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Royal BC Museum Collections E-00036 & On This Spot Enterprises

Historic Walking Tour

The E&N Railway

The Little Railway that Almost Killed Canada

by On This Spot

This tour follows the former route of the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway from downtown Victoria to Admirals Walk. We will examine the extraordinary story of the building of this railway, and the bitter battles over the railway's fate that threatened to tear apart the young Canadian Confederation. Today much of the railway's route has been given over to a walking path and bike lane, making this tour an exciting interactive way to engage with this important part of Esquimalt history. "Bonds of steel as well as sentiment were needed to hold the new Confederation together. Without railways there would be and could be no Canada." – George Stanley, The Canadians A lot has been written about the Canadian railways. Most Canadians still view the construction of a transcontinental railway as the emotional and symbolic birth of the nation. Before the railway was built, Canada's future looked bleak. In 1870 an Irish settler wrote: 'There is no galvanizing a corpse! Canada is dead...'xx1 But less than a year later Prime Minister John A. Macdonald promised his nascent country a transcontinental line and, with it, the dream of a Canadian future. At the time of his promise, Macdonald's railway dream was condemned as fantastical, even fanatical, by opponents. At the time Macdonald proposed it, much of the prairie land in the centre of the country was uninhabited, and the total non-Indigenous population of British Columbia was 12,000.xx2 Liberal leader Alexander Mackenzie described the pledge to build a railway as an 'act of insane recklessness.'xx3 The eventual (improbable) fact of the railway's success – the force of political will, the engineering genius it took to navigate both the Canadian Shield and the Rocky Mountains, and the great outlay of expense and time, has long nurtured a sense of Canadian union, confidence, and independence. The railway remains a source of great national pride. The story of the railway in Esquimalt begins with Macdonald's promise to use the railway to unify British Columbia with the rest of the Canadian Confederation. In 1871 – the year that British Columbia was incorporated – he pledged that a line would be built from the East Coast 'to the Western seaboard.' On Vancouver Island this was widely interpreted to mean Victoria – the recently designated capital of the province and the most largest Canadian city west of the Great Lakes. There was a wave of excitement on the Island, with The Daily Colonist encouraging support and even advertising for surveyors.xx4 Everyone knew that the task of crossing the Rockies was monumental, but the government promised that construction would begin by 1873. By 1873, however, little progress had been made. Surveys and explorations into the mountain passes found no obvious route. Despite this, Macdonald decided to prove his commitment: he announced the terminus of the railroad was to be at Esquimalt, home of the Royal Navy. Macdonald must have known this promise was rash. The surveyors looking for a suitable location for a bridge from Vancouver Island to the mainland were even less optimistic than those scouring the Rockies. Six bridge spans, all in the range of 1000 feet, would be required. Even if ferries were used to reduce the costs, expenditure would still be around $20,000,000 more than if the line ended on the mainland, at Burrard Inlet. Macdonald, nonetheless, persisted with the idea of a Vancouver Island terminus. On July 19th, there was a sod turning ceremony at Esquimalt to signal the official start to the Vancouver Island section of the line. Four months later, however, Macdonald was voted out of office as a consequence of the Pacific Scandal. Mackenzie – so pitted against the railway in the first place – took office, and all work on the line ceased. Although the Island Railway was, eventually, built, its costs were high. The political impact extended beyond empty promises and the fraying good relations to threaten the very fabric of the newly-Confederated nation of Canada. For the Island itself, the financial sacrifice, especially in terms of land, was enormous. Exactly how enormous – or how lasting – is still debated. Even worse than this, from a twenty-first century perspective, the greatest cost lies in the tragic loss of life for the many immigrant workers who suffered in a harsh climate and abysmal labour conditions.xx5

We'd like to thank the Esquimalt Archives for generous use of their historic photo collection.

1. 'Beginning at the End'

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Royal BC Museum Collections A-09322 & On This Spot Enterprises


A red letter day in Victoria's history,' reported the Daily Colonist on March 29th, 1888, when the first passenger train arrived in Victoria. 'A day to be remembered by young and old alike for many years to come, an era in the progress and development of the city.'

* * *

We start this tour at the end of Victoria's railroad story, with the completion of the final section of the Esquimalt and Nanaimo (E&N) line. The original terminus of the line was at Esquimalt, but in the Autumn of 1887 and the Spring of 1888, the track was extended from Vic West Russell St. Station to a new terminus in downtown Victoria. This photograph shows the arrival of the first train. The squarest of the carriages was a private car, named Maude, which belonged to Robert Dunsmuir – the coal baron who, at the end of the long campaign to build a railway on Vancouver Island, was the man most responsible for making it happen. 5,000 Victorians turned out to greet the train with, reported the Daily Colonist, a 'burst of enthusiasm never before heard in Victoria.' The city called a holiday, and erected a triumphal arch, which was capped with an image of Dunsmuir and emblazoned with the words, 'Long looked for, come at last.' When Dunsmuir died little more than a year later his funeral procession contained 1,200 men and was watched by a crowd of spectators estimated to have been 10-14,000 strong. Not everyone benefited from the railways. Before the railway was extended into downtown Victoria, Indigenous peoples lived in shanties along the end of Johnson Street (then known as "Indian Street.") The shanties were destroyed by the E&N, as were nearby tenement blocks occupied by Chinese immigrants. The tenement blocks were replaced by a power-plants and repair stations for the street railway. Even if the Chinese or First Nations had wanted to remain, the railway had forced up the value of property: they could no longer afford to.xx1

2. 'Before the Blue Bridge'

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Royal BC Museum Collections G-02980 & On This Spot Enterprises


The 'blue bridge' as it is often known, was first built to bring E&N trains into the city and, in its current form, has been an important Victoria landmark for over ninety years. Built in 1924 to replace the original E&N swing bridge, the officially named Johnson Street Bridge is, once again, slated for improvements, and destined to be replaced in 2017.

* * *

The 1888 extension of the rail line from Esquimalt to Victoria necessitated the building of a bridge over the Gorge waterway to replace the ferry service that had run since 1862. The original bridge (the one in the 'then' image) that the rail company designed was efficient, practical, and cost-effective. It took the form of a basic wooden trestle, but the central section pivoted at 90 degrees to enable ships free passage to Victoria's Inner Harbour. Unfortunately the bridge, which was hand operated, did not have separate (and therefore safe) passage for pedestrians, and it also could not support street cars or automobiles. A more capacious bridge was constructed in 1924. In 1979 the black bridge was repainted and has since been known as the blue bridge.

3. 'Victoria's Dashed Hopes'

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Canadian Railroad Historical Association & On This Spot Enterprises


The train in this image is the CPR 463 – one of six D4g 4-6-0s which entered service in the 1910s. These trains were fast, powerful, and flashy. The 4-6-0 designation refers to the wheel arrangement, so these trains had four front wheels, six drive wheels and zero trailing wheels. The higher the number of drive wheels, the more powerful the train. These were used for the thriving island passenger service that, at the turn of the century, averaged well over 100,000 journeys a year.xx1

* * *

The image of a steam train moving purposefully through the countryside is iconic. It speaks of innovation and technical prowess – of mission accomplished, so to speak. In the case of the E&N, however, it belies years of delays, political wranglings, and disappointments. In July 1873, when the sod turning ceremony took place in Esquimalt, it looked to islanders like the building of their railroad would be fairly straightforward. A railway had been promised, and its first stages were being delivered. The city of Victoria assumed that within a few years it would assume the role of Canada's West Coast metropolis, connecting the resources of British Columbia's vast hinterland with ports in Seattle, San Francisco and across the Pacific, while serving as the transshipment point for imports to Canada that could be sent east to Central Canada, and even across the Atlantic to Europe. It would be many years, however, before trains appeared on the Island. Even when they did, the long-promised mainland connection never materialized. Even today, a bridge between Vancouver Island and the Mainland would be a fantastic feat of engineering and it's not one that has yet been attempted. One can't help but be impressed by the soaring optimism of Victorians a century ago who thought little of building such a bridge.

4. 'The Songhees Village'

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Royal BC Museum Collections G-00210 & On This Spot Enterprises


This view of Victoria shows locomotive 463 – the Nanaimo passenger train which included a mail and express car, a baggage car, two coaches and parlor (or luxury) carriage. Behind it is a city waiting. On the near shore is the Songhees village, with its split cedar board houses and, to the left side, canoes that have been dragged onto rocks (since been filled in.) On the right side is the Marine hospital. Although the exact date of the original photograph is unknown, it was likely taken during the early 1880s, when the city battled, battled, and battled for its railway.

* * *

The problems started shortly after the sod-turning ceremony, with Prime Minister Macdonald's 1873 fall from power during the Pacific Scandal. With Macdonald gone, the Liberals assumed power under Mackenzie, and plans for the railway were put aside. This was a disaster for the island, where hope had been pinned on railway infrastructure. When progress on the line stalled there was uncertainty, disillusion, and no practical way to export the coal, metal, and timber that was being mined and logged inland. The island economy slid into a heavy depression. Not only had British Columbia committed large grants to Federal railway funds, but they'd also reserved all unsettled land for twenty miles on either side of the proposed line. The consequence was that no-one could invest in land which, of course, could not generate revenue. The provincial government didn't exactly help the situation by refusing to finance a road, in case funds for the railway project materialized. This decision was not unjustified: British Columbia was promised a railway as the main condition of joining the Canadian Confederation in 1873. Isolated from the rest of the country without a railway, the furious government in Victoria repeatedly threatened to separate from Canada and join the rapidly growing United States to the south.xx1

5. 'Indifference in Ottawa'

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Royal BC Museum Collections F-06391 & On This Spot Enterprises


This photograph, taken in 1927, shows the same locomotive – 463 – this time with a snow plough attached to its engine. The story of its eventual presence begins in 1874, when the Canadian government – keen to placate the growing agitation on Vancouver Island – sent Lord Carnarvon, the Colonial Secretary, to report on the situation and to arbitrate an agreement.

* * *

Carnarvon concluded quite reasonably that a rail link to Vancouver Island from the Mainland was out of the question. Instead he proposed a line from Esquimalt to Nanaimo to soothe things over with the furious British Columbians. Unfortunately Carnarvon, who went on to become something of a local hero, was ignored. When action wasn't taken quickly enough on this report, enraged, Victorians sent an appeal directly to Queen Victoria, asking for help and claiming that the Dominion was incapable of sorting the situation out by themselves. The spectre of separation was raised again. The following year, as a result of the pressure, Prime Minister Mackenzie introduced a bill to parliament that was intended to finally kick-start the Island line. The bill was narrowly passed through the House of Commons, but defeated in the Senate. Victoria again threatened to separate, claiming, rightfully, that the terms of Confederation had not been met. The government reacted by offering the island $750,000, but no railway. The offer was rejected. After another year of government stalling later, the Island demanded that Ottawa meet the terms suggested by Lord Carnarvon. The situation looked like it might drag on indefinitely, but in 1878 the Liberal government was defeated, and Macdonald was voted back into power.

6. 'Engine No. 1'

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Royal BC Museum Collections E-00634 & On This Spot Enterprises


This photograph shows the No. 1 – the original E&N locomotive. It's located on a secondary track that once existed on this spot. Notice how the rocks on the left. No wonder the E&N workers posing with it look so happy and relaxed – even after Macdonald was elected, they had to wait for a further eight years before they finally got their train line.

* * *

Macdonald's second stint as prime minister started with great promise as far as the Islanders were concerned. Although Macdonald's Union Party (similar to the modern Conservatives) were elected to power, during the election Macdonald himself lost his seat in Ontario. The party called a hasty by-election in Victoria and the Prime Minister, who'd never visited the city, came to represent it. Victorians hoped that this new relationship would give their Prime Minister a renewed interest in the Vancouver Island railway. Unfortunately, they were – once again – to be disappointed. The government once again sent an agent, this time Lord Dufferin, to assess the situation. Dufferin's recommendations were less favourable than Lord Carnarvon's, and the island erupted in protest, once again sending petitions to London and Ottawa. Finally relenting, in May 1879, Macdonald announced that one hundred miles of line would be built on the island as a start, but five months later an Order-in-Council was passed officially designating Burrard Inlet as the end of the Pacific Coastal line. Any hope for a bridge to the mainland was over – the island was more or less on its own. Macdonald made a veiled apology in 1881, stating that 'both the government of which I was the head and the Government of which he [Mackenzie] was head were bound by the original resolution.' For the island, which still lacked a railroad, it must have been a scant reassurance.

7. 'Going it Alone'

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Royal BC Museum Collections F-06390 & On This Spot Enterprises


This photograph shows one of the many water-tanks that fed the original fleet of steam-powered engines. They were placed every fifty miles along the track and had to be replenished frequently. This small detail gives some insight into the monumental task of work that faced the builders of the line. Without government backing, the financial investment – and the financial risk – was huge. Although Victoria started looking for companies to undertake the building of the Vancouver Island Railway, no-one could be convinced to undertake the job.

* * *

The search began in 1881, when the Premier of British Columbia, Amor de Cosmos, approached the Canadian Pacific Railway, who turned him down. No-one else stepped up to the plate, so the following year Victoria opened the bidding to private tenders. One of the successful bids came from Lewis M. Clemens' Vancouver Land and Railway Company, which was offered approximately 2,000,000 acres of land (or about one fifth of the island) to build the line.xx1 There was fierce debate over the appropriateness of this deal because the company was, despite its name, American. Islanders were aware that the promised line was, to all extents and purposes, intended to stop Vancouver Island from falling into American hands, and the irony was not lost on them. The government was saved embarrassment when Clemens couldn't prove enough financial stability. Instead they turned to Robert Dunsmuir, a coal baron from Scotland, who'd made his fortune mining around Nanaimo. The benefit the line would bring to Dunsmuir, in the form of direct access to Victoria market and the naval base at Esquimalt, was obvious. To sweeten the deal, on top of all the land, the government offered a grant of $750,000. The contract was signed in 1883 – a stipulation being that the line had to be completed within three years. On September 27th, the E&N Railway Company was incorporated, and Dunsmuir immediately set to work surveying and clearing land. When the work of laying the lines began, sub-contractor A.J.McLellan, in what was to become characteristic Victorian style, announced: 'Expenditures will be high, and every dollar should be spent among Victorians so the benefits resulting from the construction will be felt locally.'xx2

8. 'Powering the Economy'

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Royal BC Museum Collections I-51717 & On This Spot Enterprises


Although the railway never became a source for international trade as the city had hoped, it nonetheless brought immediate change. Stations became hubs for social interaction and businesses like Foxwell's Quality Store, seen in this 1928 photograph, flourished. Foxwell's was built in the grounds of the Silver Spring Brewery which, in a neat twist, was built by ex-E&N employee Harry Maynard.xx1

* * *

The trains also brought broader change. As a result of daily trains, agriculture ceased to be entirely local, which meant that farms could expand and begin to specialize. The trains also changed people's lifestyles. Many more people were able to travel. Excursion trains were run specifically to cater for a new thirst for leisure activities such as horse-races, picnics, band concerts, regattas, and dances.xx2 Special train services were scheduled, with extra trains brought onto the line for very popular celebrations and holidays like the Duncan Agricultural Exhibitions, or the sham battle staged at Macauley Point Army Camp that, on May 24, 1900, was probably responsible for generating the extra 1,440 ticket sales.xx3 On top of this, there were new suburban services, like the overnight train to Shawnigan Lake. This ran through the summer and was used by weekly commuters whose families moved up to the lake for the summer. In the early days, scheduling wasn't nearly as strict as we've now come to expect. Trains would stop at any point – wherever they saw a passenger. The story goes that this practice came to an end when a man stopped the train near the Cemainus River to ask if a letter for him was on board. This was deemed one step too far.xx4

9. 'Dunsmuir to the Rescue'

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Royal BC Museum Collections E-00036 & On This Spot Enterprises


Under Dunsmuir's direction, the line proceeded at phenomenal speed. A feel for Dunsmuir's leadership style can be gleaned from his efficient letters, which contain instructions such as: 'You will be expected to locate the line with the view to the least expenditure in construction consistent with good work and to carry on the work to completion without delay.'xx1

* * *

"The efficiency of the E&N Railway Company delighted the local newspapers. Throughout 1884 and 1885 they reported on its progress, noting that even the casual observer could not fail to notice the 'gangs of men at work blasting and grading... constructing trestle work.'xx2 Dunsmuir held good to his word, and had the first one hundred miles of track through the rugged mountains of southeastern Vancouver Island within three years. It gives an indication of the speed and intensity of the work that on the last ten days of work alone, subcontractor, A.J.McLellan's men laid 20,000 ties and eight miles of track, and well as preparing and erecting 10 trestles from 350,000 foot of timber.xx3 In November of 1886, Prime Minister Macdonald undertook his first and only visit to Victoria, from where he travelled to Cliffside (at Shawnigan Lake) to hammer the last spike into the ground with a golden mallet. That same month the first freight shipment arrived from Quebec after being shipped from Vancouver to Nanaimo. Macdonald's dream of a railway connected Canada was as close as it ever would be to completion. It was, in the end, the speed of the early works that convinced Dunsmuir to extend the line east to Victoria. In 1887, gravel was hauled from the Langford gravel pits, and the last major part of the job was completed in 35 days at a cost of $35,000.xx4 Although much praise should be heaped on subcontractors who cleared forest and tree stumps, provided pilings, blasted the rock, and laid the tracks, it should not be forgotten that it was principally immigrant Chinese labourers who had the most gruelling and dangerous job of blasting and clearing rock in the mountain passes.xx5"

10. 'A Dangerous Job'

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Royal BC Museum Collections E-00741 & On This Spot Enterprises

Of course, things didn't always go smoothly on the rail line. Crashes like this one were not infrequent. In the early days of dispatching there were no radios and block signals and, to complicate the job of the dispatchers, the line engines were all numbered from one, so it did happen that two trains with the same number could be on the track simultaneously.

* * *

One of the worst crashes on the E&N almost certainly occurred due to this absurd numbering system. On September 18, 1900, a relatively new 4-6-0 engine, the No. 10, was travelling north from Ladysmith, pulling empty mine cars. The train's engineer, Fred Bland, explained what happened next. "We were proceeding northward on the line, travelling about 35 miles an hour, when just rounding a bend, I saw the other train [the E&N's No. 1 engine seen several photos back] bearing down on us. I yelled to the engine crew to jump and they all got off all right. It seemed to me I would have a good chance if I stayed by the engine, but I decided against this just before the engines crashed, and I jumped from the deckplate of the locomotive. That was why I was injured. Somehow or other in the general mix up of flying debris which followed the crash nothing heavy landed on me, or I would not be telling you this story today. Four men who formed the engine crew of the other train were killed in the crash which badly damaged the locomotives. We were lucky enough to escape."xx1 Bland comment that the locomotives were 'badly damaged,' is quite the understatement. The No. 1 was carrying loaded coal cars, and force of the accident was so great that two of them were catapulted right over the telegraph lines that ran parallel to the track. The No. 1 engine had to be scrapped, and the No. 10 underwent extensive restoration. It is thought that the accident occurred because the operator Ladysmith saw the Wellington Colliery line's No. 1 engine and assumed that it was the loaded E&N locomotive, which had the same number.

11. 'The CPR Takes Charge'

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Canadian Railroad Historical AssociationCanadian Railroad Historic Association & On This Spot Enterprises

In terms of accidents, the 4-6-0 engines didn't bring the Dunsmuir family much luck. Robert Dunsmuir's son Alex began investing in the engines in 1890. Alex had taken over the management of the company after his father died, barely a year after the opening of the Store Street station in downtown Victoria. Alex set about growing the line's freight and passenger capacity, and the company soon needed more equipment. The 4-6-0 was chosen for its power which, it was thought, would help with the steep grades on the Malahat.

* * *

On May 3, 1890, a 4-6-0 was delivered to the docks at San Francisco by the Southern Pacific Railroad company. The locomotive was to be loaded onto a steamer and brought up the coast to Victoria. Unfortunately, as it was loaded onto the deck, the weight of the it broke the tackles and the engine fell straight through the ship's railing into the harbour. Three days were spent trying to secure cables around the submerged train, which was eventually retrieved, covered in mud and brine. It was scrubbed down immediately by waiting crews, but it took two months to get it ready to run on the line. Alex Dunsmuir ran the line for ten years before his premature death in 1900. At that point his brother James, who had been running the family's sell out in early 1900s, took over. The railway was prospering and, in early 1905 Dunsmuir decided to sell to the Canadian Pacific Railway. After five months of negotiations, the CPR bought the railway and all of the E&N's assets for $2,330,000.xx1 The E&N remained intact, in name at least, as a subsidiary company leased by the CPR.

12. 'Business Booms'

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Royal BC Museum Collections F-02525 & On This Spot Enterprises


When the CPR invested in the E&N, they were buying a company that had increased its traffic exponentially from the 13,000 passengers and 8,278 tonnes of freight that it carried in its first year. By 1894 it carried 30,528 passengers and 51,992 tonnes of freight.xx1 By the early 1900s there were at least 100,000 passengers on the line every year, and huge tonnages of coal, sandstone, rock and logs going up and down the line. Some of the granite and sandstone transported by the trains can still be seen at Craigdarroch Castle – the house Robert Dunsmuir built for his wife, Joan, but didn't live to see completed – and also at the Metropolitan United Church at the corner of Quadra and Pandora.

* * *

Although the CPR invested in improvements to the line, the E&N suffered significant damage through the 1890s. In December 1890, the Cowichan River bridge was wrecked by flood water, which severed the line for almost a year. Although passengers were transported across the river in dugout canoes, and freight was moved by ship, the interruption and delays were significant. In November of 1896, another storm washed out the central section of the Niagara Canyon trestle and the service was, once again, interrupted. After this, the CPR chose to fill in many of the most dramatic bridges, not only to make them more stable, but to cut down on maintenance work. Despite these setbacks, the railway continued to grow. There was a rapid expansion not only in the line but also in the number of trains. From 1914 the E&N was generating around a million dollars a year, over $21 million today.xx2

13. 'End of the Line'

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Royal BC Museum Collections H-05670 & On This Spot Enterprises


This photograph was taken in 1926, when the railway was at its height. It was also, however, the time at which the railway started to face stiff competition from bus companies and, increasingly, automobiles.

* * *

Through the 1930s bad weather, including fifteen foot snowfalls in 1935, contributed to the railway's woes, but World War II brought something of a respite, with increased restrictions on private automobile ownership and increased demands for freight exports. Even after the war, freight traffic remained high, with 33,500 car loads leaving the island every year through the 40s.xx1 Towards the end of the 40s the line switched to diesel in an attempt to economize. Passenger numbers continued to dwindle and the service was reduced. From the 1960s the CPR petitioned the Canadian Transport Commission (CTC) for the right to bring the passenger service to an end. Although the CTC found that the service was inadequate and – worse – unsafe, they ordered the CPR to invest more effort into making an efficient, profitable, and well-scheduled service. The CPR did as required, and the service lived on until, under Pierre Trudeau, nationwide rail carrier, Via Rail took over, operating one or two Budd Rail Diesel Cars from 1979.


1. Beginning at the End

1. Duane, P., Lutz, J., Lafreniere, J., and Gilliland, J.A. Making the Inscrutable Scrutable: Race and Space in Victoria's Chinatown, 1891.

3. Victoria's Dashed Hopes

1. Turner, Robert D., Vancouver Island Railroads, (Sono Nis Press, Victoria, 1997), 49.

4. The Songhees Village

1. Maclaughin, D.F., Vanishing British Columbia., 11ff.

7. Going it Alone

1. Maclaughin, D.F., Vanishing British Columbia., 142

2. Maclaughin, 22.

8. Powering the Economy

1. "Victoria Historical Society Publication." Victoria Historical Society. Summer 2007. (Accessed January 21, 2017.)

2. Maclaughin, D.F., Vanishing British Columbia., 66

3. Maclaughin, 69

4. Maclaughin, 74

9. Dunsmuir to the Rescue

1. Dunsmuir, letter to Joseph Hunter, 30th April, 1884, quoted in Turner, 41

2. The Daily Colonist, May 19, 1885, quoted in Turner, 41

3. Reported in the Daily Colonist and quoted in Turner, 45.

4. Maclaughin, D.F., Vanishing British Columbia. 66

5. Peterson, J., Black Diamond City: Nanaimo, the Victorian Era, 209

10. A Dangerous Job

1. Reported in the Victoria Daily Times, December 1928. Quoted in Turner, p. 47-8

11. The CPR Takes Charge

1. Turner, Robert D., Vancouver Island Railroads, (Sono Nis Press, Victoria, 1997), 53.

13. End of the Line

1. Turner, Robert D., Vancouver Island Railroads, (Sono Nis Press, Victoria, 1997), 68.