Donkey engine


While hiking last week on the West Coast Trail, on the western edge of Canada’s Vancouver Island, my brother and I came upon a derelict and abandoned donkey engine. We stopped to marvel at its existence at the edge of civilization.

Donkey engine beside the trail

Long before foreign sailing ships reached the coast 200 years ago, the Huu-ay-aht, Ditidaht and Pacheedaht lived on Vancouver Island’s west coast. Our trail map reports that as trade increased, “many sailing ships met a tragic fate navigating in these unfamiliar and hazardous waters. Sailors soon referred to this coastline as the ‘Graveyard of the Pacific’.”

One of the derelicts of the times is the donkey engine, which took part in the work to establish communication between villages and new lighthouses – a telegraph line that also became a trail for shipwreck victims and their rescuers.

So what does a donkey engine on a remote trail have to do with city making?

Think of it this way – when we need something to improve life for self and others, we organize for it. And in the process, we change the shape of the places that are involved. One the west coast, when the shore became a graveyard, people recognized that action needed to be taken. They took action, built lighthouses, a telegraph line and a trail. And they left a story behind.

The donkey engine, if nothing else, stands out as a physical marker of the trail’s original purpose. When its job was done, it was left where it stood.

Decades later, the purpose of the trail is different. The users of the trail are explorers of a different kind – not shipwreck victims and their rescuers now, but hikers exploring the beauty and challenge of the terrain. (And their rescue from time to time!)

The very purpose we build structure for – any part of a city – changes over time. And that is part of the city’s story too, only we see it in many more layers. We really do shape our landscape, and we also shape the stories we tell ourselves about our cities and the places we explore.

What is your favourite layer of story in your city? 


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This post is part of Chapter 8 – The City Making Exchange. Here are some plot helpers of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities, the book I am sharing here while I search for a publisher:

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2 thoughts on “Donkey engine”

  1. I love the weave between shipwrecks at sea and the response of communication on land. The fact that a rusting old structure serves as an historic interpretive sign is a cool reframe.

    A favorite layer of the story of my “city” of Freeland, WA is the name itself. Sure enough, the original settlers offered people free land. It was a commune of sorts. Nice reminder that our city comes from liberal stock!

    1. Ann, I have a fond feelings for Washington. When my brother and I needed rescuing off this trail, the only contact we could make with help was via 911 Washington. The desire to help – and support – other humans is so apparent along the coast. People help people wherever they come from. Land, sea, other continents or countries. The donkey engine and Freedom are wonderful examples of that.

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