Top Gallery Photo Sample

Nanaimo Community Archives 2005 033 A-P1 & On This Spot Enterprises

Historic Walking Tour

Departure Bay

From Sea to Sky

by On This Spot

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.xx1 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.xx2 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.xx3 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.xx4 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."xx5 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.xx6 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'

Image Image

Nanaimo Community Archives 2013 003 A-P29 & On This Spot Enterprises


This photograph gives a clear idea of how rapidly this coast has been developed. A simple wooden pier sixty years ago, Departure Bay now hosts a sophisticated ferry terminal through which thousands of passengers and cars pass every day.

* * *

Access to the sea has always been crucial to Nanaimo's development, and Departure Bay is no exception—just look at the name. As early as 1898 plans were drawn up for a steamboat service that would run from Departure Bay to Vancouver. Ferry access from downtown Nanaimo caused the plans to be shelved. 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'

Image Image

Nanaimo Museum O1-10 & On This Spot Enterprises


This photograph shows the Brechin Mine, otherwise known as the No. 4 Northfield Mine. The shafts here extracted coal from a seam that ran all the way across the water to Newcastle Island. Brechin was one of a number of coal mines in this area that quickly grew to rival the first coal mines around Nanaimo.

* * *

Departure Bay, like the rest of the Nanaimo area, initially attracted European settlers because of its rich coal deposits. Mining around downtown Nanaimo began in the 1850s by the Hudson's Bay Company who took control of most of the land in the region. Soon after they sold their mining projects and properties to the Vancouver Island Coal Mining and Land Company (often shortened to Vancouver Coal Company or VCC). The VCC raised £100,000 to buy 6,000 acres of land, including most of Departure Bay. 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."xx1 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.xx2 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'

Image Image

Nanaimo Community Archives & On This Spot Enterprises


The men, women and children in this 1920s scene are leisure-seekers enjoying the bay's shallow, warm waters, and sandy beaches. In the distance it is possible to see the local hotel, the old Bay Saloon.

* * *

Although Nanaimo and, in particular Newcastle Island, became a mecca for West Coast leisure – drawing tourists from Victoria, Vancouver, and Seattle – Departure Bay remained a mainstay for local recreation. There was a small building on the beach named Kin Hut, where residents could change and store their belongings, but the facilities were otherwise fairly basic. 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'

Image Image

Nanaimo Community Archives 1993 028 A-P42 & On This Spot Enterprises


The Harper's Hotel, otherwise known as The Bay Saloon, or simply 'Harper's,' was one of the earliest pioneer establishments in Nanaimo with a rather infamous reputation "known by ships all the way to San Francisco."xx1

* * *

Joseph Harper, an early settler who ran a stage-coach service between Nanaimo and Departure Bay, saw a new opportunity for business by opening 'The Grotto'--a store selling liquor and cigars. Harper built this hotel before Departure Bay's coal wharves were built (the deed dates to 1870). Although the hotel business in Nanaimo was unpredictable, and turnover was rapid, once the wharves were built, Harper benefited from a steady stream of business, selling fresh water to ships which anchored in the bay. He even built a jetty out from the hotel to make access easier for ships' longboats. 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."xx2 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.'

Image Image

RBC Museum A-05187 & On This Spot Enterprises


This 1903 photograph shows the first explosive plant built on the west coast. It belonged to the Hamilton Powder Company and was the site of Nanaimo's most spectacular explosion.

* * *

The Hamilton Company plant produced black powder, dynamite, and stumping powder–highly combustible and volatile substances. The relative danger of producing explosives was well known, but demand was high--explosives were used in the logging industry to remove stumps, as well as in the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway. In the same year that this photograph was taken, a spark ignited a fire in the drying and weighing room. 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."xx1 The blast was so powerful that it shook the windows of houses 60 kilometres away in Vancouver.xx2

6. 'The First Homes'

Image Image

RBC Museum A-04533 & On This Spot Enterprises


This photograph from the 1870s shows some of the very earliest Nanaimo homes nestled against the wild shoreline and long-departed forest.

* * *

Early pioneer homes were simple cabins made from the cedar trees that crowded the coast. Cracks between the logs would be stuffed with whatever could be found (moss, or clay) and the interiors would be warmed with rush mats and Snuneymuxw rugs made from dog hair and local materials like fireweed. At the time this photograph was taken, there was still no water supply system: residents drew water from a spring until the late 1870s. 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.xx1

7. 'HMS Boxer'

Image Image

RBC Museum J-00402 & On This Spot Enterprises


In the early days of coal mining and export in Departure Bay, a wagon filled with coal can be seen riding along the tracks to the HMS Boxer--a ship that played a crucial role in the development of Wellington and Departure Bay's coal industry.

* * *

In 1871 Robert Dunsmuir, who had until that point worked for the HBC and VCC, discovered the Wellington coal seam located . He described the find as the 'greatest discovery of coal since the one in 1849 [in downtown Nanaimo]."xx1 Dunsmuir set about founding a company through which he could claim the land and begin extraction. In order to do this he had to convince wealthy settlers to invest in his business, and this required him to prove the quality of the coal. He managed to persuade Lieutenant Diggle of the HMS Boxer, first to take a shipment of Wellington coal to Victoria for testing, and then to invest $10,000 in the firm that became Dunsmuir, Diggle, and Company.xx2 We cover the life of the remarkable Robert Dunsmuir in greater detail in the Dunsmuir walking tour. 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.xx3

8. 'The Coal Wharves'

Image Image

RBC Museum G-04686 & On This Spot Enterprises


Infrastructure developed very quickly around the coal industry, as can be seen in this photograph of the bay in the 1890s.

* * *

Robert Dunsmuir's coal seam lived up to its promise. In 1872 a rail line was constructed to connect the mines to the coal wharves. Although Dunsmuir, Diggle and Co. had only only mine, in 1873 they produced 16,000 tonnes of coal to the Vancouver Island Coal Company's 45,000. By 1880 the figure had rocketed up to 189,000 tonnes, and in 1883 Dunsmuir bought out Diggle for a staggering $600,000—$13.6 million in today's money.xx1 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.xx2

9. 'The Fate of Stl'i lep'

Image Image

Nanaimo Community Archives 1997 013 A-P1 & On This Spot Enterprises


We can see here that Departure Bay is recovering from the Great Depression: a beach full of bathers, telegraph poles line the new roads which, in turn, are lined with new cars. It is sobering to think that only forty years before this the Snuneymuxw were still living in longhouses on this very beach.

* * *

The Snuneymuxw retained access to the village of Stl'i lep well into the 1800s--until, in the middle of the 19th century, the pioneer land grabs began to erode their ability to hunt, fish, and live in the bay. The first claims on land came in 1861, when two pioneers–first John Christie, then William Hughes--asserted their right to settle large chunks of the land around Stl'i lep. It took a decade, but in 1871, after Departure Bay had finally been surveyed, the crown granted the settlers title to the Bay. 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'

Image Image

Nanaimo Community Archives 2005 033 A-P1 & On This Spot Enterprises


The many ships docked here at the coal wharves are proof of the productivity of the Wellington mines. In the decades after this photo was taken however fishing would also come to play an important role in Departure Bay.

* * *

By the end of the 19th century, the Nanaimo coal industry was reaching its apex of both production and growth. Between 1880 and 1890 the town grew from a population of 2,645 to 7,595, coal production quadrupled, and the number of miners employed went from 819 to 2,609.xx1 At this point the E&N Railway, built by Robert Dunsmuir to connect Nanaimo with Victoria, had not only been completed but extended up to Wellington. 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.xx2

11. 'Preserving the Past'

Image Image

Nanaimo Community Archives 1993 028 A-P17 & On This Spot Enterprises


This bird's eye view of Departure Bay shows coal heaped up alongside the wharves. In the foreground a train steams along the newly completed E&N railway. Since the industrialization seen here in the late 19th century, Departure Bay has undergone massive change and is now looking forward to the future.

* * *

As has been mentioned above, in 2016 a settlement was reached with the Snuneymuxw people, acknowledging their loss of and land and compensating them almost $50 million. Although archaeological evidence of the village abounds, there are no longer visible traces; only a small memorial that acknowledges an ancestral burial ground, and a red cedar ‘Portal to Snuneymuxw Heritage' that has been constructed at Kin Park. 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.


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),

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),

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),

2. "Nanaimo Chronicles 1774-2000," City of Nanaimo, (Online, accessed July 28, 2017),

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.