The 19th Century was a world powered by steam and coal was the energy that drove commerce and built empires. Nanaimo owes its very existence to the so-called ‘black apples’ of coal that were harvested in the region’s numerous mines and then transported around the world to drive the mills, plants and engines of industry that made the Victorian era such a period of expansion and development.
The discovery of coal in the Nanaimo area in the late 1840’s saw the development of a series of mines throughout the central Vancouver Island area, with the first opening in approximately 1852. In fact coal mining helped to open up much of the east coast of Vancouver Island with mines opening over the years in North and South Wellington, Fort Rupert (near present day Port Hardy), Ladysmith, Extension, Granby, Cumberland and Union Bay.
In the early days of the Island’s development the area was essentially the property of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) but in 1858 the control of the region was passed from the corporation to that of the British government, with its trading rights on the Mainland ending in 1859. The UK based Vancouver Island Coal Mining and Land Company (VICMLC) purchased all HBC coal mines including those located in the immediate Nanaimo area in 1858.
VICMLC, as a British company, contracted the Victoria firm of Dickson, Campbell and company to operate as its agents. Dickson and Campbell owned a pair of colliers (coal carrying ships) that were used move raw material from Nanaimo to market. Most of the coal was moved directly from Nanaimo to San Francisco in this manner, with the remainder used to fuel Royal Navy ships based in Esquimalt. In its early years the company prospered, with local coal production rising from 32,000 tons annually to 44,000 tons per year by 1868.
But trouble was on the horizon for the venture, in the form of legendary coal baron Robert Dunsmuir. A one-time HBC manager, Dunsmuir ventured out on his own launching independent operations including the Wellington Mine, which was considered one of the richest coal deposits on the west coast. By 1880 the various Dunsmuir mines were producing more than 189,000 tons annually, eclipsing all other competitors. His strangle hold only increased with the launching of the Esquimalt Railway Company, of which he was president in 1883.
Robert Dunsmuir passed away in 1889 with his son James Dunsmuir and son in law John Bryden carrying the company forward into the 20th Century. But gradually the age of coal began to fade and by the 1920’s the industry was clearly in decline. Over time forestry, the region’s other primary resource industry grew in ascendance, becoming the region’s principal economic engine in the years just prior to the start of the Second World War. Nanaimo’s last working coal mine closed forever in 1953, ending what was essentially a century of continuous operations.
Today few reminders of that colorful, rough and tumble history remain. But it is to the courage and enterprising spirit of those industrial pioneers that the city and the region owe for its very existence.