This photo from the 1950s is a reminder of earlier days. Frank Bull and Ron Matterson stand beside some heavy machinery in this view of work on the original road coming in and out of the West Coast. This is the same site of the present Kennedy Hill improvement project. (Photo submitted by Pieter Timmermans courtesy of the Ucluelet and Area Historical Society)

The long winding road to Tofino-Ucluelet—then and now

If you are feeling frustrated about the Highway 4 closures, sit back read about what came before.

SHIRLEY MARTIN

Special to the Westerly

As we all know, major construction is happening at the Kennedy rock bluff. If you are feeling frustrated about road closures and wait times, just sit back, ‘chill’, and read about what came before.

Early settlers on this isolated coast were promised a road. In the early 1900s pre-emption promos told of a soon-to-be-built wagon road to the West Coast. It was a long time coming.

After WWII the Ucluelet and Tofino Chambers of Commerce joined forces to advocate for the cause; in 1949, committee members hiked for three days through the mountainous terrain of forest, bush and bog, to Port Alberni to make their case.

Finally, in 1955, there was some action. Two forestry companies took on the task. B.C. Forest Products agreed to build the most challenging, westerly section. This included major blasting and drilling at the Kennedy rock bluff. MacMillan Bloedel Ltd. put in the Sproat Lake section, joining up existing logging roads and building new ones. This included the switchbacks, a narrow section with hairpin turns, at its highest 580 metres with no barricades separating the road from the drop-off to the lake far below.

The Department of Highways built the 19-kilometre segment, known as the ‘Government Stretch’.

Finally, in August of 1959, the road was opened for locals. I missed the grand opening. My dad had a key to the gates and didn’t like crowds, so our family drove out the day before. “I don’t plan to stick around and eat dust all the way out tomorrow!” he told my mom.

By the next day we were well on our way to Alberta to go camping. But, many Ucluelet and Tofino residents headed out in a convoy on August 22 when 74 vehicles, carrying 300 people, left the junction at 6 a.m. It was a long and bumpy drive. George Gudbranson stood by with his tow truck to pull any struggling vehicles through one particularly massive mudhole. The group stuck together and made it to Port Alberni. Some celebrated there, while others carried on to Nanaimo for an official welcome and a group photo taken at Beban Park. The road was formally opened on Sept. 4, 1959, and swarms of people arrived on the coast, tearing up and down Long Beach in their cars. Civilization was no longer knocking at our door; they had now breached the divide. It brings to mind the phrase ‘be careful what you wish for’. Since the road went through, development continues to gallop forward, with no end in sight. When the road first opened it remained an active logging road, so gates at both ends were locked to non-logging vehicles during the day. In 1964, the gates were removed and people were free to drive in daylight hours. But driving the road was not for ‘Nervous Nellies’. When you headed out of town, it was pretty much a given that you would lose a muffler, pierce an oil pan and/or shred some tires. It gave new meaning to the phrase ‘shake rattle and roll’. A local bus driver was so frustrated that, one night, he ‘borrowed’ a Highways grader to smooth out a particularly irksome patch. Dr. McDiarmid, a GP here for many years, recalled traumatized tourists requesting tranquilizers before heading back out of town. Paving started in the late 1960’s and was completed by 1972. That same year, the switchbacks were taken out, so we lost both the thrilling view and the accompanying bouts of palpitations.

The road alongside Sproat Lake is smoother and faster, but a tad less scenic. And so the story continues. The road is no longer the dusty, washboard logging road of the past. But, driving it is still a challenge. We get snow. We get washouts. Sections of the road sink. Potholes abound. Slow drivers don’t always use the pullouts to let others by. People get impatient and pass in dangerous places. So let’s all ‘chill’ and be grateful for any improvements. We’ve been discovered and traffic is on the upswing. It’s time to just sit back and try to enjoy the ride.

Shirley Martin is a member of the Ucluelet and Area Historical Society.

READ MORE: VIDEO:Highway closures hit travellers heading in and out of Tofino and Ucluelet

READ MORE:Construction on Hwy. 4 halted after tree crashes into traffic

READ MORE: Ucluelet mayor says highway closure shows need for car ferry between Port Alberni and West Coast

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