Since I wrote this a few years ago the E&N continues to live in an alternative universe and despite assurances to the contrary, it remain moribund, Is there hope for it? I remain hopeful, but I was also hopeful that Hillary would win the US election, and look how that turned out.
Before you proceed with this it’s important, though not vital, that you understand a little bit about the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railroad. I have included this for a smattering of background and also because I like history.
Esquimalt and Nanaimo are two towns on Vancouver Island, off the west coast of British Columbia, which is on the west coast of Canada. I am being geographically precise just in case you, the reader, know little about the area. If you don’t gain this basic understanding of the place then the stories you are about to read won’t lose any of their charm whatsoever, but you’ll, at the same time, feel better situated.
First, understand that Vancouver Island is not islet sized. It’s the largest island on the west coast of North America, being four-hundred-and-sixty kilometres long and around one hundred kilometres wide at its most girthful point. The kilometers reference is used, by the way, since that’s the way they measure things on Vancouver Island. So, anyway, it’s a big place, relatively, and compares in size with the Netherlands and Taiwan. Well, the Netherlands isn’t actually an island, but you get the drift.
The E&N these days is part of a national passenger entity known as Via Rail. Via Rail is something like Amtrak, only even less efficient or caring. Via does not like the E&N and there will be more snide and bitchy editorial comment about that later.
The E&N, appropriately enough, is named for the Island communities of Esquimalt and Nanaimo. Esquimalt was created in the mid nineteenth century as a Royal Navy base, and it continues with its military function to this day. Virtually a suburb of self-impressed Victoria, the provincial capital, Esquimalt was chosen as a natural starting point for the railroad in 1883 by coal baron Robert Dunsmuir due to the naval base and in recognition that naval vessels needed coal for fuel. Dunsmuir’s main coalmines were to be found around the mid-island community of Nanaimo, so it was obvious that the terminus should be in that fledgling town.
Ideally the E&N was designed to complete the agreement with Ottawa that brought British Columbia into the Canadian Confederation and it was deemed a part of the Trans Canada Rail System. Needless to say, and in terms of that agreement, the rail line was short-funded and cheated from the get go and Ottawa’s agreement was not honored by, of course, Ottawa.
In 1905 the E&N became an aspect of the Canadian Pacific Railroad and it was extended at the south end into Victoria proper. A reality that Victoria, for some bizarre reason, has been fighting against ever since and continues to do so. As an example, the new and largely unneeded Johnson Street Bridge in that city makes no provision for rail trackage. That notwithstanding, northerly it was extended to the west coast deep sea port of Alberni and eventually, by nineteen fourteen, to its current northernmost terminal, Courtenay. Just in time for the First World War. And Courtenay has remained to this day as the northern terminus, despite the fact the line was surveyed through to Campbell River some forty-five kilometers further north.
In its heyday the line was well-utilized hauling freight and supplies to and from the communities served by the grand total of fifty-three stations en route. Until a highway link was established connecting those communities, the E&N was essentially the only way to travel. But, rubber killed the railroad, as it did in so many other parts of North America and rail use continued to decline throughout the years of the twentieth century.
Any rail service is, of course, a carrier of goods and it’s in that freight haulage where the money is made. But, there is also the passenger service, and that’s where railroad romance is realized and perpetuated and that’s the area in which this much-beleaguered line is connected to the tales that follow here.
It’s not the Orient Express, the Royal Scot, or the hugely long coast-to-coast rail lines in Canada and the US. It’s a clunky, bumpy, swaying two hundred and forty kilometre ride, twice a day, up and down the Island. It’s much spat-upon by the funding-purveyors and generally disregarded by politicians at all levels and has stopped and started more times that most would care to remember. The ancient Budd cars are victims of their age and if one is familiar with the sleek railcars to be found in places like Switzerland and France, one can only weep a little bit and think we should be so ashamed.
But, despite the adversity, it is Vancouver Island’s much-loved and far too little used own Toonerville Trolley, and there is romance and adventure to be found therein, despite the fact it’s not a trolley, and assuredly with all due respect to the creator of those earlier animated tales, Fontaine Fox.