From Sea to Sky
By Annabel Howard
This walking tour will cover the fascinating history of Departure Bay, the broad sweep of coast north of Nanaimo. It starts at the BC Ferries terminal and involves a walk along the beach of rock and sand, so we recommend you wear appropriate footwear. It includes several historic photos taken from wharves of which only the piers still exist. Today they can only be reached at low tide. It also ends with a small hike up Sugar Mountain where you will be rewarded with a stunning view of the bay and a remarkable glimpse into the past by seeing through the eyes of photographers who stood there over a century ago.
Departure Bay was for thousands of years the site of the local Snuneymuxw people's winter village. The village was known as Stl'i lep, or 'The Base of the Mountain.' The Snuneymuxw, whose name translates as 'The Great People', have inhabited territories that stretch from here and down the coast for over 4,000 years.1
The village itself was inhabited principally by four families, who lived in three rows of cedar longhouses on the beach. There was another set of longhouses near the modern-day Pacific Biological Station.2 As well as a place for rest and ceremony during the cold season, the Snuneymuxw used Stl'i lep as an ancestral burial ground and for gathering food. There was ample fish and game to ensure the village's inhabitants had access to a varied diet: Archaeological excavations around the village site in 1992 identified 30 bird species and 14 types of mammals.3 Stl'i lep was also the place where spring food gathering began with the March herring run. The herring were so abundant that schools of the fish chased ashore by whales would pile a foot high on the beaches. This abundance of natural resources gave the bay its nickname: 'The Food Cupboard'.
The Nanaimo coastline was explored by the Spanish in the late 1700s, and Departure Bay was named by them, ‘Bocas de Winthuysen.' This name was replaced with by Englishman Joseph D. Pemberton, who surveyed the coastline in the early 1850s. That same year Governor James Douglas signed a treaty with the Snuneymuxw where they handed over their land to the crown, though they retained their village sites, including that at Departure Bay. They were given 668 blankets in exchange.4
The first British settlers arrived in 1861, and they lived alongside the Snuneymuxw in Departure Bay. By the late 1860s, with the discovery of coal, the bay was already becoming industrialized: a railway was built to the coast from the mine at Wellington, and the first wharves and coal docks were constructed. In 1882 Departure Bay was described as a fine and bustling harbour: "adjacent to Nanaimo with accommodation for a whole fleet, and it often contains many vessels some loading coal and others waiting for cargoes."5
Despite the early boom, Departure Bay's population diminished as coal was discovered further south as well as further inland at Wellington. By the late 1800s the area was "virtually uninhabited" and remained so until after the Second World War.6 Like Nanaimo itself, Departure Bay began to flourish again in the postwar era. In the 1970s the municipality of Departure Bay was amalgamated into Nanaimo itself. Despite this a distinct character and sense of community has been maintained.
This project is possible with the generous support of Tourism Nanaimo and the Nanaimo Hospitality Association. We would also like to thank the Nanaimo Archives and Nanaimo Museum for use of their historic photo collections and providing research assistance.
1. The Ferry Terminal
It wasn't until 1951 that a ferry terminal in Departure Bay was built by the Black Ball Ferry Company. It ran two ships, the Kahloke and Chinook, across to Horseshoe Bay in West Vancouver. They faced fierce competition from the long established Canadian Pacific Ferries, who had their own terminal on Cameron Island near downtown Nanaimo. In the late 1950s, when labour disputes disrupted services and largely cut Nanaimo off from the mainland, the province's premier, WAC Bennett, intervened and established the crown corporation BC Ferries. The new company quickly bought Black Ball's ships ferry terminals and ran the ferries themselves. They continue to manage it to this day. As you can see by comparing the then and now photos, they've expanded and upgraded the terminal a number of times.
2. The Brechin Mine
For the next few years the VCC's mining continued to focus on downtown Nanaimo. In 1864 one company brochure boasted about Nanaimo's port: "the harbour has been carefully buoyed, and is available at all tides; and a commodious wharf is nearly completed, giving greater facilities for the loading of ships of deep draught."1 Coal mining there was highly successful, and exports to San Francisco soared from from 5,204 tons in 1861 to 21,345 tons in 1863.2
From the 1870s however, the VCC's dominance of the coal business was tested by competition from the famous industrialist, Robert Dunsmuir, who made stunning coal discoveries at Wellington, about three kilometres inland from here, and kickstarted the scramble for coal leases around the harbour. We will return to Dunsmuir's pivotal role in the development of Departure Bay later on in this tour.
Brechin, like so many of BC's early mines, derived its name from Scotland, from whence most of the early miners came. The name can likely be traced to the small town of Brechin, on Scotland's stormy east coast. Some claim that the mine was named simply for the bracken that grew so abundantly in the bay. Others believe it was named after 'Brychan'--a Celtic hero--although the Scots would probably have something to say about this, Brychan being Welsh, not Scottish. Although the Brechin Mine was closed in 1913, its name lives on in the east-west road that connects the No. 1 to the Island Highway.
3. Enjoying the Beach
The happy-go-lucky days of the 1920s were a calm before the storm. These were the years when electric light, aeroplanes, cars and radios were introduced to the city. Families would come from the surrounding areas to take advantage of Departure Bay's long sandy beach, snapping photos like this one.
An economic double wallop was just around the corner. In the late 1920s coal demand began to plunge as it was supplanted by oil as the primary fuel of Western civilization. Then came the Great Depression of the 1930s and a devastating collapse in economic activity. Unemployment, poverty and misery ran rampant to an extent almost beyond the imagination of the contemporary reader.
Communities banded together to combat the hard times, and some of evidence of that is near where you now stand. The Kinsmen Club sought to soften the blow and held fundraisers to build park amenities and provide free swimming lessons. One of their successes was Kin Park (not coincidentally named) just above the beach here.It wasn't until the 1950s, when the economy began to recover, that a new hut, containing proper changing facilities and bathrooms, was installed. After this, the beach became a focus of Departure Bay's community.
4. Harper's Hotel
Given the clientele of miners and sailors, it's little surprise Harper's Hotel was a rowdy place. The liquor flowed freely—with or without a liquor license, depending on the laws of the time—and the patrons enjoyed brawling, firing guns in the air and stampeding horses down the street. The partying frequently got out of hard, historian Lynne Bowen writes, and "sunrise would often reveal a body lying dead on the beach."2
Harper was a savvy business man, and quickly realized the value of his real estate. He lived with his family in three rooms, but rented out the first floor to a post office, a store, and a bar-dining room. He cut quite a figure in the local community, and the hotel was a focus point for the Departure Bay community until it was demolished in 1941.
5. Hamilton Powder Co.
Local historian Carole Davidson writes: "The concussion then set off the gelignite building 400 feet away, where a large quantity of high explosives was stored. Both buildings were wrecked and twelve men were killed. Their bodies were unidentifiable... [The] explosion at the Departure Bay powder works launched a piece of railway track 80 metres through the air with such force that it wrapped itself around a tree... like a corkscrew."1 The blast was so powerful that it shook the windows of houses 60 kilometres away in Vancouver.2
6. The First Homes
Early settler life was, however, made easier by the abundance of food at Nanaimo, and the generosity of the local First Nations. As noted by Jan Peterson in her book, A Place in Time, settlers traded goods like tobacco, beads, shot and biscuits for salmon, herring, deer, clams, and ducks from the Snuneymuxw, and potatoes from the Cowichan and Chemainus peoples.1
7. HMS Boxer
To this day tensions exist around the land that the British Crown granted to Dunsmuir, and which he consequently (and very effectively) exploited for coal. In 2016 a settlement was ratified granting the Snuneymuxw nearly $50 million in compensation for land illegally obtained by the crown in the 1880s.3
8. The Coal Wharves
A marker of quite how significant Dunsmuir's business enterprises had become, not only for Nanaimo, but for the whole of British Columbia, is indicated by the fact that the first telephone in the province was installed in his offices in 1875. The line ran between the mining operations at Wellington and the loading docks at Departure Bay, pictured here.
Dunsmuir admired the industriousness of Chinese workers and sought many to work in his mines. In 1885 a Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration reported that while there were a total of only 67 Chinese labourers in Nanaimo, there were 727 living and working at the mines in Wellington.2
9. The Fate of Stl'i lep
Although Snuneymuxw persisted in returning to their traditional territory, they were finally overwhelmed when, at the turn of the century, various industrial structures were erected along the shore. These included the Dunsmuir Colliery wharfs, the dynamite plant, and the houses and roads that are so clear in this photograph from 1939.
10. The Peak of Coal
A few years after this photograph was taken, a new industry sprung up when settlers began to exploit one of the natural resources that had originally drawn the Snuneymuxw to Departure Bay: the herring run. In 1896 James Brown started a fishing operation and caught 100 tonnes of fish: the herring industry was born. Japanese fishermen, with expertise in catching and preserving fish, began to arrive on the Island in the late 1800s. By 1896, 452 licenses had been issued to Japanese-Canadians--Nikkei--and by the turn of the century they had come to dominate the industry, which they primarily established on Newcastle Island at what is still known as Saltery Beach. The biggest of all the firms, however, Ikeda & Co., operated out of Departure Bay. Ikeda, which employed exclusively Japanese workers, preserved and exported a sixth of the entire herring catch which. By the early years of the 20th century, had grown to extraordinary numbers. In the season of 1908-9, 43,300,000 pounds of herring were caught.2
11. Preserving the Past
It is easier to see the industrial heritage of Departure Bay. Although coal mining had ceased by 1900, and the wharves fell into disrepair, at low tide it is possible to see the old wharves at the north end of the bay. Remnants of that industrial era are also still visible at the south of the bay, in the explosive plant docks.
Transport remains Departure Bay's focus, with the ferry terminal the most heavily used of any on the Island north of Victoria's Swartz Bay. Perhaps most famously, since 1997 the bay has been the finishing line for Nanaimo's "International World Championship Bathtub Race" - a 58 km boat race extravaganza conceived by the legendary Nanaimo Mayor Frank Ney, who led the first race (in 1967) dressed in his pirate outfit, brandishing a sword.
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- 1. Jan Peterson, Black Diamond City: Nanaimo - The Victorian Era (Surrey: Heritage House Publishing, 202), 9.
- 2. "Snuneymuxw Settlement at Departure Bay," City of Nanaimo, (Online, accessed July 13, 2017), https://www.nanaimo.ca/assets/Departments/Community~Planning/Heritage~Planning/Heritage~News~and~Initiatives/SnuneySettlementSign.pdf.
- 3. Jan Peterson, Black Diamond City: Nanaimo - The Victorian Era. (Surrey: Heritage House Publishing, 2002), 16.
- 4. "Resurrected treaty made history." Snuneymuxw First Nation, January 5, 2015 (Online, accessed July 2017), http://www.snuneymuxw.ca/press-coverage/resurrected-treaty-made-history.
- 5. Jan Peterson, A Place in Time: Nanaimo Chronicles, (Nanaimo, 2008), 92.
- 6. Carol Davidson, Historic Departure Bay: Looking Back, (Victoria: Rendezvous Historical Press, 2006), 25.
- 7. "Resurrected treaty made history." Snuneymuxw First Nation, January 5, 2015 (Online, accessed July 2017), http://www.snuneymuxw.ca/press-coverage/resurrected-treaty-made-history.
2. The Brechin Mine
1. Peterson, A Place in Time, 196.
2. Peterson, A Place in Time, 195.
4. Harper's Hotel
1. "Hotels and Pubs of Nanaimo," transcribed by Dalys Barney, (Vancouver Island University, September 2015, online, accessed July 9, 2017), https://viurrspace.ca/bitstream/handle/10613/197/NanaimoHistoryMcGirr12.pdf?sequence=3.
2. Lynne Bowen, Robert Dunsmuir: Laird of the Mines. (Montreal: XYZ Publishing, 1999), 108.
5. Hamilton Powder Co.
1. Carole Davidson, Historic Departure Bay: Looking Back, (Victoria: Rendezvous Historical Press).
2. "Interview with J.S.Matthews, Dec. 25Th 1957", Vancouver Archives, (Online, accessed July 9, 2017), https://mountpleasantcommunityheritageproject.wordpress.com/2015/06/28/henry-wilfred-maynard/.
6. The First Homes
1. Peterson, A Place in Time, 196.
7. HMS Boxer
1. T.W. Paterson and G. Basque, Ghost Towns and Mining Camps of Vancouver Island, (Surrey: Heritage House Publishing, 2006), 38.
2. T.W. Paterson and G. Basque, 38.
3. “Snuneymuxw First Nation accepts nearly $50-million settlement over Nanaimo land,” Nanaimo News Now, November 13, 2016 (online, accessed October, 2017).
8. The Coal Wharves
1. "A brief history of Nanaimo Coal," Mid Island News Blog, (Online, accessed July 13, 2017), http://midislandnews.com/early-nanaimo-history/brief-history-nanaimo-coal
2. "Nanaimo Chronicles 1774-2000," City of Nanaimo, (Online, accessed July 28, 2017), http://www.nanaimo.ca/assets/Departments/Community~Planning/Heritage~Planning/Local~History~and~Historic~Resources/NanaimoTimeline.pdf.
10. The Peak of Coal
1. Norman Giney, “From Coal to Forest Products: The Changing Resource Base of Nanaimo,B.C.,” Urban History Review, Numéro 1-78, June 1978, 21.
2. Jan Peterson, Nanaimo: Hub City 1886-1920, (Surrey: Heritage House Publishing Company, 2003), 168.
"A brief history of Nanaimo Coal," Mid Island News Blog. Online, accessed July 13, 2017. http://midislandnews.com/early-nanaimo-history/brief-history-nanaimo-coal
Basque, G. & Paterson, T.W. Ghost Towns and Mining Camps of Vancouver Island. Surrey: Heritage House Publishing, 2006.
Bowen, Lynne. Robert Dunsmuir: Laird of the Mines.Montreal: XYZ Publishing, 1999.
Bowen, Lynne. Three Dollar Dreams. Lantzville, BC: Oolichan Books, 1987.
Davidson, Carole. Historic Departure Bay: Looking Bay. Victoria, BC: Rendezvous Historic Press, 2006.
Gidney, Norman. "From Coal to Forest Products: The Changing resource base of Nanaimo BC," Urban History Review, No. 1-78, June 1978.
"Hotels and Pubs of Nanaimo," transcribed by Dalys Barney. Vancouver Island University, September 2015. Online, accessed July 9, 2017, https://viurrspace.ca/bitstream/handle/10613/197/NanaimoHistoryMcGirr12.pdf?sequence=3.
"Interview with J.S.Matthews, Dec. 25Th 1957", Vancouver Archives. Online, accessed July 9, 2017, https://mountpleasantcommunityheritageproject.wordpress.com/2015/06/28/henry-wilfred-maynard/.
"Nanaimo Chronicles 1774-2000," City of Nanaimo. Online. accessed July 28, 2017, http://www.nanaimo.ca/assets/Departments/Community~Planning/Heritage~Planning/Local~History~and~Historic~Resources/NanaimoTimeline.pdf.
Peterson, Jan. A Place in Time: Nanaimo Chronicles. Nanaimo, 2008.
Peterson, Jan. Black Diamond City: Nanaimo in the Victorian Era. Surrey: Heritage House Publishing, 2002.
Peterson, Jan. Harbour City: Nanaimo 1920-1967. Surrey: Heritage House Publishing, 2005.
Peterson, Jan. Hub City: Nanaimo 1886-1920.Surrey: Heritage House Publishing, 2003.
"Snuneymuxw Settlement at Departure Bay," City of Nanaimo. Online. Accessed July 13, 2017, https://www.nanaimo.ca/assets/Departments/Community~Planning/Heritage~Planning/Heritage~News~and~Initiatives/SnuneySettlementSign.pdf.