road." "My dear fellow," said he, "if you want to drive to Victoria this is the only one." "What!" said I, "then I will get a better road built." That was what started it all."

Increased settlement in the Cowichan Valley prompted the Colonial Government to construct a trail linking the area with Victoria. It really was a trail, best suited for horseback travel or driving livestock. It took a showing of public pressure for the Government to convert the trail to a wagon road in 1884, but with steep grades and numerous switchbacks it was really unsuitable for serious freight or speedy travel. The political movement for a road was initiated by the Major who was convinced that a new road would reduce the journey to Victoria by a whole day. But he found that the distance between a good idea and bureaucratic approval can be immense, a lesson he learned quickly.

So he he visited all the residents affected, arguing his case and trying to build support. On his visits to Victoria he made the rounds of the government offices, unsuccessfully trying to generate interest in his idea. He was repeatedly dismissed with the declaration that such a road was not possible - that there was no suitable route.

He was sure that there was route and that it could be found. In his twenty-five foot sloop he sailed up and down Saanich Inlet looking over the terrain from the sea. He was then appointed as the Game Warden of the area along the E&N Railway Belt which gave him further detailed knowledge of the country. He patrolled the district on a railway tricycle provided by the Railway Company. Fired up with the passion for his idea he decided to make the first field investigations himself. Having been both a cavalry and an artillery officer he understood surveying. His experiences in reconnaissance and scouting in India would all prove valuable in the project. Starting at Mill Bay he painstakingly mapped a trail he was cutting through the bush, carefully recording the elevation and route marked by a lengthy series of pegs at regular intervals using only a hand compass, measuring tape and aneroid barometer.

After three long years on the project his friends and neighbours were beginning to believe that it was the project of a madman. The route, they said, was "MacFarlane's Folly". Undeterred by these spurious opinions the Major worked on until one day when he was able to deliver the details of a route to Frederick John Fulton, the then Minister of Lands at the Parliament Buildings. Fulton refused to back the plan with tax payers money based on what he deemed as the work of a rank amateur. He explained that the Government had been searching for a suitable route for 40 years without success - it was impossible. What the Major felt when his his work was branded asworthless because he wasn't a professional surveyor can only be imagined.

Expectations dashed he returned to Mill Bay the long way on the wagon road. Something had to be done. This called for more initiative from the Cobble Hill end - and as the Secretary he called a special meeting of the Cobble Hill Farmer's Institute. Only three other members turned up and they passed a resolution strongly endorsing the idea of a new road. While this was hardly a major demonstration of support from the members it was a start. The newspapers caught the spirit of the movement and the papers duly reported, "Wagon Road To Victoria - Very Influential Meeting Held At Cobble Hill Hall" a resolution calling for the government to have a wagon road built connecting existing roads at Goldstream with those at Mill Bay. With a copy of the resolution MacFarlane headed back into Victoria by train to meet with the members of the Victoria Board of Trade. At the Cobble Hill Rail Station he was jeered by local residents about the Farmer's Institute meeting. But his passion for the project carried the Board of Trade - they too endorsed the idea. He sought and gained the support of the Automobile Association and the Tourist Association. But the Government politicians were still unimpressed. Burning now with political fervor the Major began a petition spending months collecting the signature of all the residents from Oak Bay to to Mill Bay. Eventually the petition sheet was nine and a half feet long! After its presentation to the Minister results were obtained.

The MLA for Victoria, H.B. Thompson, hired the pioneer Saanich timber cruiser Frank Verdier to check MacFarlane's route. After covering it Verdier endorsed it as the only possible one. Political pressure was brought to bear on Verdier to condemn the plan but he followed his own instincts. The bureaucrats stalled again - Verdier they declared was not a professional surveyor. Yet another survey was commissioned, this time by civil engineer Dennis Harris. To their shagrin, the bureaucrats learned that the original survey undertaken years before was the only logical route. The big break came at election time. The Member of the Legislative Assembly for the Mill Bay area was given a mandate by the electorate to further the idea of a new road. When the Legislature met the member had second thoughts, but was encouraged by the Major to put his support behind the project no matter how reluctant he may have become since the election. A bill was passed in the legislature approving the project and tenders were finally called.

A budget of $25,000 was approved by the Legislature to begin the work. This was condemned by the newspapers as being much too little to have any impact on the project. Major MacFarlane conferred with Mr. Fulton suggesting that two miles be built at Goldstream and six miles at the Mill Bay end. The political strategy was that Mr. Fulton could then report real progress to the Legislature the following year and ask for the necessary funds to complete the project. The lowest bidder, Mike Haggerty, defaulted on the project work soon afterwards and the work was completed by the Province using day labour recruited from among the residents of the region.

The following year Moore & Pethick won the contract for the ten miles left to construct. The original road was crudely constructed by today's standards, consisting of a single lane in many places, and a gravel covering. There were no railings and few places to pass oncoming traffic. If you met a car, one of them had to back up to a turn-off to get by. The road opened in 1911, the road was immediately acclaimed as a scenic wonder. After eight years of work and commitment to the project it was natural that at the project's completion Major MacFarlane was to be the first to travel the road from one end to the other. Road widening and straightening has been a continuous process since it's inauguration.

In 1924 the Rotary Club built a "font" at Mill Bay for watering horses and filling boiling radiators labouring over the big hill. As traffic increased a series of eating places have been built over the years. Algernon Pease built Hamsterly Malahat at the lookout in the 1920s but it burned in 1928. Robert Buller built the Malahat Lookout which burned in 1953. Several other establishments have come and gone there since then - combining culinary delight with a fabulous view. The name Malahat is taken from the name of the band of native peoples living at Mill Bay. The name has been written variously as Malahalth, Malaquot, Malahut and since 1900 as Malahat. No one seems very sure as to its meaning.

The impact on the development of upper Vancouver Island has been incalculable. If traffic had depended on sea-borne transport to and from Victoria it is doubtful the Island would have developed the way it has done. Although it's construction has diminished the commercial rail and ship freight traffic it has proven to be the backbone of Vancouver Island connecting every population center from Port Hardy to Victoria There are now compelling arguments to improve ferry service to by-pass the Malahat - perhaps in the long run it would be more economical. No doubt these new routes along with new parallel routes will augment the Malahat and that will be determined by the availability of fiscal resources for large capital projects.

Major MacFarlane Monument

The monument to Major MacFarlane at the Malahat Summit.

Rebuilding and redesigning the highway has been an almost non-stop process since the opening. The blasting, widening and paving seem to have gone on forever, trying to keep pace with up island development and increases in traffic that always seem to keep slightly ahead of the road's capabilities. I am sure that there will be continuing discussion about the future of the Malahat for years to come generated in the spirit of Major MacFarlane's public contribution.

Major James Francis Lenox MacFarlane JP

James Francis Lenox MacFarlane

A man of many facets Major MacFarlane was a colourful character known throughout Victoria where he eventually retired. He earned an MA from Trinity College Dublin followed by a career in the 3rd Prince of Wales Dragoon Guards serving in India. He transferred to the artillery and served in the 3rd Brigade, South Ireland Division Royal Artillery, retiring as a Major in the Cork Artillery in 1887. He served as a Justice of the Peace, Poor Law Guardian and Sheriff of County Dublin. He was a great horseman and breeder of hunters and steeplechasers, with a passion for horticulture - his garden in Mill Bay boasted many exotic varieties of plants and shrubs. Both he and his father had been High Sheriff of County Dublin in Ireland. His work on the Malahat was a source of great pride throughout the rest of his life. Well-known and a familiar sight on the streets of Victoria in his tweed knee breeches and long stockings he rode his bicycle until he was over ninety - and when he stopped riding the story made the front page of the newspaper. A regular correspondent to the Victoria newspapers on a wide range of issues, he was a vocal observer of local issues and events until his death on 31/10/1940 at the age of 95. He was known as the "Father of the Malahat" for his work in locating the Malahat Drive on the Island Highway.


Vancouver Island’s Malahat Drive (Maureen Duffus has presented the other half of the story and sets the historical foundation.)

Unknown Victoria (Ross Crockford's excellent blog) has an good article on the Malahat. Search for his article on the Blog when you get to Unknown Victoria.

To quote from this article please cite:

MacFarlane, John M. (2012) The Malahat Drive: MacFarlane's Folly. 2012. Drive.php

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