The large settlement areas for the Cowichan people were in the lower reaches of the river and they made annual trips to the meeting places of the other tribes. Similarly, the Nitinaht people living along the southern coast of Vancouver Island from Jordan River to Pachena Point and inland along Nitinat Lake also used the upper reaches of the Nitinat River and Cowichan Lake as their major fishing area. There was quite likely some trading between the Cowichans and Nitinahts in the Cowichan Lake area.
In September 1857, the first authentic record of white men at Cowichan Lake was made by an exploratory party led by, crown surveyor, J. Despard Pemberton. Sent by Governor Douglas, their purpose was to make a rough survey from Cowichan Bay to Nitnat covering things like natural resources, nature of the terrain, natives and areas suitable for settlement.
They landed at Cowichan Bay and set out up the river to Cowichan Lake and from there to the Nitinat. Mr. Pemberton reported his trip as exceedingly interesting. He comments on the excellence of timber and particularly mentions the abundance of game: elk, deer, grouse and fish. His report was given in November 12, 1857 at Victoria and is in part as follows:
“In the valleys Douglas pines twenty-three feet to twenty-eight feet in circumference are not uncommon. Indians occasionally hunt and fish on the border of the large lake and the stumps of huge cedars cut down at its Western extremity show that they once manufactured their largest canoes there.”
After Mr. Pemberton, the next official record is Robert Brown’s expedition which left Victoria on June 7, 1864 aboard Her Majesty’s Gunboat Grappler. His report was much more detailed and reliable. He went up the Cowichan River, to the lake known as “Kaatza”, Brown recorded the following:
The lake at the head of the river is about half a mile wide gradually enlarging to two, three, five, and ten miles. I should say it is about 50 miles long. We proceeded to the extreme ends, keeping the northern shore, and found three large rivers. All these rivers sink down at some distance from the mouth. I suppose I walked three miles up the bed of one before I came to running water. In the lake are several islands. The land on either side is very high and heavily timbered. The country around teems with elk, deer, bears and racoons. The lake is full of salmon and ducks. There are also land otters-two of which were killed by the Indians during our stay. The lake must be nearly 2,000 feet above the level of the sea and I think a road to Victoria could be made not to exceed 50 miles in length.”
“On the 15th June we found the forest getting thicker, a sign that we were nearing the lake; and later the same day we camped by its placid waters. One cedar near this spot measured thirty-five feet in circumference at the height of five feet from the ground. In this country very valuable timber is necessarily useless at the present time, from the fact that in most cases there are no available means of transport to the coast, the rivers usually being tortuous, and blocked at intervals by accumulations of driftwood.”
After finishing exploring Cowichan Lake on June 23rd 1864, Brown’s party divided, one going southwest toward Port San Juan overland while he and four others struck out for the “Nitinaht River” which they ascended by raft, then on to the coast. At “Whyack” the fortified Nitinaht village, they met up with the local inhabitants who transported them down the coast to Port San Juan.
It would be another twenty-one years, 1885, before a road ten feet wide began to wind its way from Sahtlam toward the lake. Completed in the following year, it opened the area to settlement and a number of individuals began to preempt parcels around the shore of the lake. One of the earliest, Charles Green, settled at the “Foot of the Lake” commencing to build the first very small Riverside Hotel in 1885.
While the initial intent of settlers was farming, it became very evident from the beginning that this economic endeavour would be of minor importance. The real wealth would not be in tilling the soil, but cutting the forest: The excellent stands of Douglas fir, hemlock and massive red cedars. Thus the agricultural aspects of the area remained small and today have all but disappeared. Communities as they now exist such as Youbou, Honeymoon Bay and Lake Cowichan were developing around lumbering activities. Initially they were lumbering camps, although Lake Cowichan, being more strategically located, did begin to attract a number of commercial enterprises.
Travel in the area remained almost exclusively by water in the early years. It was not until 1900, for example, that a trail was built from Honeymoon Bay to the “settlement at the foot.”
A second hotel, The Lakeside, was constructed in 1893 and soon became popular for fishermen and hunters as well as other travelers to the area. Over the next quarter century, the area became renowned as a sportsman’s paradise and people from all around the world began arriving to hunt elk, deer, grouse and ducks or to fish for salmon, trout and steelhead.
Logging actually preceded the arrival of the first settlers with William Sutton acquiring the first timber lease in 1879. This consisted of 7,069 acres with the logs going down the Cowichan River to their mill at Genoa Bay. In 1887 the Sutton interest were bought out by Hewitt and McIntyre and in turn were acquired by Mossom Boyd in 1897 to form the Cowichan Lumber Company.
A second firm, Victoria Lumber and Manfuacturing Company (VL&M), incorporated in 1889, also began logging in the area and between them “controlled the lumber industry at the lake.”
The arrival of the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway (E&N) in 1913 marked the end of the initial phase of development. Now, not only was travel to the outside much easier but also the delivery of the logs to the coast considerably more reliable than the drives down the Cowichan River each fall. The railway extension was initiated after a large tract of the E&N land grant, some 54,000 acres, was sold to American interests that formed the Empire Lumber Company and set up operations in the Cottonwood Creek area (near Youbou), on the north side of the lake. At the same time, VL&M expanded their operations to take advantage of the railway.
After a period of sagging markets between 1913 and 1915, the industry started to pick up with new logging camps being established around the lake. By 1920 C.C. Yount’s Medina Lumber Company was milling at Cottonwood and soon a community began to be established.