FIRST PEOPLES AND IMMIGRANT PIONEERS
Very little is known about the first people of the Mill Bay/Malahat area. The ancestors of today's Malahat Nation certainly go back many centuries in this area. Shell accumulations (middens) found along the shoreline from the mouth of Shawnigan Creek to the Malahat Reserve south of Verdier Point indicate that there were a few scattered, sparsely-populated settlements when the first white settlers came to Mill Bay. A smallpox epidemic around 1862 killed most of the native people, and many of the survivors left the area while much of their traditional territory was taken up by white settlers.
As far as we can tell, it was around 1838 when two Hudson Bay Company trappers, French Canadian brothers Jean and Francis Xavier Voutraine, paddled across from the Saanich Peninsula to take up land here, Jean to the north of Shawnigan Creek and Francis to the south. They trapped, hunted, and fished alone until the 1850s.
Other settlers arrived after surveyor general J.D. Pemberton visited the area in 1851. Joe Gabouri pre-empted the farm south of Kilmalu Road. Sam Handy settled on what is now the Mill Bay Marina site, and Sam Olney's abode was a sod hut near the foot of today's Partridge Road. The Hollings family claimed the land from behind today's Bonner School over to the old Mill Bay School site, and John Barry pre-empted land west of there. The Chapmans, Camerons, and Taggarts settled on the roads that bear their names today. A narrow nine-mile trail led to Cowichan Bay, where Sam Harris built the first store in the area in 1858 and laid out the first townsite north of Victoria, known for awhile as Harrisville.
THE MILL THAT THE BAY IS NAMED AFTER
In 1860, Henry Sheppard built a dam and 1000-foot flume from upstream on Shawnigan Creek (then known as Mill Stream) to a small water powered sawmill and cookhouse at the creek mouth. A bunkhouse for mill workers was built on the point to the east, called Whiskey Point because someone operated a still there. Dissatisfied with the mill's output, Sheppard sold it to W.P. Sayward, who made improvements that increased the output. The mill provided lumber for shipment to Victoria and Nanaimo, and it provided jobs for more settlers coming to the area.
The settlers' only access to Victoria was by boat from Harrisville. In 1861, the six-foot wide Goldstream Trail was cleared from Goldstream, around Sooke Lake and Shawnigan Lake, west of Cobble Hill, and along what is now known as Cowichan Bay Road to Harrisville. It was very rough and wet going but was later widened and improved so two-wheeled carts could travel on it. A road was then put through from Mill Bay along the present Telegraph Road route to join the Goldstream Trail at what is now Bench School. This allowed lumber from the mill to be transported to local settlers. After Sayward dismantled the mill in 1878, workers made a living farming and cutting shingle bolts and cordwood. Despite the rigours of rural life, they worked together to build churches and schools. The completion of the railroad from Victoria to Nanaimo in 1886 meant that the station and village at Cobble Hill became the focal point for the area.
THE MALAHAT DRIVE PUTS MILL BAY ON THE MAP
With the advent of the "horseless carriage" in the first decade of the 20th Century, locals began to think that a road over Malahat Mountain to Victoria might be possible. Mill Bay landowner Major James Lennox MacFarlane did preliminary surveying of a route, decided it was feasible, and convinced the local member of the provincial parliament to put forward a bill to build a road, which passed in 1908. The road was completed in 1911, and Major MacFarlane drove the first buggy over the road. MacFarlane's persistence in realizing his vision is informatively and entertainingly celebrated in our DVD "One Man's Dream." The completion and improvement of the Malahat Drive has truly put the village of Mill Bay on the map.