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Table of Contents and Tom Henry's Introduction


1 "We Did Not Resist You"
2 Duncan's Crossing
3 Cheap Land, Fair Climate
4 A City
5 A War
6 Enclaves I: Queen Margaret's School
7 Enclaves II: Chinatown
8 World War II
9 The Post-War Boom
10 The Reinvention of Duncan

Appendix: City of Duncan Street Names
Selected Bibliography


MUCH OF THE RESEARCH for Small City in a Big Valley was done the summer of 1998 in the archives of the Cowichan Historical Society in Duncan, BC. The archives occupy the second floor of the train station, a long CPR-red building in the city's core. The second floor used to be the station master's residence. Archival records are kept in the former bedroom and researchers work at a paddock-sized table in the living room. My spot was at the table's south end. To check the time all I had to do was glance up at the city hall clock. To note details on a Station Street historical building, I looked out the window.

In the afternoon, in the summer, the archives got very hot. Portable fans blew muggy air from one part of the room to another part of the room. When the heat got to be too much, I'd cross Canada Avenue to a deli and buy a soft drink. Then I'd flop into the shade of one of the red oaks in the cenotaph park, sip cool cola and think back to a time - before Duncan was thick with traffic and franchise eateries; before its dusty streets echoed with the sound of horses' hooves and wagon wheels; before. even, it was fields and orchards - to a spring day in 1864, when a slender young man came striding through dense timber no more than a block from where I was reclining.

William Chalmers Duncan was twenty-eight years old. Work-leaned, narrow faced, he had a thatched beard and a head of tufted brown hair that never stayed completely flat. He was an expert axeman and had, it was said, a gift with animals (his honeybees always swarmed for Good Friday). William Duncan was raised in Sarnia, Ontario, one of thirteen children born to a Scots-descended family. He had left home for the west coast and the Fraser River goldfields. Like thousands of other fortune seekers, however, he discovered in Victoria that the so-called gold rush was anything but: every available ship, scow and dugout had been commandeered for the Strait of Georgia crossing. He eventually got as far as the Fraser Valley; then, fearing his provisions would run low before spring thaw, wisely retreated to the capital. It was there that William Duncan heard of a government scheme to open a rich island valley for settlement.

After Victoria and New Westminster, the Cowichan Valley was the new frontier of the 1860s. The area's potential for farm and settlement had been recognized twenty years earlier, by James Douglas, but at that time it was under control of the Hudson's Bay Company, which was more interested in keeping the west coast a fur preserve than in opening it to settlement. The HBC's plan faltered when gold was discovered in 1858. An influx of American miners into the unsettled territory threatened to give the expansion-minded United States government reason to annex the entire west coast. The HBC lease expired, a colonial government was established and overnight, settlement became a priority. Land prices were lowered 80 percent and a pre-emption plan, whereby ownership of land was contingent on a steady transformation from forest to farm, was set up to encourage energetic young men to take up land.

In 1862, seventy-eight prospective settlers, including William Duncan, shipped into Cowichan Bay on the Royal Navy vessel Hecate. Many settlers went inland but William Duncan stayed near the bay. The land wasn't to his liking - why, I have no idea - but in 1863 he went to the Cariboo goldfields and found wage work hewing mine props and bridge stringers. By the time he returned, much of the south valley was claimed. Acting on a tip from a settler, Duncan took a canoe up the Cowichan River. At the Indian village of Somena he disembarked and walked northward. The bush was rampant and difficult to traverse, the timber so thick it formed a canopy overhead. At the top of a knoll, William Duncan paused by a densely branched western red cedar. The tree grew at what would later be the corner of Trunk Road and Brae Road in downtown Duncan.

Slipping off his canvas rucksack, William Duncan scaled the cedar, he later recalled, stepping up the spiralling branches as if on a stairway. He stopped only when high enough to see over the tassels of the surrounding timber. The view encompassed thousands of hectares. To the west and north, the green sweep of timbered mountains disappeared up the U-shaped valley. To the south, the winding course of the Cowichan River was marked by a corridor of cottonwoods and to the east was the shimmer of Cowichan Bay, some 5 kilometres distant.

For William Duncan, though, the dominant feature was the immediately encircling bottomland, Clad in the variegated greens of alder. maple and cedar, it swept away from his treetop perch on all sides, an undulating rug of foliage on rich river-washed soil. The land would require a huge amount of work before it could be deemed settled. Peering from between the limbs of the cedar, the twenty eight-year-old Duncan could read into the untouched countryside a future visage of fields and ponds, of fences and cows and snorting pigs, of a log cabin with a cobblestone chimney and a ropey twist of woodsmoke. It was the kind of vision on which to build a city.

Small City in a Big Valley is a true story. It begins with a man in a tree, ends with a man on a totem pole and includes some of the major and many of the not-so-major themes in Duncan's history: Native use of the land; settler architecture and urban development; gentlemen immigrants; World War I; Norah Denny and Queen Margaret's School; Sue Lem Bing's Chinatown; internment of the Japanese; Mayor Wragg's highway blockade and the ongoing post-1960s reinvention of the city's self-image.

The story is based on archival sources but is informed by my own experiences. This point I want to make clear. I am fond of Duncan. I was born there. I attended Duncan Elementary, Cowichan Senior Secondary. I played road hockey in front of Wayne Jackson's home in Centennial Heights, thumbed magazines at Chow Bros. Grocery, sipped cold Tzouhalem Hotel beer under the steely eye of Cece-the-Bartender. Some Duncan backyards may still have ricks of fir and alder I sold when I was a woodcutter. I think Duncan is a fine place. I return often to visit my family.

My mother is from a well-connected English clan; my father is a transplanted Ontario farmer. They managed the Silver Bridge Inn and later ran a local battery shop. The stories my mother told around the kitchen table of our Castle Street home were generally positive and concerned character-building teachers of her youth who prohibited coughing, or they were about the Evans, Whittome or Stone families (the latter at one time a prominent lumbering clan, some of whom are my cousins). My father's take on Duncan was somewhat different. He would come home from the hotel smelling of sweet drinks, grumbling about the kleptomaniacal matron of a founding family who had a taste for hotel silverware, or jerks who drained the swimming pool, or the times BC Premier W.A.C. Bennett used to whistle up from Victoria for a ministerial tete-a-tete at the Silver Bridge Inn and insisted on using the ladies' washroom. The accounts were so divergent I grew up thinking Duncan was not one town but many.

Nothing I've learned since has changed that impression. There are lots of stories about Duncan. Some of the good ones are in this book.