The BC Forest Discovery Centre is located in Duncan, halfway between Victoria and Nanaimo, in the heart of the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island. The 40-hectare (100-acre), open-air museum, which opened to the public in 1965, features forest trails, numerous historic buildings, exhibits, and logging equipment and artifacts. The highlight is a fully operational 2.5-kilometre (1.5-mile) railroad with three different working trains.
The founder of the Forest Discovery Centre was Gerry Wellburn, who was born in England in 1900 but emigrated to Victoria with his family in 1911. His parents ran Wellburn’s Market at Pandora and Cook starting in 1914, a grocery store that is still in business today 100 years later. Eldest son Gerry got into the lumber business in the 1920s in Courtenay and then started his own company, Wellburn Timbers Ltd., in Duncan in the early 1930s. He sold that business to H.R. MacMillan in 1943, staying on as manager of what became the Shawnigan Division of MacMillan & Bloedel Ltd.
Wellburn collected trains and logging related artifacts throughout his career, building up a private collection on his own property. When he retired in 1963, he began discussions with the provincial government about transferring his collection to a more suitable site for public enjoyment. The centre almost ended up being located at Beaver Lake near Victoria, but support from the local community in Duncan prevailed and the current location on Drinkwater Road within sight of the Trans-Canada Highway was selected instead.
My six-year-old son and I drove up to Duncan from Victoria on a late-summer morning, and pulled into the centre just in time to catch the train, a gas locomotive nicknamed the “Green Hornet,” which was running on an hourly schedule. The Centre has several different trains dating back more than a century, with three engines kept operational: a 1910 steam engine called Sampson, the Green Hornet, and a small yellow Crew Speeder.
The train is a great way to take in the entire Centre’s property in one quick trip before spending some time checking out different areas or buildings on foot. We stepped off the train at the “North Cowichan Station” when my son spotted a playground he wanted to check out. From there, it was an easy walk along a marked forest path back to the main area.
Among several historic buildings making up a replica logging camp, the 1905 schoolhouse was a highlight for my son. We also picked apples from a small semi-wild orchard near the Ranger Station and got a good view of the Centre from high up on the Fire Tower.
The Forest Discovery Centre is open seven days a week during the summer with a reduced schedule in the shoulder season. Hours are more limited in the off-season but special holiday trains run for Halloween, Christmas and Easter, along with a Bigleaf Maple Syrup Festival train in early February. Check the website for more details.
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