The Transfer Wharf Story 1900 – 1955

E&N-logoMany of Ladysmith’s long-term residents have fond memories of “Oyster Harbour” before it was transformed in 1967 by the opening of Transfer Beach Park. At one time, there were four major wharves at Ladysmith, and all of them have played an important part in the history of our city.  The Coal or “Big” wharf, the Government (also known as the Fisherman’s or “Dynamite’ wharf) and further south, the Granby wharf each has its own history. However, this article will focus on the Transfer Wharf, which many historians believe was the most important wharf in Ladysmith while it existed.

Slack point
1939 Air Photo showing location of the Transfer Wharf at Slack Point

At the end of the 19th century, it was clear to politicians and entrepreneurs that the success of British Columbia as a Canadian province required the development of a fast and efficient transportation system. For most of B.C. this meant a good railway system, as roads in most of the province consisted of little more than wagon trails. The truck and automobile era was just beginning, and overland travel was tedious and dangerous. In addition, although the ‘linear’ distance from the Alaskan panhandle to Victoria is less than 1000 kilometers, the actual B.C. coastline is nearly 26,000 km. long, and much of it can only be accessed by water. At the turn of the century, over 50 per cent of British Columbia’s population of 36,000 lived on Vancouver Island, and if the Island was to prosper, both rail and water transportation were an economic and political necessity.

British Columbia’s decision to become a Canadian province in 1871 was conditional on the federal government building a ‘”trans-continental railway”. Many Islanders had argued that it made much more sense to join the United States than to be part of Canada. They were still angry that the Canadian Pacific Railway had its terminus at Vancouver rather than Esquimalt. The political compromise was the construction of the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway by Robert Dunsmuir, with Prime Minister John Macdonald driving in the last spike on August 13, 1886 at Shawinigan Lake.

Despite dismay at the high cost of construction (Historian Kit Willmott believed the E &N was built for $ 626,000 a mile!), mutterings about Robert Dunsmuir’s conflict of interest (he was Premier of BC and President of the E &N at the same time), and an outrageous land grant equivalent to 20 per cent of Vancouver Island, the E & N was a great success. By 1888, passengers could board the train in Victoria at 8:00 A.M. and have lunch in Nanaimo. The return trip from Ladysmith to Victoria cost $1.25 and took just over two hours. The rail line quickly added special trains during the summer, including day outings to Shawnigan Lake and excursions for evening concerts at Goldstream for 25 cents.

For Ladysmith, the best was yet to come. Readers familiar with the town’s early history will recall Dunsmuir’s decision to relocate the families and workers at Extension Mine to the new community at Oyster Bay, and discontinue coal shipments from Departure Bay. Business was booming at the newly constructed Coal Wharf, and both passenger and freight service were provided through a fleet of vessels operated by the British Columbia Coast Steamship Service in conjunction with the E & N. The fishing and logging industries were also using the improved harbour facilities at Ladysmith to load their products for transshipment to both the mainland and overseas. The railway was also transporting ore mined at Mt. Sicker to a new smelter in Ladysmith. However, at the end of the 19th century, there was still a major problem transporting heavy equipment and machinery to Vancouver island. It had to be lightered off and on the Island or sent by scow to Victoria or Nanaimo, a costly and labour intensive enterprise. The solution was to construct a dedicated transfer slip so that boxcars could be shipped directly by railcar ferry to and from Vancouver Island without off loading the contents. The logical choice for the E & N was to build the facility at Oyster Bay! By early 1900 Transfer Wharf was ready for business. According to railway historian Don MacLachlan, the first shipment from the rail car ferry slip was a carload of lumber from John Coburn’s mill at Shawnigan Lake. The first cars arriving on Vancouver Island at the new Transfer Wharf were CPR rail cars from Eastern Canada. Then, on December 2, 1900, the tug Czar arrived with Transfer No. 1, a railway car barge that could carry twelve boxcars on the forty mile crossing between Ladysmith and Vancouver. A new era had begun.

Barge docking at Ladysmith

In 1905, the C.P.R. purchased the E & N. The rail line was quickly extended to Alberni (1911) Lake Cowichan (1912) and Courtenay (1914). Although a planned extension to Campbell River had to be abandoned with the outbreak of WW I, the major communities on the east coast of Vancouver Island were now connected by rail to the rest of the world. The CPR was already in the shipping business, and along with the railway came a small marine fleet consisting of the Joan, a wooden-hulled twin-screw steamer and the City of Nanaimo, which served communities on the east coast of Vancouver Island. Canadian Pacific now proceeded to fulfill its promise to provide a rail link from Halifax to Victoria.

On July 11th, 1908 a new steel-hulled tug – built for a cost of $75,000 by BC Marine Railways ship yard – arrived in Ladysmith harbour. The Nanoose was 120 feet in length, and powered by a single 600 hp engine capable of 12 knots. She was soon joined by the tugs Kyuquot and Qualicum. Between them they pulled five rail barges named “Transfer 1 though 5”.

The tug Nanoose at Pier A in Vancouver

Although it was necessary to double the engines to haul the larger and heavier CPR rail cars over the Malahat, the system worked. The website Train web reports that traffic grew from 3471 cars outbound and 2891 inbound during 1907 to 17,282 out and 7459 in during 1942. The service was finally discontinued in 1955. Rail cars now use the new Wellcox loading facility in Nanaimo and the Transfer Wharf was torn down.

In a recent telephone conversation with noted CPR historian Robert Turner, he stated that “the Transfer Wharf era was an exciting time for Ladysmith. A home furnishing store in Victoria could receive a direct shipment of furniture from Ontario, and a load of newsprint from Port Alberni could arrive in Florida without ever leaving its rail car.” For more than 50 years, Ladysmith remained a key link in connecting Vancouver Island to the railway transportation system of North America.


Ed Nicholson Ladysmith Historical Society.

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