The Communities : WHY THE COWICHAN VALLEY : Duncan
Postcard, View down Station Street, Duncan
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The town of Duncan began life as a small stop on the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway. When Prime Minister John A. Macdonald rode on the inaugural E & N journey, William Duncan was waiting by the tracks with a large group of settlers and First Nations people to ask for a railway station on this site. After Robert Dunsmuir agreed to a station that August day, the name of the railway stop or station became Duncan's Station. The village was known by many names but usually shortened to Duncans. On incorporation it became 'Duncan'.
The first station building was constructed in 1887. The townsite had been surveyed in 1886, and included several small homes and a general store. The town became an agricultural centre, and an Agricultural Hall was built near the railway station in 1889. For the early settlers, their aim was to settle on the land and cultivate crops rather than attempt to enter the logging industry.
Logging operations quickly adopted the rail line for log transport. The first load of logs was sent off on the train in 1887, to travel from just north of Duncan at Mt. Prevost and over to Chemainus. There were no forestry operations working in the Duncan townsite, but as the largest centre in Cowichan, it drew loggers and mill workers from the outlying areas. Shopping, new suits, restaurants, bars like that at the Tzouhalem and Quamichan hotels, and possibly even a date, could be found in the town.
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There were other reasons to come in to Duncan from the logging camps. For the Chinese workers in the Cowichan Valley, Duncan's Chinatown was a social centre where they could get a meal at the Pekin Café, which opened in the early 1920s with a cook named Cupcake, visit a herbalist or gambling parlour. They could shop at Chinese-owned stores like Suey Sing Chow's and Suey Lee and Son's, the early version of Duncan's current Chow Brother's Grocery.
Duncan's City Hall was built in 1912 and opened in 1913 as the local post office. The train station was rebuilt in 1912; in addition to continuing to function as a station on the E & N line, it is home to the Cowichan Valley Museum and Archives. The museum recognizes the community's forestry ties to past and present; a walk in Duncan reveals a town on the Cowichan River that is still connected to the logging life. The IWA Local 1-80 union office is just around the corner from the train station. The Duncan-based forestry enterprise Doman Industries, now Western Forest Products, maintains their head office in town.