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Nanaimo - Past and Present

Brief Nanaimo History Lesson


Nanaimo Harbour circa 1900

The beautiful coastal harbour which we now lovingly call Nanaimo was first occupied by the Coast Salish people whose name was Snuneymuxw (Snuh-NAY-moo).

Nanaimo was originally called Colevile Town until 1860 when the name was officially changed to Nanaimo which is an adaptation of Snuneymuxw (Snuh-NATY-moo). In that year the name Colevile Town was stricken from the maps and records.

It was in 1849, that in exchange for developing the territory, the Hudson Bay Company was given the rites to Vancouver Island and that included the monies earned from mining. They would have to resell the Island to the Crown in ten years and would have to use 90% of their gain to develop the colony. The remaining 10% could be kept by the Hudson Bay Company.

In the spring of 1850  Snuneymuxw Chief Che-wich-i-kan (ki­st-sa-kum), historically referred to as Coal Tyee, took a canoe laden with coal to Victoria. It was found to be of excellent quality and a company clerk was dispatched to Nanaimo.

In 1853 the Bastion was built to protect the harbour and area.

In 1854 after travelling for 179 days on the Princess Royal, the first immigrants arrived in Nanaimo. It is reported that 23 men and 23 women and a quantity of children left London England on June 2 1854 sailing to Nanaimo via Honolulu. A number of deaths and births are recorded in the ships log during the long journey from England to the final destination of Nanaimo.

 Near the end of 1854, Governor James Douglas ordered the first census of the colony. In Nanaimo, the white population was 151, there ere 52 dwelling houses, 3 shops, 6 outhouses and 1 school with 29 tudents. No one was over 60 years old; 15 were between 50 and 60; and nearly half were under 20.

For a more complete and detailed account of the early history of Nanaimo visit the Nanaimo District Museum site by clicking here.

It is reported that in Nanaimo Coal was King until about 1938 when forestry became the major industry in Nanaimo with the construction of a pulp and paper mill near Duke Point. However the Nanaimo deposit is reported to have been mined from 1853 until 1953.

Nanaimo Mine Explosion 1887

The Nanaimo mine explosion on May 3, 1887, in Nanaimo, British Columbia killed 150 miners and was the largest man-made explosion in the world until the Halifax Explosion. Only seven miners survived and the mine burned for one full day.

The explosion started deep underground in the Number One Coal Mine, after explosives were laid improperly. Although many miners died instantly, others were trapped by the explosion. These men wrote farewell messages in the dust of their shovels. More than 150 children lost their fathers and 46 women became widows. A plaque at the foot of Milton Street commemorates the event.

Although past documents put the death toll at 148, researchers have since revised the number to 150, including 53 Chinese workers. Chinese workers were listed in the government inquest and annual report of the Minister of Mines as "Chinamen, names unknown", followed by a tag number. BC employers did not have to report the deaths of Chinese employees until 1897.  Some accounts suggest that 48 of the 53 miners had the surname of Mah -- records may have been destroyed when Nanaimo's Chinatown burned to the ground in 1960. The monument on Milton Street lists the names of white miners, but only the tally number for Chinese miners.

At the time of the explosion, many white Nanaimoites blamed Chinese workers for the disaster, claiming the workers could not read signs or instructions. However, most miners–regardless of race–were illiterate.

Operated by the Vancouver Coal Company, the Number One mine opened in 1884 at the foot of Milton Street in Nanaimo. Its shafts and tunnels extended under the harbour to Protection Island, Newcastle Island, and the Nanaimo River. After the explosion, the mine re-opened, and produced 18 million tons of coal before closing forever in 1938. article courtesy of Wikipedia

Nanaimo's Chinatown


Nanaimo's Pine Street Chinatown 1958

In 1891 the Chinese population in Nanaimo was 228. Most of the population lived in Nanaimo's "second" Chinatown, located in the south end of the city. Originally, the Chinese community was located on Victoria Crescent close to the centre of the city, but in 1884 it was relocated to a site near the city limits. The Chinese community moved again in 1908 when a "third" Chinatown was established at the north end of Pine Street. That community was destroyed by fire in 1960 and was never rebuilt. Today, Bayview Elementary School occupies the site of the 1891 Chinatown. For more complete details click here.

The Esquimalt - Nanaimo Railroad


The E & N

In 1873, Canadian Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald had stated that Esquimalt, British Columbia, the site of a naval base, would be the terminus of the "Pacific Railway". However, both the federal government and the Canadian Pacific Railway placed a low priority on construction of such a railway, as it had low traffic potential and would duplicate an existing steamer service. In 1883, the British Columbia provincial government, tired of waiting for the federal government to build the railway, signed a contract with Sir Robert Dunsmuir, Nanaimo coal baron and a member of the provincial legislature, to build a railway between Esquimalt and Nanaimo in exchange for $750,000 from the federal government and 800,000 acres (3,200 km²) of land on Vancouver Island. That amount of land was almost 20% of the entire island and included all known coal deposits. The fact that Dunsmuir was a member of the provincial government that was making the deal aroused some suspicion. Shortly afterwards, Dunsmuir and associates incorporated the Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway.

Construction of the railway took three and a half years. On August 13, 1886, the last spike was driven at Cliffside, about 40 kilometres (25 miles) north of Victoria. The spike was gold, and the hammer was silver. Prime Minister Macdonald drove the last spike, during his only visit to British Columbia. The railway was extended to Dunsmuir's mine at Wellington in 1887, and into Victoria in 1888. It was extended west to Port Alberni in 1911, and north to Courtenay in 1914. The E&N Railway was originally to have been built all the way to Campbell River, but that plan fell through due to the outbreak of World War I.

Harmac Pulp Mill


The Harmac mill is a three line Northern Bleached Softwood Kraft (NBSK) pulp mill located on the east coast of Vancouver Island near Nanaimo, British Columbia. The mill is one of Canada's largest market pulp producers with a rated capacity of 400,000 annual metric tons.

The mill produces high quality kraft pulps made from custom blends of Douglas fir, western hemlock, balsam and western red cedar. The pulp is sold in Europe, North America, the Pacific Rim and Latin America. With its strategic location on a deep water port, the mill is well situated for cost effective export of pulp and receipt of wood fiber.

The mill has about 530 employees most of whom are represented by the Pulp, Paper and Woodworkers of Canada Local No. 8. Harmac enjoys an excellent working relationship with the union.

Commercial Fishing


In 2001, there were approximately 445 people employed in the fisheries sector. Current statistics are not available but previous estimates in the late 1980s indicated about 540 commercial fishing vessels resident in the Region. They provided employment for approximately 850 persons.


In 2002 there were 34 aquaculture sites which represents approximately 5.4% of the DR's total. The sites included 14 marine shellfish farms, 10 freshwater finfish farms, 7 finfish hatcheries, 2 shellfish hatchery, and 1 marine plant culture operation, while there were no marine finfish farms, or freshwater shellfish farms. Aquaculture has changed considerably since the last publication using information from 1993 when the area was described as containing a small number of salmon farming operations and shellfish leases.


In 2002, there were 11 fish processing facilities in the Region or approximately 17.7% of the Development Region total.

As quoted on the Nanaimo Regional District Web site. To view click here.

Port of Nanaimo


A Major Commercial Port on Vancouver Island

The Port of Nanaimo is the largest port on Vancouver Island and administers approximately 50 km of waterfront within harbour boundaries. In the cargo area, Port facilities include the 40.5 hectare Assembly Wharf of storage areas, warehouses, a mill, a dry dock and four berths. The 26 hectare Duke Point site has a deep-sea berth, a large all-purpose loading ramp, a container crane and licenced one-acre sites. BC Ferries carries almost 5.8 million passengers and over 2.2 million vehicles in and out of the harbour annually. Two seaplane companies carry approximately 80,000 passengers annually using the floats at the Port's Seaplane Terminal. Source: ACPA website

Pacific Biological Station


The Pacific Biological Station (PBS) was established in 1908 and is the principal centre for fisheries research on the West Coast. There are some 22 structures, of various ages, on the site including a four-story office/wet lab building, specialty storage structures for hazardous chemicals and salt water pumping facilities. PBS maintains a number of workshops for research support. There is a 200-lineal-foot wharf used for loading, unloading, and berthage of research vessels, as well as a small boat dock for inshore research boats. PBS also maintains a library and meeting facilities. Aquatic facilities, primarily used by Aquaculture Science, include ambient temperature and heated salt water and fresh (municipal supply) water.Visit their website here.

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