Historic Walking Tour
The Jewel of Nanaimo
Newcastle Island is a Marine Provincial Park. Its 756 acres are given over to leisure: camping, walking, biking, and bird-watching. There are no cars or roads, and only one permanently occupied dwelling. Visitors are drawn to the island's tranquillity, natural beauty, and charm, and have been for thousands of years. Besides natural beauty, the island also possesses a long and rich history. It is part of the Snuneymuwx First Nation's Traditional Territory. Traces of their ancient culture can be seen all along the water's edge--in shell middens and in the old traces of bark-stripped cedar trees, particularly around Giovando Lookout. Archaeological finds indicate that Departure Bay (which looks onto Newcastle Island's north-westerly coast) has been inhabited for anywhere from 2,000 to 4,000 years.xx1 The Snuneymuxw refer to Newcastle Island as Saysutshun, which in Hul'qumi'num means 'training for running.' This is a reference to the fact that the island was used for training by Snuneymuxw canoe teams. Before European arrival there were two seasonal villages: Clostun, which means 'protector' and was located on what is now called Midden Bay; and Sasytshun, which faced Protection Island. Archaeological evidence indicates that both sites were inhabited when Europeans first arrived.xx2 Besides athletic training, the island was principally used as a base to catch the herring that ran between Newcastle and Protection Islands, and to gather medicinal herbs. Over time it became a spiritual retreat and place of healing, where bereaved members of the community went to yu'thuy'thut to "fix up their heart, mind, and body, and let go of their tears."xx3 Most of this tour will focus on European settlement for which photographs exist: the island's early coal mining industry, and its successor: the famously high quality Newcastle sandstone. We will also look at the 1930s, when the mines were closed down and the island was purchased by the Canadian Pacific Railway (C.P.R.) and transformed into a place leisure and relaxation, which it has been – in one form or another – ever since.
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. 'Welcome to Newcastle'
The island had been used as a weekend getaway for people from Nanaimo since the beginning of the twentieth century, but when the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) bought the island in the late 1920s they turned it into a 'pleasure resort' for tour groups from Vancouver, creating picnic grounds, a dance pavilion, a bathhouse, and sports fields. The CPR's advertisements declared that it was "impossible to surpass for sheer beauty, variety and grandeur" of Newcastle Island.xx1 After construction of all the facilities was complete the resort opened in 1931.
The C.P.R. made sure that their guests had plenty of entertainment during their stay. They built a soccer field, a wading pool, a giant checker board, and fields for horseshoes. Bands came over from Nanaimo and did performances on the bandstand for the holiday-goers. On rainy days picnickers would congregate inside the pavilion and dance to a mouth-organ or whatever other instruments were available. The company went so far as to release beaver and muskrats up-island so that if tourists went for a walk they'd have some wildlife to look out for.
3. 'Beating the Competition'
The Canadian Pacific was not without competition in the leisure market. Historians speculate that it purchased Newcastle Island as a way to compete with their rival, the Vancouver-based Union Steamship Company (USC) who had developed a highly successful pleasure resort on Bowen Island in the 1920s.xx1 What Newcastle Island had that the USC's island didn't was electricity – that being courtesy of the underwater cables laid from Nanaimo. Rather than build hotels on the island they repurposed two steam ships to act as floating hotels, the Charmer (which was anchored in Mark Bay from 1931-1933), and the Victoria (1935-1936). In Hul'qumi'num, the name for Mark Bay is Qulastun, which means 'backwards facing' in reference to the fact that the bay gazes back towards Nanaimo Harbour.
4. 'The Protection Island Mine'
In the mid 1800s the Hudson's Bay Company was eager to find coal deposits to power their steamships. In the early days of settlement coal was imported by sailboat from the north of England, which was not only extremely expensive but time-consuming and unreliable. In 1850 a First Nations hunter since known as 'Coal Tyee', proved that their was high quality coal in this area. Soon after the Hudson's Bay Company descended on the lands of the Snuneymuxw to mine, establishing the city of Nanaimo. Mining started in Nanaimo in 1852. With the discovery of promising coal seams on Newcastle Island, the colonial governor James Douglas ordered a shaft sunk on Newcastle Island. The two mines that resulted, the Newcastle and Fitzwilliam, met with limited success. After opening in the 1850s, they were closed down soon after as better seams of coal were found north and south of Nanaimo, and on Protection Island. A brief effort was made to restart the Newcastle Island coal mines in the 1870s, but disappointing returns led to their closure in 1883.xx1
5. 'Summer Camping'
Beneath the harbour the miners dug a labyrinth of coal shafts over seven kilometres in length. They extended out from the No. 1 Esplanade mine which was located just south of downtown Nanaimo, and ran out as far as Gabriola Island. Many miners would later recall how they could time their shifts to the Vancouver and Victoria-bound CPR ships that passed overhead, their engine noises echoing down into the underwater, subterranean tunnels. Unmined coal can still be seen on Newcastle Island. Easiest to find is the twenty-inch thick seam which appears west of McKay point and reemerges above Saltery Beach.
6. 'The Pavilion'
The Pavilion, with its wide verandahs, open aspect, and proximity to the beach as well as open, grassy lawns, is typical of pleasure buildings from the period. Its long, shed-like structure provided room for a restaurant, a tearoom and a store that supplied boxed lunches. The popularity of the resort is indicated by the fact that, although most patrons dined in the restaurant, at the height of the summer up to two hundred boxed lunches were still sold every day. During the evening the Pavilion became a dining and dance hall, and Nanaimo locals would canoe over to join the visitors – dancing late into the night. Food was provided by cooks from Hong Kong and Canton, and guests were served by waitresses, usually high school girls from Nanaimo on a summer job. The Pavilion has been meticulously restored. It retains its sprung dance floor with its original fir and is still in good shape. The roof received new shakes, the verandah was rebuilt, and the original red and white paint scheme was recreated.
7. 'Opening Day'
Five days after the opening ceremonies, three CPR pocket-liners arrived: the Princess Victoria, the Princess Patricia and the Princess Joan arrived with 2,800 'excursionists'.xx1 I wonder if they were as confused as I am by the mushroom, for which no explanation or symbolism has been found.
8. 'Before the CPR'
Aug. 17, 1941
The reasons behind Newcastle Island's early picnic developments were certainly different from the CPR's. Both Vancouver Coal and Western Fuel had invested heavily in the island's mineral resources, not its leisure potential. Newcastle's coal deposits were substantial, but proved surprisingly difficult to extract. This left the two companies with this large piece of property they didn't have much use for. After a prolonged tussle with miners over working conditions and wages, both companies tried to develop relationships with their employees. For example, the Western Fuel Company held annual summer picnics on their Newcastle holdings. Hundreds of miners were brought across from the mainland on a scow (a flat barge with railings around the sides) for what was described as the 'gathering of all gatherings.'xx2
9. 'The War Years'
Although these two women probably both visited from Vancouver (Harry Houghton, of Vancouver, was employed by the British Columbia Sugar Refining Company, and James Herdman was a Reverend with the Presbyterian Church), plenty of Nanaimo locals used the island too, with estimates varying from 500 to 200 for an average weekend.xx1xx2xx3 Locals knew knew the best places to swim dive and local boys were sometimes hired to play baseball against visitors (they were paid with ice cream).xx4 Four years after this photograph was taken, World War II erupted, and with it came an austerity that had an even greater impact on the leisure industry that the Great Depression. For example, in April 1942 the CPR's annual Spring Garden Festival, which had been planned for the Empress Hotel in Victoria, was cancelled due to 'the new Canadian gas rationing regulations...'xx5 Similar restrictions had a direct impact on the CPR's coastal steamships. Passenger interest also shrank. In 1940 one ship, the Princess Victoria, was attracting only half the number of passengers as 1938.xx6 After a while, the ships stopped docking at the island at all.xx7 Although the Newcastle Island resort was briefly reopened in 1950, it never again served as an outlet for Vancouver excursions. After the war cars changed the attitude to leisure. People became more independent and prefered to go on summer road-trips, exploring on their own. The island started losing money and the CPR, who struggled as their foot-passenger oriented ferries struggled to compete with new car-oriented vessels, sold Newcastle Island to Park Canada in 1959.
10. 'The Sandstone Mines'
From early in the Island's settler history, people knew there was high quality sandstone on the island. The Hudson's Bay Company extracted small quantities to adorn the fireplaces and other fixtures of Victoria homes as early as 1860. James Hector's Palliser Expedition noted its flawless nature, unusual strength, and weather-resistant properties. It wasn't until 1869, however, that the mining of sandstone really became an industry. Joseph Emery, contractor to build the enormous new mint in San Francisco, read Palliser's report and visited Newcastle Island to inspect the stone. He found it to his liking. In lieu of this decision American quarries put up a fight in an attempt to get the business for themselves. Newcastle sandstone was subjected to a series of tests that only went to prove Emery had made the right decision: the Newcastle stone was the best in North America.
11. 'The San Francisco Mint'
Between 1870 and 1873 approximately 8000 tonnes of sandstone were cut. Each 1-ton block was sold for $3, although bigger blocks could be priced up to double. Most of the stone was dressed (cut and measured and, in this case, destined to clad the mint's facade), but some of the most valuable pieces were the eight monolithic, doric columns intended for the mint's portico. Each column was made of a single piece of stone measuring 27 feet in length and almost 4 feet in diameter.xx1 The mint was prestigious, and for this reason news of the stone's quality travelled fast. Many architects followed suit and demanded stone from Newcastle's quarry. Emery's lease expired in 1875 and soon after the mine was contracted out to Kinsman and Styles – the builders in charge of constructing the B.C. Penitentiary in New Westminster.xx2 Newcastle sandstone went on to be used in many notable buildings, including the Christ Church Cathedral in Victoria and the Alexandria suspension bridge. Over the years many architects, wanting the prestige of Newcastle sandstone, would falsely claim their buildings were made with it. Thus despite their claims, the Nanaimo post office, courthouse, and the Victoria and Vancouver libraries don't actually contain Newcastle sandstone.
12. 'The Pulp-stones'
The machine in this photograph was designed specifically to cut pulp-stones. The cylindrical drill took about forty-five minutes to cut a round of stone that was 48 inches in diameter and 18 to 20 inches deep.xx1 The smaller hole at the centre was made with a drill, and the stone was broken free by a small powder charge detonated from within this core. Most of the stones that you see lying in the pulp mine are not original Newcastle Island pulp-stones, but have been imported from Gabriola, where the industry moved to in 1932. Sandstone pulp-stones have since been replaced by artificial ones which have a much longer life-span.
13. 'Working the Sandstone'
Although life at the stone quarry wasn't easy, it certainly trumped being a coal miner: it was less dangerous, didn't require going underground, and had detrimental effects on long term health. In the miners' strike of 1870, the Newcastle Island quarry was one of the only outfits where labourers were in a position to help the struggling miners' families. Whilst the miners were all out of work, the quarry employed 50 men who, between them, raised $91.50 to send as relief. There were, of course, tedious aspects to the job: dressing the stone (cutting it to required dimensions for architectural designs) was time consuming work, undertaken primarily by hand. And, occasionally, all that hard work went to waste. In February 1872 a ship named Zephyr docked at Newcastle Island to be loaded with stone for the San Francisco mint. It took the crew and quarrymen eleven days to load the vessel with 800 tonnes of stone, which included two of the eight monolithic portico columns. Unfortunately the ship ran into bad weather and, a day after it set out, ran aground on Mayne Island. The boat sank rapidly and nothing was retrieved. The San Francisco mint design was modified and built, in the end, with only six of the intended eight columns.
14. 'A Geological Rarity'
Although this photograph isn't dated, there are records of a renewed interest in Newcastle Sandstone in the early days of newsprint. The new paper mills needed a source with which to make pulp stones to grind wood into paper. For this, they needed stone that was durable but of high quality – with a fine grain that could grind the fibres into small enough pieces. A 1917 report reads: "This stone differs strikingly in general appearance from any other sandstone tested. It is of fine and even grain, with true light-grey colour and clean 'pepper and salt' appearance. Smooth surfaces present a fine-dotted aspect, with light coloured grains in excess of the scattered greenish-grey specks."xx1 The light grains are orthoclase and plagioclase, feldspars and quartz, and the dark grains are biotite mica: Newcastle quarry was given a new lease of life.
15. 'Founding a Park'
The island was sold by the CPR to the city of Nanaimo in 1955. The city bought it for $150,000, but didn't have the funding for maintenance so sold on the land and the debt to the provincial government for $1 in 1959. The island is now co-managed by the Snuneymuxw First Nation, the city of Nanaimo, and the province. The Snuneymuxw are currently planning a future in which the island can become a focal point for learning about Snuneymuxw history and cultural practices.
1. Welcome to Newcastle
1. B.C. Advertiser, The Call of British Columbia, Vancouver, 1928. Quoted in Mackie, p. 9.
3. Beating the Competition
For further information, see Richard Mackie, 'The Newcastle Island Resort Pavilion, 1931-1941,' Prepared for the Heritage Conservation Branch, Victoria, B.C., 1983., pp. 13-56
4. The Protection Island Mine
For more detail, see Bill Merilees, Newcastle Island, A Place of Discovery, Heritage House Publishing, Surrey, B.C., 1998 p.39
7. Opening Day
1. Nanaimo Free Press, 26 June 1931, quoted in Mackie, p. 42.
8. Before the CPR
1. E. Blanche Norcross, editor of Nanaimo, A Retrospective: the first century, Nanaimo, 1979, p. 134
2. Lucy Niven, in conversation with Richard Mackie, 1983. Quoted in Mackie, p. 6
9. The War Years
1. B.C. Archives (http://searcharchives.vancouver.ca/bc-sugar-personnel-photographs) Accessed 05/12/17
2. Mervyn Ewart Kennedy, 'The history of Presbyterianism in British Columbia, 1861-1935,' UBC Thesis, 1938, p.61
3. Richard Mackie, 'The Newcastle Island Resort Pavilion, 1931-1941,' Prepared for the Heritage Conservation Branch, Victoria, B.C., 1983, p. 77
4. Richard Mackie, 'The Newcastle Island Resort Pavilion, 1931-1941,' Prepared for the Heritage Conservation Branch, Victoria, B.C., 1983, p.77
5. Gwen Cash, A Million Miles from Ottawa, Toronto, p.62. Quoted in Mackie, p. 97
6. Richard Mackie, 'The Newcastle Island Resort Pavilion, 1931-1941,' Prepared for the Heritage Conservation Branch, Victoria, B.C., 1983, p. 98
7. Richard Mackie, 'The Newcastle Island Resort Pavilion, 1931-1941,' Prepared for the Heritage Conservation Branch, Victoria, B.C., 1983, p.98
11. The San Francisco Mint
1. J. Gehlbach, 'The Origins of quarrying for sandstone on Gabriola,' Shale, Vol. 19, Nov. 2008. p.8
2. Bill Merilees, Newcastle Island, A Place of Discovery, Heritage House Publishing, Surrey, B.C., 1998, p. 61
12. The Pulp-stones
1. Bill Merilees, Newcastle Island, A Place of Discovery, Heritage House Publishing, Surrey, B.C., 1998, p. 63
14. A Geological Rarity
1. William A. Parks, Report on the building and ornamental stones of Canada, col. 5, Ottawa, 1917. Quoted in Merilee, p. 52