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Lake Cowichan – History

The town of Lake Cowichan, BC, is located 31 kilometers west of Duncan at the beginning of the Cowichan River at Cowichan Lake. Cowichan Lake is one of the largest bodies of fresh water on Vancouver Island. The Town was incorporated on August 19, 1944 and this is its history from early settlement to the present.

Early Settlement

Before the arrival of the Europeans to the region Cowichan Lake seems to have been left largely untouched by local Native tribes other than for hunting and fishing. The two surveys of the region ordered by Governor Douglas in Victoria only mention one long deserted village at Skutz Falls. Small groups had apparently set up camps and hunted in the region but had more or less left before these surveys took place.

Cowichan Lake’s settlement history begins in about 1883 with the arrival of William Forest to Cowichan Bay. In 1884, he and James Tolmie (older brother of a later premier of British Columbia) toured the lake with the help of the native Ikilass brothers. Mr. Forest impressed by, “the most beautiful spot he had ever seen”, later lobbied the premier for a road to the lake. The premier decided that if ten to twelve settlers were to move to the lake then a road would be built. Mr. Forest assured the premier this would not be a problem and thus was authorized to build a road.

Thanks to Mr. Forest’s efforts a rough road was finished to the head of the Cowichan River in 1886 and settlement began. A fair number settlers, sensing the value of being at the gateway to the Cowichan Lake region, built their homes at the end of the road. This settlement is what became the Town of Lake Cowichan. Those that chose to settle on land grants or cut timber further up the lake passed through this settlement and then reached their destination by boat. Most permanent residents at this time came for the area’s farming, hunting and logging opportunities. Logging quickly became the major economic power in the region. The combination of Cowichan Lake and the Cowichan River provided an attractive way to log. Loggers simply cut the timber around the lake and floated the logs out down the Cowichan River to Cowichan Bay where they could be collected and shipped away.

The original Riverside Inn was built around 1886 as well as the Lakeside Hotel in 1893, which catered to tourists. Settlers slowly came to the region but by 1905 disastrous log runs down the Cowichan River and a slowdown in wood demand had curtailed logging opperations.

Railroads and Wars

Rumors of a railroad to Cowichan Lake began in 1906 and things began to pick up again. The bridge at McCallum’s Landing was built in 1909 and stood till 1924 when it was condemned. Today, the weir next to Saywell Park occupies its location. The only sport fish hatchery in Canada at the time was officially opened in 1911 next to the Riverside Inn. Under the supervision of John Castley the hatchery was utilized to raise local trout, steelhead, Atlantic salmon and eastern trout. By 1910 the building of the railway was assured so a survey was conducted to lay out lots and roads for a town on the south side of the river. This plan was titled “The Townsite of Riverside.” A year after, a survey of the northern side of the river resulted in the “Riverside Park Subdivision.” Incredibly, both these surveys are more or less the present day town of Lake Cowichan.

In February 1912, the E & N railway reached Cowichan Lake and a logging boom began. The community at the start of the Cowichan River now had a railway terminus, hotel, government fish hatchery and its own mail service. Also, the C.N.R. in 1913 began work on its own railroad to the lake.

1914 came and brought the 1rst World War with it. The logging industry suffered a severe downturn with the disruption of the markets by the war. Begin rather isolated, the effects of the war were somewhat minimized but many of the area’s young men left to fight and never came back. The Beech Hall was built and held its first dance in 1914 and on April 1, 1915 the first telephone was installed. The first wedding took place at the Riverside Inn on July 1 of the same year. In late 1916, the first of many traffic bridges (located where the modern bridge is) was constructed next to the Riverside Inn.

1917 saw the logging industry reactivate and begin a boom. The population around Cowichan Lake increased steadily and things continued to improve throughout the twenties. Large lumber companies used the E & N railway and the newly completed in 1921 C.N.R railway to transport the wood from the lake. These companies required large work forces to harvest the timber so extensive self-contained camps were built around Cowichan Lake. Some of these camps disappeared and others like Caycuse (Camp 3) still exist today.

The Great Depression of 1929 wiped out most of the lumber market but the region survived. The Lake Cowichan Community Club formed in the same year and on March 7, 1931 opened a community hall, which operated for 30 years. On that same date, Premier Tolmie opened a new bridge next to the Riverside Inn to replace the first one built in 1916.

The worst flood in the history of the town marked the New Year in 1935. Boats were required to go down several streets and water flooded the school basement. Electricity came to the lake people at the end of 1936 when Stanley Gordon installed a light plant on a mountain stream and hooked up 40 homes and businesses. Two private water systems were providing fresh water to homes at the time. The school board decided demand was high enough to start a high school and classes began the following year. In 1937, the hatcheries long time manager, John Castley, was replaced and the hatchery was put under the direction of the Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo. The hatchery’s operation basically ceased in 1940 and its land eventually became Central Park in downtown Lake Cowichan. The 2nd World War broke out in September 1939 but like the previous one its effects were minimal on the community as a whole.


In 1943 the idea of incorporating the village at the foot of the lake took hold and after most objections had been dealt with it went ahead. The community at the head of the Cowichan River became the Village of Lake Cowichan on August 19, 1944 with 660 people in its borders. The village council inherited many problems. Buying all three local water systems and increasing the size of the dam on Stanley Creek solved the problem of adequate drinking water. Later councils would buy a new pumping station to use Cowichan Lake to supply the water. Over many years the inadequate street lights, sidewalks, paving, garbage removal and other problems were slowly dealt with.

The R.C.M.P. took over policing duties from the Provincial Police in 1950. In 1951 the traffic bridge next to the Riverside Inn collapsed after a truck had crossed over it. A makeshift bridge was made out of the C.P.R. railway bridge by planking it and work began on the bridge that still spans the river in Lake Cowichan. The B.C.F.P. built in 1956 a weir across the river to ensure a constant flow of water for their crofton mill. It has been raised several times since to increase the size of the reservoir.

Today, all of the railways that provided easy transport of lumber to market are gone. It is estimated that in 34 years of operation the E & N railway hauled 400,000 cars of lumber away. Gone are the mills that cut the trees felled in the local woods into lumber. Thus, all the historical reasons for Lake Cowichan’s growth as the entrance and exit to the lake area are gone. This does not spell an end of Lake Cowichan, however, as tourism is fast becoming how area residents make a living. Now, a significant number of people going on to Gordon Bay, the Caramanah Walbran, and other great camping and hiking spots come through and stop in Lake Cowichan. This continues the tradition of Lake Cowichan being the gateway to Cowichan Lake and beyond.

Written by Matthew Bystedt


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