Book review: All aboard for a history of Vancouver Island hotels

Vancouver Island historian Glen Mofford explores tales of the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railroad, incorporated in 1893, which ran from Victoria to Courtenay.

Glen A. Moffor, author of Along the E&N: A Journey Back to the Historic Hotels of Vancouver Island. PNG

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Along the E&N

A Journey Back to the Historic Hotels of Vancouver Island

By Glen A. Mofford | Touchwood Editions (Victoria, 2019)

$22 | 263pp.


The Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railroad, incorporated in 1893, ran from Victoria to Courtenay. In an early test run of the private public partnership model, coal baron Robert Dunsmuir and his American partners and successors were eventually given 20 per cent of Vancouver Island to encourage them to build and operate the line.

The PPP model, which essentially means socialism for the rich and social Darwinism for the rest of us, was perfected in deals like the one that established the E&N, and it haunts us still.

But Glen Mofford, the Vancouver Island-based historian whose first book Aqua Vitae told delightful picaresque stories about the hotels and bars of Victoria, is not much focused on the political economy of railroad building. He is a social historian who loves a good story and he has once again found many entertaining narratives to share.

Mofford takes the reader on a virtual ride along the E&N, starting in Esquimalt and ending farther north than the line was ever built, at three notable Campbell River area hotels: The Willows, the Quinsam and Forbes Landing. (He takes his narrative north of where rail construction ended in Courtenay on the plausible argument that the original plan was for the line to be extended at least as far as Campbell River.)

As he notionally conducts the reader north on the E&N, Mofford gives gorgeous descriptions of the sights to be seen from the train windows, and tells colourful stories of crime, drunkenness, happenstance, fishing and comedy associated with the hotels. (He does miss one such linkage. The Willows hotel’s final fire in 1963 occurred while Renee Castelanni, soon to be the notorious accused in Vancouver’s Milkshake Murder case, was one of the hotel staff. )

Glen A. Mofford. PNG

One striking fact that stands out among the anecdotes is that fire was a serious danger for the entrepreneurs running wood frame hotels on the island. Of the 32 hotels chronicled in this book, 27 experienced significant fires.

In addition to what sometimes reads as a history of famous Island hotel fires, Mofford also gives the reader glimpses of day trips up the Island on the E&N for picnics and outings, and the joys of fishing the lakes and streams guests could access from their hotels.

This book will be a delight for those who are already hooked on B.C. history, and an engaging introduction to the field for newcomers.

• Tom Sandborn lives and writes in Vancouver.  He welcomes feedback and story tips at tos65@telus.net

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