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Coal fuelled Nanaimo’s early days

In this excerpt from Black Diamond City, author Jan Peterson reveals scenes from the earliest days of coal mining in the area, before the massive influx of foreign labour that was to come, when members of the local Snuneymuxw First Nation worked in p

In this excerpt from Black Diamond City, author Jan Peterson reveals scenes from the earliest days of coal mining in the area, before the massive influx of foreign labour that was to come, when members of the local Snuneymuxw First Nation worked in partnership with the Hudson’s Bay Company to harvest and ship the coal.


The Hudson’s Bay Company entered a transition phase in the middle decades of the 19th century. What had traditionally been a fur-based economy expanded to include new commodities and market conditions. The Pacific coast offered new possibilities to exploit the area resources and open new markets for commercial enterprise. The fur trade still remained part of life in the far-flung forts of New Caledonia, but it would be coal that would change the economic outlook on Vancouver Island. Fort Rupert may have been the first location on the island where coal was mined, but it would be the Nanaimo mines that would enrich the HBC.

A chance encounter between Snuneymuxw Chief Che-wich-i-kan [or Ki-et-sa-kun] and a blacksmith in Victoria set the wheels of development in Nanaimo in place. Che-wich-i-kan, historically referred to as “Coal Tyee,” had gone to Victoria to have his gun repaired. He commented about black stones being plentiful in his area. This conversation was repeated to HBC authorities, who then invited the chief to bring some of his black stones to Victoria. In return, he would get a bottle of rum and have his gun repaired free. The date was December 1849. The following spring, Coal Tyee returned with a canoe laden with coal. A company clerk, Joseph William McKay, was quickly dispatched to Nanaimo.

Joseph McKay was born at Rupert House, Hudson Bay, on Jan. 31, 1829. His family was large — nine sisters and two brothers. McKay was first posted to Fort Vancouver in 1844 when he was 15 years old, then two years later to Fort Victoria, where he clerked for Chief Trader Roderick Finlayson.

In early May 1850, McKay outfitted a prospecting party and began searching for coal in Nanaimo. He found what became known as the Douglas vein at the spot where Coal Tyee had taken his sample. He also explored the beautiful countryside between Nanaimo and Victoria, finding several large tracts of land suitable for settlers. There were also some indications of gold but nothing to warrant extensive prospecting.

The post at Nanaimo was sheltered from the weather by Newcastle Island to the north, Protection Island to the east, and the smaller Cameron Island in the harbour. Further to the east was Gabriola Island. Within the geographic configuration at Nanaimo were two deep-sea harbours: one at Departure Bay, further north and west of Newcastle Island, and one at Nanaimo Harbour, earlier known as Wentuhuysen (or Wenthuysen) Inlet. Both harbours provided safe anchorage for visiting vessels.

Forests thick with Douglas fir and cedar covered the steep slopes from the shoreline west to Mount Benson. When McKay first arrived, scattered along the rocky foreshore were the longhouses of the Snuneymuxw families. Running parallel to the shore was a piece of land several hundred yards wide separated by a narrow passage of water later given the name Commercial Inlet. It was here the Douglas seam was uncovered and where the first log cabins were built.

In August 1852 [Governor James] Douglas personally made a canoe trip from Fort Victoria to Nanaimo, accompanied by Joseph Pemberton, John Muir Sr. and Douglas’s secretary, Richard Golledge. The expedition explored the area of the Cowichan River. The cultivated fields of potatoes particularly impressed Douglas. To the north, they explored the mouth of the Chemainus River before proceeding to Nanaimo, where the coal deposits were examined.

It was important for Douglas to prove to the HBC that his coal-mining dream on Vancouver Island could be a reality. He found the Snuneymuxw were “very friendly, and disposed to give every information we desired,” and noted three coal beds cropping out in different parts of the inlet. The three included the original site at Nanaimo Harbour, another on Protection Island and the third at Midden Bay on Newcastle Island.

Douglas wrote of his journey: “I rejoice to say that our journey has been productive of very satisfactory results; as we have had abundant evidence to prove that the mineral wealth of Vancouver’s Island has not been over rated. This discovery has afforded me more satisfaction than I can express.”

It was on this trip that Douglas was startled to find that the maps of Vancouver Island were wrong in that they showed islands such as Galiano and Valdes as part of Vancouver Island.

Douglas formally appointed McKay on Aug. 24, 1852, to be the HBC representative in Nanaimo. With the appointment came instructions: “You will proceed with all possible diligence to Wentuhuysen Inlet commonly known as Nanymo Bay and formally take possession of the Coal beds lately discovered there for and in behalf of the Hudson’s Bay Company.” He was to stop anyone from working the coal beds unless so licensed by the HBC, and to those duly licensed, ensure they paid a royalty.

The journal of McKay, recorded in the HBC Nanaimo daybook, documents the day-to-day struggle of establishing the Hudson’s Bay Company at Nanaimo. McKay encountered such immediate problems as getting enough food, shelter and equipment, while at the same time trying to avoid getting embroiled in tribal conflicts so common in early Vancouver Island history.

Correspondence between Douglas and McKay shows how Douglas dictated almost every aspect of the initial coal-mining operation. Douglas informed McKay he was sending John Muir Sr., and his sons Robert and Archibald, and John McGregor Sr. Instead of rations, these men were to be allowed one shilling per day, and they would provide their own provisions. Douglas, knowing how difficult it was to find food, pointed out to McKay that this “will save you much trouble.”

When the Snuneymuxw Chief Wun-wun-shum arrived at the site on Sept. 1, McKay thought he was “impertinent in his behaviour.” The chief argued the coal was worth one blanket for five barrels of coal, and he would not listen to any proposal to allow the whites to work the coal. While the Snuneymuxw had freely shown the seams of coal to the HBC and assisted in their arrival, it was clear now they wisely wanted to garner some benefit from the coal extraction.

On Sept. 9, 1852, the Cadboro sailed with the first 480 barrels of coal. The Snuneymuxw had mined and loaded the coal — 20 barrels for a two-and-a-half point blanket and other goods. The Snuneymuxw remained adamant they would not allow other tribes to work the coal; this was their domain. However, a week later, a group of Sno-who-mish and Sheshalls [Sechelt] arrived wanting to get into the shingle business. They brought samples of split cedar shingles to trade, but McKay noted, “they asked extravagant prices.” The small fort also had a visit from the Cowechin Chief, Tsaw-si-ai, who arrived with 40 armed people in four canoes. In his letter to Douglas, he explained why the show of strength.

“On coming alongside the Recovery I invited the old man on board, treated him to some victuals and enquired of him his intention in coming here in such a warlike manner. He informed me that he had just returned from the Fraser River and that he had come over from his village on a complimentary visit to the Nanaimo Indians who were his relations and friends. On leaving the harbour they shot an Indian collier. The excitement occasioned by this occurrence has nearly died away and the coals are coming in this morning as usual.”

The coal-mining operation eventually evolved into a separate organization known as the Nanaimo Coal Company. McKay initially oversaw all aspects of the operation. The Snuneymuxw eagerly accommodated the HBC and in the first few years dug surface seams and traded several thousand tons of coal with the HBC. Native women worked alongside men, loading coal from canoes to the ships.

The process was very labour-intensive. The coal was hauled in baskets from the pit site to the weigh station. Then it was transferred to the canoes and then to the ships to be stored in barrels. The women received tickets for every tub of coal they carried. These were exchanged for trade goods.

There was no great rush to develop the Nanaimo mines. The HBC had only furs in mind when it came to the economy; coal was just another commodity. McKay was transferred to Fort Simpson when the Crimean War broke out in 1854.


Black Diamond City: Nanaimo — The Victorian Era © Jan Peterson, 2002. Heritage House Publishing

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