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dave obee When the Malahat was a pleasant experience

By Dave Obee

One of my favorite excerpts in the Times Colonist book, Making The News, was first published in the Victoria Daily Times back in October 1924. It celebrates the "pageant of vivid colour" that can be seen each autumn on the Malahat Drive.

The writer mentioned the "placid waters of the Gorge," the "peaceful placidity" of Langford Lake, and then the entrance to the Goldstream Road.

"Dappled sunlight, playing through the golden foliage of the sycamores, metamorphoses them into enormous sconces filled with light and lends radiance to the scarlets and crimsons of the dogwood and the softer tones of the birch," the writer said.

"Here and there the glossy trunk of an arbutus adds a mahogany note. Underfoot the autumn tints of the salal and the Oregon grape make a carpet beside whose hues the product of the Oriental fade into insignificance."

Farther north, "the silvery sound of falling water draws the eye to a ravine where a mountain stream laughs and chuckles as it leaps merrily down to lose itself in the bosom of the Pacific. Refulgent maples smile down from their superior height, and occasionally drop a lazy leaf which is carried away like a fairy craft on the face of the waters."

Can this be the same Malahat that we know and loathe today? The road that has become a despised part of the daily commute, or the weekly shopping trip, for thousands of people? Was it really, at one time, a road less travelled?

Funny thing, history. Maybe it's telling us, in its own special way, that we should think of slowing down enough so we could listen to the silvery sound of falling water. Or maybe not; that kind of dallying on today's Malahat could be fatal.

The old issues of the Daily Colonist and the Victoria Daily Times help us to track the evolution of Vancouver Island since 1858. That evolution has had its highs and lows, thanks to decisions that helped create the Island that we know and love, and other decisions that frankly most of us would rather take back.

As we celebrate 150 years of the Times Colonist -- tracing our history back to the start of the British Colonist on Dec. 11, 1858 -- it makes sense to note some of the ways that our home has changed.

The human touches on our Island include everything from buildings and subdivisions to parks and ferries and yes, roads such as the Malahat.

Our back files trace the history of what was known at first as the Inlet Road. It was opened for traffic just before the First World War, and has been rebuilt just about every decade since then.

In the early days, the construction crews had an easier time of it, because the government would simply close the route until the work was completed.

Those closures weren't just for an hour or two. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Malahat would be closed for weeks at a time as the road was widened and straightened. Stories and advertisements in both newspapers would keep the travelling public informed.

There are many gems such as the Malahat piece in our old issues. That is why it has been so fascinating going through old newspapers looking for material for this page, for the historical feature we are running on Page 2 every day this year, and of course for our book, Making the News.

We started this project by looking through our own files as well as many of the books that have been written about Vancouver Island's history over the years. And there are a lot of those books -- I have about 200 on my shelves.

They range from well-known works by authors such as Valerie Green and Terry Reksten, to some that had much smaller press runs, or were focused on a single church or school.

(One book worth a special mention is Victoria Revisited by Leo Beinder. Using old coloured postcards as a guide, Beinder took modern colour photos to match. The end result is a 72-page tour through downtown, along the waterfront and in other parts of Greater Victoria. It is superb.)

Once I had a list of major events and notable people, I went through the old newspapers looking for stories to match.

I looked for items on major news events, including everything from shipwrecks to fires to the openings of new public buildings.

Sometimes, I copied stories that were not necessarily significant, but were certainly interesting -- stories like the Malahat one from 1924.

I also took many random walks through our history, grabbing rolls of microfilm just to see what appeared on the screen. I discovered some of the most interesting stories that way.

The end result was a master list of more than 1,000 significant news stories. The list keeps growing, because every week I find a few more stories worthy of inclusion.

The top stories from that list went into Making the News, which has proved to be quite popular over the past few weeks at selected sales outlets. This week, you will start seeing Making the News at bookstores throughout Greater Victoria.

The book includes more than 100 photographs that help tell the tale of Vancouver Island's history. They came from the Times Colonist library, from the collection at the B.C. Archives, from municipal archives and from readers.

There is much more to be mined from our history; at times it seems that the list of ideas is endless. Excerpts that we could not fit into Making the News are appearing on the second page of the Times Colonist all this year. We will have many more historical features on this page each week, as well as another 80-page special edition in December.

The people who came before us set the trail for us to follow. Just like the people who determined the route of the Malahat Drive almost a century ago.

Posted March 23, 2008


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