Covering 363 hectares Newcastle Island is a jewel in Nanaimo’s harbor. A favorite for campers and picnic goers for more than a century the Island has variously served as a site for ancient First Nation communities, as a coal mining centre, a working sandstone quarry and as a playground for the world’s rich and famous. Today a protected provincial park (the Newcastle Island Marine Provincial Park) the island is currently administered by the Snuneymuxw First Nation.
Historically known as Saysutshun by its original inhabitants, Newcastle Island was traditionally home to two separate native villages, with the largest situated on the east side of the Island located closest to Protection Island. As both of these population centers were essentially temporary fishing camps, inhabited only at certain key times of the year, the first Europeans to arrive in the area wrongly believed the Island to be uninhabited.
The ancestors of today’s Snuneymuxw lived on Newcastle only from January to April when the annual herring runs were taking place. Traditionally this same group would in essence pack up their entire camp and move onto nearby Gabriola Island to continue harvesting seasonal seafood where they would typically remain on Gabriola until later in the summer.
In August the fishing community would pack up yet again, paddling across the Georgia Strait to continue fishing at the mouth of the Fraser River. Once there they would catch sockeye and humpback salmon until the end of summer before returning to Vancouver Island to participate in the yearly chum salmon run. This activity would continue until the end of the year. By the dawn of the New Year the fishing community would be back on Newcastle Island in preparation for launching the marine harvesting cycle all over again.
Once coal was discovered in the Nanaimo area, and permanent European settlement had taken place, the future of Newcastle Island changed dramatically. Re-christened Newcastle, in honor of the mining town of Newcastle Upon Tyne in England, the island served as the site of two different coal mines (the Fitzwilliam and Newcastle Mines), operations that continued from 1853 until 1882.
Concurrently with the Island’s coal mining activity a sandstone quarry was established in 1869, an endeavor launched by American industrialist Joseph Emery. Requiring high grade sandstone for the new United States Mint Building being planned for San Francisco, Emery had scoured the west coast of North America looking for the best grade of building material, settling on Newcastle’s raw material as the perfect choice. Signing a five year lease to extract sandstone from the Island a total of 8,000 tons of the material would eventually be excavated, stone crafter into columns used in constructing the imposing structure.
Early in the 20th Century Newcastle Island had become home to a number of fish salteries, production facilities where herring and salmon were salt cured prior to shipment to the Asian marketplace. A major fire in 1912, a blaze many at the time believed was the result of arson, saw four of the operations burned to the ground. They would later be rebuilt and put back into operation.
The recreational potential of Newcastle Island really started to come into its own in the 1930s. The British Columbia Coast Steamship Service (which was owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway) purchased the entire Island in 1930 for $30,000. Spending more than $100,000 the new owners built the present Pavilion and constructed other facilities to build an exclusive resort that opened in 1931. A resort it operated until 1955 when the City of Nanaimo purchased the Island for $150,000.