I’m excited to share that I’ve self-published a booklet, and that Message on a Bottle: Nanaimo’s Soda History by Dalys Barney is now for sale!
Available for $10 if I can connect with you locally near Nanaimo, or $12 if you need it mailed to you, the booklet will likely appeal to bottle collectors and to those interested in Vancouver Island history.
Starting as early as the 1870s, Nanaimo had entrepreneurs who were bottling and selling soda in the city. A small luxury that could be enjoyed by the young and old alike, bottled soda was especially welcomed at well-known Nanaimo summer events like the miners’ picnic. While independent local soda businesses have faded away with time and industry consolidation, what we’re left with today are the bottles, some of which feature iconic Nanaimo images like a crossed miner’s pick and shovel or the Bastion.
Not a pricing guide, but an attempt to tell the history of the city’s soda industry, the booklet focuses on single-serving glass soda bottles and Nanaimo manufacturers like William Rumming, John Mitchell, and Louis Lawrence.
I’m excited to share that I will be giving a short presentation about my self-published booklet Message on a Bottle: Nanaimo’s Soda History at the Nanaimo Historical Society’s upcoming AGM on Thursday, March 9th. Everyone welcome!
The accompanying tweet read: “This coal mine, owned by Pacific Coast Coal Mine Limited, was located at Wellington between 1910 and 1915.” That made me pause, because having done some research on local coal mines, as well as being from the area, I know that Pacific Coast Coal Mines Ltd. was active in South Wellington, and not in Wellington, which was a Dunsmuir family interest.
I did some searching through the books I had at home and found a picture in South Wellington: Stories from the Past (a book complied by the South Wellington Historical Committee) of what I believe to be the same mine site from a different angle. This is a photo contributed by Jack Ruckledge and the mine is identified as the South Wellington Mine. That white “Pacific Coast Coal Mines Limited” sign on the roof of the building sure looks the same to me, but others can draw their own conclusions.
Above: South Wellington Mine photo found in South Wellington: Stories from the Past1 Photo used with permission of Helen Tilley
The UBC image has a supplied title: “[Pacific Coast Coal Mine at Wellington, now Northern Nanaimo]” which I think is incorrect. When I looked more closely at the metadata for the item in UBC’s collection, it appears that the image was the front of a postcard. On the back of the postcard, which is unused, someone has written the following: “1918 Wrigley’s B.C. Directory lists: PACIFIC COAST COAL MINES Ltd. S. Wellington. This is 5 miles north of Nanaimo, on the E.N. Railway. Pop. 400. The mine itself is listed in the Nanaimo listings”.
The person making this notation is correct is some respects, the Wrigley’s British Columbia Directory for 1918 does list Pacific Coast Coal Mines Ltd. in the Nanaimo section rather than in the tiny South Wellington section. Flipping through the alphabetical listings of the Nanaimo section, Pacific Coast Coal Mines Ltd. is in fact listed with “S Wellington” noted on page 303. The “5 miles north of Nanaimo” part of the notation on the postcard might have just been a small error made after looking at the brief description of South Wellington in the directory which reads: “a post office and coal mining town on the E. & N. Railway, 5 miles south of Nanaimo, and 68 north of Victoria, in Newcastle Provincial Electoral District. Population, 300. Local resources: Coal-mining.”2
The Nanaimo write up in the directory refers to South Wellington as being “but three miles from the city,” and I can assure you as someone who lived there for several decades, it’s south, not north of Nanaimo. Perhaps the person who wrote on the postcard was thinking of the earlier South Wellington, which was actually north of Nanaimo. In part two of my previous blog post series about the Wellingtons of Nanaimo, I look at this in more detail, but in the late 1870s, there was a small coal mining outfit which operated near the boundary of Robert Dunsmuir’s Wellington Colliery. This short-lived South Wellington Colliery was located just south of Dunsmuir’s Wellington, and the small settlement that developed around this mine was indeed “north of Nanaimo.” However, by 1879, the South Wellington Colliery was acquired by Robert Dunsmuir, and it was incorporated into the larger Wellington Colliery workings.
It’s important to note that coinciding with the discovery of coal at Extension, the mines at Wellington were winding down by the late 1890s, and that the last coal was removed from the No. 5 Wellington shaft in October 1900. In the tweet, UBC gives the photo’s date range as between 1910 and 1915, but that doesn’t actually fit with any Wellington mine timeline.
After Dunsmuir negotiated significant land and mineral rights as part of the E&N Railway deal, he began exploring coal prospects up and down the Island in the railway belt. In 1884, the Alexandra Colliery (also inconsistently remembered as the Alexander and Alexandria) was opened by Dunsmuir’s E&N Railway Company in the Cranberry District, south of Nanaimo. In addition to the mining rights obtained by Dunsmuir as part of the E&N deal, adjacent mineral rights were purchased from James Beck, a significant landowner in the area.
As typical with coal mines at the time, a small settlement grew up around the mine site. The townsite initially called itself Alexandra, but an 1899 application to the post office proved a very similar name was already in use in B.C. Fort Alexandria, north of Williams Lake on the Fraser River, had been opened by the North West Company in 1821.
The original small north-of-Nanaimo South Wellington townsite had faded away, so that town name was available. The Alexandra townsite in the Cranberry District was renamed South Wellington when the post office opened there on August 1, 1899. The possible suggestion of a connection between the new Alexandra Mine prospect with the well-known Wellington Colliery reputation was a bit of a stretch. Although the Alexandra Mine was certainly a Dunsmuir operation, it worked the Douglas Seam rather than the Wellington Seam which was known for its high-quality coal.
The Alexandra Mine didn’t prove to be a winner in the area, but in 1907, John Arbuthnot, the former mayor of Winnipeg, formed South Wellington Coal Mines Limited after securing mineral rights from early South Wellington settlers. Under the 1904 Vancouver Island Settlers’ Rights Act, local families that could prove that they had been on their railway belt properties prior to 1884 were able to apply to retain mineral rights rather than have them surrendered to Dunsmuir as part of the E&N Land Grant. Arbuthnot’s company arranged a 3-year mining lease on the 160-acre Fiddick property as well as a 20-year mining lease on the adjoining 320-acre Richardson property. In 1909, Arbuthnot reorganized his company as Pacific Coast Coal Mines Ltd. with the intention of further developing coal mines in the South Wellington area as well as exploring other prospects further up the Island near Suquash.
Not far away from the South Wellington townsite, the PCCM operated the Fiddick and Richardson slopes together as the South Wellington Mine until 1917. Boat Harbour opened as the company’s shipping point in 1909, with a seven-mile company rail line running from there to South Wellington. Parts of today’s Morden Colliery Regional Trail, which has a section that starts at the Morden Colliery Provincial Park and ends at the Nanaimo River, make use of some of the old PCCM rail grade. You can even see a small piece of rail next to the path in one section.
UBC seems to have overlooked the “S.” on the back of the postcard when creating a title for the image on the front. I did reply to their tweet with my suggestion that the caption was incorrect, but I’m not sure my saying so will be enough to see a change to the image’s title. But you can’t really fault someone for trying to get their hometown community its fair share of the limelight.
Pacific Coast Coal Mines Ltd. is perhaps better known for its other mine at Morden Colliery. The two shafts at Morden were known as No. 3 and 4, as No. 1 and 2 were the Fiddick and Richardson slopes of the South Wellington Mine. Those already familiar with the PCCM’s South Wellington Mine may recall that in 1915, it was the site of a terrible disaster resulting from a map scale reading error. Rick Morgan of the Ladysmith and District Historical Society has written an extensive blog post about this tragedy in which 19 miners died. Mining at the PCCM’s South Wellington Mine continued for only two more years after the accident, and in 1917, the mine was closed, and the company focused its efforts on Morden.
Despite Morden’s modern equipment and the company’s hopes and investments, it never proved to be a very successful mine. In 1922, the mine was closed and flooded, and the PCCM went into voluntary liquidation. In 1930, Morden was briefly reopened by the Canadian Coal and Iron Company, but this also proved to be unsuccessful, closing later that year.
Both the Richardson and Fiddick slopes were reopened in the late 1920s and were worked on and off into the 1940s as small operations independently run by the Richardson and Fiddick families. The intention in both mines was to focus on recovering pillars left by the PCCM’s earlier workings. In 1928, 72 tons of coal were removed from the Richardson Mine, part of which was also known as the Ida Clara Colliery, and 1,805 tons were taken out of the Fiddick. In 1979, Dolly Gregory was interviewed for the Coal Tyee History Project and she shared stories and memories about mining with her husband, Bill Richardson, in the 1930s. Historically, coal mining has been an industry almost entirely dominated by men, so this interview with the only known female coal miner in the area is a real treat.
The only physical remnant of the South Wellington Mine that is still around today is a concrete structure that I’ve been told was likely a support for the tipple. A shorter but similar, more accessible, PCCM arch can be found within the Morden Colliery Provincial Park.
Concrete arch at the former South Wellington Mine site photo courtesy of Maechlin Johnson
I’ve always been interested in the South Wellington Mine story because Robert Miller, an earlier owner of the property where my parents live and the builder of their barn, drowned in the 1915 accident. The Miller barn stood as a significant figure in the valley landscape in South Wellington for over 100 years, but in 2019, the old girl came down.
Barn built by Robert Miller on my parents’ property in South Wellington. The section on the right was likely a later addition to the original loose hay barn.
While cleaning up the barn in preparation for the demolition, my dad found a miner’s tag hanging on a nail in the barn. Even though my family had lived on the property for over 30 years, we hadn’t discovered the tag. It was only when the barn’s time was coming to an end that the round, toonie-sized marker was discovered in plain sight. Miners used the tags for a variety of reasons, including indicating one’s presence underground, checking out lamps and tools, and marking cars filled with coal. They are quite collectable and my dad had been looking for one for years. While we don’t know for sure, we like to think that it was Robert Miller who hung the tag in the barn and that it may in fact be a memento from the South Wellington Mine.
Miner’s tag found in my parent’s barn
*Thank you very much to Helen Tilley for sharing her extensive research confirming that Alexandra (not Alexandria or Alexander) is the original name for the Dunsmuir mine which opened south of Nanaimo in 1884. The community that grew up around the mine (known today as South Wellington) also shared this name for a time, and I have updated this post so I don’t further contribute to the name being misremembered as Alexandria or Alexander.
Tilley, Helen, “The Fiddick and Richardson Slopes of the South Wellington Mine,” in South Wellington: Stories From the Past (South Wellington, BC: South Wellington Historical Committee, 2016), 6.
I’m happy to be writing a series of blog posts about my great-grandparents, Ole Olsen and Konstanse Fyhn. This third installment is the story of the Olsens’ time in the Bella Coola Valley after their marriage in December of 1914 until they left the valley in early 1935.
While many of the original Norwegian settlers in the Bella Coola Valley had dreams of making a living off the land and selling produce to support themselves, this proved to be challenging. Diana French, an author based in the Cariboo Chilcotin region, reflects on how the original colonists must have wondered at their choice: “The valley was dreary. The mountains loomed over the newcomers, critical of every move. There were no open meadows in the valley. Every inch of land was buried under thick tangles of brambles and bush, windfalls and enormous trees.”1
While the land they had heard promising tales of did prove to have rich alluvial soil, great for growing potatoes and fruit trees, massive trees covered everything in sight. The river, with its frequently shifting flood plain, was also a challenge to farmers living on its banks. But probably the biggest impediment to the colonists making a living from the fruits of their labour was the lack of access to the Bella Coola Valley, and “by 1915 everyone realized that the valley’s remote location made full-scale farming a chancy business.”2
To earn a living, many of the men of the Norwegian community, my great-grandfather Ole included, worked as commercial fishermen, spending long periods of time away from home. Ole fished salmon in Rivers Inlet from spring to autumn, and sometimes went out again in November, when he headed to the west coast of Vancouver Island to fish the runs there. With a can of salmon considered the ideal army ration, B.C. salmon was in demand during World War I.3 Fishermen like Ole would have likely found plenty of demand for their catch. But other times were tougher. “In the very early twenties the fishing was not rewarding,”4 local historian Cliff Kopas records in his history of Bella Coola. Families likely had to subsist on what their garden could provide them. “In a poor fishing year, the women probably made more of what they realized in the garden than the men did.”5
The Olsens circa 1923 – Konstanse, Arnold, Einar, Ole, and Johnny
With the men away for long periods of time fishing, the women were frequently left to take on most of the responsiblities at home, including raising the children and tending the farm. With young ones to care for, animals to mind, household tasks to be done, bread to bake, and gardens to plant, weed, and harvest, women like my great-grandmother Konstanse would have had more than enough chores to keep themselves busy. Perhaps this helped to distract Konstanse from her loneliness, for “the lot of a fisherman’s wife was a solitary one in rural British Columbia.”6
Ole was joined fishing by his sons as they aged, with his oldest son Johnny eventually running a boat of his own. In what seems to be a very popular generic “Norwegian fisherman in Bella Coola” image, a young Johnny Olsen is captured in a photo taken by Cliff Kopas, who in addition to being a local historian was also an avid photographer. The image turned up in multiple books that I read during my research. My grandmother always claimed that her brother was in a “famous” photo, but the young fisherman I encountered again and again was always unidentified. Finally, in a book edited by Kopas’ son Leslie, I found a proper caption for the photo. It was Johnny afterall, my grandmother’s eldest brother. What a nice surprise!
Johnny also makes an appearance as an eager but green cowboy in Isabel Edwards’ book Ruffles on My Longjohns, which chronicles the Edwards family’s experiences homesteading in the Bella Coola Valley. “The saddle was for a young Hagensborg chap named Johnnie Olson [sic] whom Earle had met out on the fishing grounds. Johnnie longed to be a cowboy. His only dream was to ‘ride the hurricane deck of a cayuse,’ but he had no saddle, nor a horse to put one on.”7 After his pack horses desert him and he has to spend a night out alone in the cold with no axe or matches, Edwards says Johnny changed his mind about his dream and “with an air of finality the words burst from him, ‘But to hell with horses!'”8 So it was back to fishing for Johnny Olsen, and in a cruel twist of fate, Bella Coola’s iconic fisherman died doing what he knew best. Having never learned to swim, Johnny presumably drowned in 1969 while fishing off the coast of Prince Rupert. His body was never recovered.
The Olsens circa 1930 – Back row: Ole, Konstanse, Eva, Johnny, and Arnold; Front row: Olive, Henry, Herb, and Einar
In October of 1934, after a heavy snowfall followed by an unusual warm spell and multiple days of rain, the Bella Coola River rose swiftly and flooded the Olsens’ property near Hagensborg. Ole and Johnny were away fishing at the time, so Konstanse was the only parent at home with the eight younger children as the river rose closer and closer to the house. Baby Robert was just a few weeks old at the time. The family sheltered in the house, feeling especially terrified after “away out in the night there came the most awful shock. As though the house itself were falling to pieces. … Arnold instantly interpreted: ‘The Branch bridge.'”9 The Olsens’ farm was located on an island which was connected to surrounding land by two bridges. The children were upset; they were out of drinking water, and the river continued to rise. A second roar indicated the main bridge also being washed away.
Great tree trunks from a dislodged log jam struck “the house so hard the whole place shook and faltered as though the boards were being warped crazily and all the nails pulled out at once. It struck them dumb.”10 With trees racing through the flood waters like battering rams, the river was no place for the family’s small rowboat, and they were trapped on their island. The Olsens prayed.
And their prayers were answered. Together with a crew of Nuxalk paddlers, the local doctor from the Mission Hospital, Dr. Herman McLean, and the provincial police constable, whom I believe was Jack Condon, rescued the Olsens in two great spoon canoes. My grandmother’s brother Einar remembered one of the Nuxalk rescuers as being Clayton Mack, later known as “The Bella Coola Man.” While I didn’t find any reference to Mack rescuing a flooded-out white family in 1934 in either of his biographies, it’s the kind of tale that would fit right in with Mack’s other adventures. Mack would have been approximately 24 years old at the time of the flood. A canoe rescue might have been not only enticing for its sense of adventure, but also quite doable given his familiarity with the area and in handling canoes. He certainly rescued his fair share of others from all sorts of wilderness scrapes during his many years as a grizzly bear guide in the Chilcotin. So, while I may never confirm that Clayton Mack was among the Olsens’ rescuers, it sure makes a good Bella Coola tale.
“I remember being in that flood, raging water everywhere, tree trunks, chickens, and planks swirling past us,” my grandmother Eva recalled.11 The family was loaded into the two great canoes, and the children were told to “Sit still!” with “enough authority in it to silence nearly forever all the rambunctious, disorderly kids in the whole world.”12 Einar remembered being scared and excited, and when interviewed about the flood he confided: “I almost wet my pants!”13
But the Olsens weren’t in the clear yet. When the canoes were beached on a sandbar, the family had to unload. The shifting sands caused Einar to lose his footing and he disappeared into the river with his baby sister Eleanor in his arms. A Nuxalk paddler grabbed Einar by the hair and pulled and the two Olsens were rescued a second time, “the infant still clasped in [Einar’s] unyielding grasp.”14 What a terrifying ordeal. It’s no wonder that, as my father’s cousin aptly wrote in a newspaper article about the Olsen family, “this harrowing story continues to be one that is retold in our family and handed down through the generations.”15
The 1934 flood was the largest in the valley in 60 years.16 With 11 acres of their land swept away, and a house that would never be the same, the Olsens’ farm was a grim picture. My grandmother’s brother Einar reflected in a 1998 interview: “We didn’t recognize the place. … There had been two benches of land and now it was all changed. There was six feet of river silt where there had been green grass and water had ruined everything in the house. All the years of hard work were destroyed.”17
It was time for the Olsens to leave the Bella Coola Valley.
Hank Olsen, Bella Coola Lady and That’s No Maybe (Victoria, BC: Trafford Publishing, 2003), 28.
Paula Wild, One River, Two Cultures: A History of the Bella Coola Valley (Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing, 2004), 125.
Mark Forsythe & Greg Dickson, “The Gift of Salmon,” in From the West Coast to the Western Front: British Columbians and the Great War (Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2014), 68.
This article was originally published in the Winter 2021 newsletter of the Nanaimo Historical Society. Thank you to the NHS board for giving me permission to share it here. Photography by Liz Laidlaw, VIU Library.
Did you know that the Library at Vancouver Island University has a digital archive of audio recordings of past Nanaimo Historical Society presentations dating back to 1962? You can find it online at: https://viurrspace.ca/handle/10613/14118.
In 2001, Shirley Bateman and other members of the NHS reached out to the Library at what was then Malaspina University-College. The Society was inquiring about the possibility of copying a set of cassette tapes containing recordings of NHS presentations from 1962 to 1973. Some of these cassettes had likely been created by a Malaspina student in 1974 by copying William Barraclough’s original reel-to-reel recordings, which were thought to be among the first documented recordings of their kind made in the province. The cassette tapes were deteriorating and the Society was hoping the Library could assist with making compact disc versions. In addition to being deposited at the Nanaimo Community Archives, a set of the recordings was kept in the Special Collections vault at VIU, and when technology allowed the Library to do so, digital mp3 files were created. These audio files were put online in VIUSpace, VIU’s digital library, in 2010 and form the first part of the Nanaimo History Project, which can be found here: https://viurrspace.ca/handle/10613/14119.
In 2019, a Memorandum of Agreement was signed between the NHS and VIU Library allowing for a second set of NHS cassette tapes to be temporarily transferred to the Library with the intention that they would also be digitized and made available online. The NHS was again concerned about the lifespan and accessibility of an aging cassette tape collection, while VIU Library perceived value in facilitating preservation and access to local- and BC-focused content to support new lines of inquiry and study for students, researchers, and members of the community. Working within the context of its strategic plan, which includes decolonization and community engagement objectives, the Library took steps to make its services and supports known and available to the Nanaimo Historical Society.
This second set of recordings, consisting of four boxes of over 100 cassette tapes mostly created by Pamela Mar and including NHS presentations from 1976 to 2011, will form the second part of the Nanaimo History Project, which can be found here: https://viurrspace.ca/handle/10613/14120. Digitization work is currently ongoing for this second set of tapes – over 125 audio files are now available with more being added on a regular basis.
With a keen interest in both local history and digitization work, the project has been a great fit for Dalys Barney, who is not only an NHS member, but also part of the VIU Library team that is doing this work. During the early stages of the pandemic, Dalys and her colleague Sarah Ogden were both working from home and had an opportunity to complete some transcripts for this collection. Now that Sarah has returned to working on campus (Dalys is still working remotely), the focus has shifted back to getting more of the tapes digitized and uploaded to VIUSpace. Expanded summaries, subject headings, and more transcripts will eventually follow as time and resources allow.
Consisting of family histories, recollections about school days, book talks by local authors, and presentations about a variety of Nanaimo and Vancouver Island events, businesses, buildings, people, and organizations, the collection is truly a treasure trove of material for anyone interested in the area’s human, industrial, built, or natural history. Like everything in VIUSpace, the Nanaimo History Project is open access, meaning anyone can listen to the recordings – you don’t need to be a VIU student or staff member.
NHS members may also be interested in other VIUSpace collections, such as the Coal Tyee History Project, which contains a series of audio interviews with Vancouver Island coal miners and their families conducted by the Coal Tyee History Society in the 1970s and ’80s. Digital audio files and transcripts can be found at: https://viurrspace.ca/handle/10613/25. If you’re interested in historical Vancouver Island newspapers, digitized versions of the Nanaimo Free Press (1874-1928) and the Cowichan Leader (1905-1928) can also be found in VIUSpace and are accessible here: https://viurrspace.ca/handle/10613/6678.
This book review was originally published in the Fall 2020 issue (53.3) of British Columbia History, a quarterly magazine published by the British Columbia Historical Federation. I’d like to thank the magazine’s editors for giving me permission to share it here.
With their new book, Around the World in a Dugout Canoe: The Untold Story of Captain John Voss and the Tilikum, maritime historians John M. MacFarlane and Lynn J. Salmon have attempted to set the record straight about one of the west coast’s most misrepresented seamen, Captain John Voss, whose reputation as a master mariner has been questioned for over a century.
Setting sail from Victoria in 1901, Voss spent the next three plus years and 40,000 miles completing an epic journey around the world in the Tilikum, a converted Nuu-chah-nulth cedar canoe. Covering the Tilikum’s voyage from Victoria to the Pacific Islands, to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Brazil, and finally to England, this book is an opportunity to step on board with Voss and his revolving door of first mates as they adventure around the world.
While Voss and the Tilikum were greatly admired by contemporary followers, the damaging allegation that Voss murdered the second of his mates in a drunken fight has been a shadow on his legacy that even time has had trouble erasing.
This book is an effort by MacFarlane and Salmon to counter the existing body of inaccurate and distorted information about Voss and his voyage, and to present a more complete account of what really happened. The authors drew from years of careful and critical research, during which they consulted newspaper accounts from around the world, as well as archival material, photographs, and testimonies to piece together as much information as possible about the Tilikum’s journey. Their research also included close readings of both John Voss’ and Norman Luxton’s (Voss’ initial first mate) books about the voyage. Details from these contradictory accounts are carefully considered, compared, and questioned by MacFarlane and Salmon.
Around the World in a Dugout Canoe sails smoothly from opening background chapters about Voss and Luxton to ones on the Tilikum’s preparation, departure, and major stops. A significant number of pictures from a variety of sources thoughtfully highlight the text, and the book is written in such a way that even landlubbers are able to wade through the nautical jargon – especially with the help of a glossary found in the back of the book.
MacFarlane and Salmon have done an excellent job of taking readers along on the Tilikum as Voss and his mates face multiple challenges. We experience the panic of getting down to the last few gallons of water, the hunger felt by Voss and his crewman as the food supplies run low, the endless monotony of the open sea, and the unpredictable and extreme weather conditions. The fragility of a journey that could have come to a tragic end at any moment is conveyed, while the constraints of the extremely limited space and the burden of constant companionship are easily understood. It’s no wonder that while Voss was dedicated to his goal of circumnavigation, he spent significant amounts of time onshore throughout the journey.
Not only was it fascinating to read about the celebrity status Voss and the Tilikum achieved at ports of call around the world – drawing in huge crowds to see their arrival, hear Voss’ lectures, and watch their departure – but it was also interesting to learn more about how Voss was a forefather of challenge-based long-distance recreational sailing. Throughout the years, journeys like the Tilikum’s have inspired countless individuals to attempt record setting voyages.
In one of the concluding chapters of the book, we leave Voss behind in England, and we follow the Tilikum herself through her descent into disrepair and her eventual repatriation to Victoria. After being carefully restored, the Tilikum was showcased proudly in her home province – first in Thunderbird Park starting in 1941, and then from 1965 to 2015 in the main gallery of the Maritime Museum of British Columbia.
While the Tilikum is currently in storage at the Ogden Point passenger terminal in Victoria, the media is reporting that the Maritime Museum of British Columbia has a plan to relocate to a new home in Langford. One hopes that the new location will mean that the Tilikum, an important piece of the province’s nautical history, will once again be accessible for the general public to enjoy in all her glory.
In the meantime, anyone interested in learning more about the Tilikum and Captain Voss will certainly enjoy reading this book.
What do stumping powder, the SS Oscar, and the mostly empty cans of paint in my basement all have in common? They’re all connected to Canadian Industries Limited, or CIL, a brand name that many Canadians will recognize from their paint cans, but one that people from Nanaimo might also associate with the neighbourhood of Cilaire. After encountering a post on the Library and Archives Canada Discover blog about the company history of the CIL brand, I thought I would explore the (unmentioned) tie of CIL to Nanaimo a little further.
By the late 1880s, the Nanaimo area had a busy coal mining industry. The Vancouver Coal Mining and Land Company’s No. 1 Esplanade Mine downtown was in full operation and the Dunsmuir mines in nearby Wellington were also very active. Wanting to take advantage of the demand for blasting powder, the Hamilton Powder Company, which had opened an office in Victoria in 1884, began to explore the idea of establishing a black powder works in the Nanaimo area. “Because of the extensive mining of coal in Nanaimo and other parts of the island the Hamilton Powder Works were encouraged to come and set up a plant to produce badly needed blasting powder. Cost of shipping the product from England was high and the product was often ruined with saturation of seawater.”1 In 1890, the Hamilton Powder Company built and opened a plant about four miles out of Nanaimo in Northfield on a 156-acre piece of land. “At Northfield, ten acres of land was cleared on which to build storehouses, a gristmill, boiler and power plant, all out of brick. The roofs were built in such a way as to send them skyward in the event of an explosion. The plant was built and operational by the autumn of 1890.”2
At the time, the powder works was likely welcomed by the community as it provided local jobs as well as savings for those using explosives. As Vancouver Island historian T.W. Paterson notes, “Total production cost of a keg of powder was $1 which wholesaled at $1.75 and was retailed to miners at $2-$2.25. … This was a substantial saving over the $4 previously charged by the companies.”3
In 1892, wanting to expand into dynamite manufacturing, the Hamilton Powder Company opened a second plant in the area on a 100-acre property at Departure Bay. Here they would manufacture their own nitroglycerine, the explosive and volatile chemical required to make dynamite. Dangerous supplies and cargo were carried by wagon between the two locations along the Black Powder Road.
Nanaimo historian Lynne Bowen captures the risk of transporting such dangerous cargo: “Extra heavy springs and four inches of wood shavings on the wagon floor gave the six or eight glass containers a small extra measure of cushioning. A lone man drove, his back to the ominous cargo. The wagon driver knew the danger involved in transporting the cargo up the muddy and rutted Black Powder Road which led to the Northfield Powder Works. He had done it many times and he always insisted on doing it alone. His luck had always held until one day in 1896. One morning it blew. They don’t know exactly what happened, maybe two of those big demijohns started to rub together. But the horse and the wagon and everything went and him right in the middle of it. He was blown to bits; the horse was blown to bits. They never did find him or the wagon. Made a hole in the road you could sink a house into.”4
As well as black powder and dynamite, the Hamilton Powder Company also locally manufactured a somewhat less dangerous product called Dualin stumping powder. Dualin was an explosive made by mixing nitroglycerin with an inert substance like sawdust or wood pulp. The Hamilton Powder Company’s explosives were used on Vancouver Island by coal miners, farmers, and local contractors, and the company’s products were also shipped to destinations elsewhere from the company’s wharf at Departure Bay.
An article in TheDaily Colonist from 1920 reflected on the importance of explosives at the time: “The miner does not force a foot of his subterranean advance under the eternal hills without its help. The gold, copper, iron and coal that warm and energize and carry and pay the way of the world have all been driven, as it were, to the surface of the earth by the force of an explosion. The explosive has its work to do in the clearing of forests, the planting of trees, the cutting of canals, the building of railroads, the quarrying of building stone, the irrigation of dry lands. The explosive has become the veritable hammer of the industrial Thor. It is a giant pick, a swifter plough, a subtle and mighty tool in the cunning hands of men.”5
As detailed in the Library and Archives Canada blog post, the Hamilton Powder Company merged with six other companies to form a new company, Canadian Explosives Limited (CXL) in 1910. At around this same time, capacity of the Nanaimo operations was becoming strained by BC’s railway and mining booms. The Nanaimo plants were connected with the company’s offices in Victoria and Vancouver. Additionally, there was an office in Nelson which supported the needs of the growing mining industry in the Kootenays.6 There was plenty of demand for explosives, but any expansion of the Nanaimo plants was restricted by regulations which dictated that there must be a certain amount of distance (1.5 miles) between an explosives plant and non-company owned buildings.7
Despite a bylaw passed by Nanaimo city council in 1898 which stipulated that: “No more than fifty pounds shall be carried or conveyed on any vehicle whatever within or through the streets of the City and that no more than fifty pounds of powder should be kept in any store, dwelling, or building within City limits,”8 Nanaimoites must have questioned the safety of having CXL operations nearby. A series of deadly accidents occurred throughout the years, including an explosion at the Departure Bay plant in January of 1903 which “launched a piece of railway track 80 metres through the air with such force that it wrapped itself around a tree.”9 The community’s fears were additionally fueled by the terrific explosion of the SS Oscar in 1913.
On the afternoon of January 15, 1913, the Oscar, which was heavily laden with dynamite and black powder that had been loaded at both the Giant Powder Company’s operation at Telegraph Bay near Victoria and at the CXL’s Departure Bay wharf, had bunkered up with coal at the Western Fuel Company’s wharf in Nanaimo and was heading for Britannia Mines at the head of Howe Sound. The ship was battling winter weather conditions with falling snow and poor visibility, so the captain decided to turn around and head back to the safety of the Nanaimo Harbour. A fire was discovered near the ship’s boilers, and in an effort to minimize the impending catastrophe, Captain Alexander McDonald steered the ship towards Protection Island in hopes she would run aground. He and the crew jumped overboard and swam to shore.
The explosion was immense and felt throughout the area. The above ground workings of the Protection Island Mine sustained substantial damage and in Nanaimo, “practically every pane of glass in the city was shattered to atoms.”10 The shock of the explosion even stopped the Nanaimo post office clock, “Big Frank,” at 1:55 p.m.11 Nanaimo Mayor John Shaw was one of the many who received injuries from the explosion, but luckily no one was killed. I’m sure the incident must have had Mayor Shaw, as well as everyone else in Nanaimo, wondering about the future of having an active explosives business so near to the city. “One week after the S.S. Oscar was blown to smithereens on a Protection Island beach a mass meeting of citizens demanded an inquiry into the manufacture, storage, and transportation of powder in Nanaimo and vicinity. The situation was likened to living with a sword over their heads.”12
Perhaps swayed somewhat by the public outcry, but more likely motivated by a lack of expansion opportunities in Nanaimo, in the spring of 1913, CXL purchased James Island in Haro Strait for a quarter of a million dollars. The company planned to open a plant there and eventually phase out not only the Nanaimo operations but also its acid and fertilizer plant located in Victoria’s Inner Harbour. It was anticipated it would take approximately two years to build the new plant.
The outbreak of World War I changed CXL’s plans for James Island, with production being shifted from dynamite to TNT to support the war effort. CXL plant engineer George Grubb described the change in plans, which happened when the new dynamite plant on James Island was only half finished:
“In 1914 when the European war broke out, few people, if any, realized the amount of explosives that would be required to supply the armies of the Allies. Trinitrotoluol (then also called Triton or TNT) was the new explosive of the war and very little was known of it outside of Germany when war broke out. … In 1915 Canadian Explosives Ltd. obtained their first contracts from the British Government. On August 13th, 1915, Fred Moore notified me that I was to proceed immediately to James Island and erect a TNT plant and have it ready for operation by October 15th!”13
TNT was produced on James Island until the Armistice, supplying approximately 35 million pounds to the Allied forces during the war. After the war, work on the half-built dynamite plant on James Island resumed, and finally, Nanaimo operations could be decommissioned. By May 1919, all of CXL’s production on the West Coast was moved to James Island.
In 1927, CXL changed its name to Canadian Industries Limited (CIL) to better reflect the diversification of its various operations which as well as explosives also manufactured products like munitions, chemicals, paints, and plastics. The CIL plant on James Island continued to operate for decades. Dynamite was manufactured there until September of 1978 and Nitro-Carbo-Nitrates until 1985.
CIL crates and blasting machine
photos courtesy of Janice Keaist & Maechlin Johnson
In the mid-1960s, former CIL land at Departure Bay was developed by Frank Ney’s Great National Land and Investment Corporation into a 220-lot subdivision. The “waterfront subdivision included all of the modern services and received plenty of flack from residents who objected to the unusually large number of trees that had to be removed to accommodate the project. However, it proved to be one of B.C.’s finest developments.”14 The subdivision was one of the first to have underground services and featured magnificent views of Departure Bay. The waterfront lots sold for just a fraction of their value today. The name of the subdivision? Cilaire, with the letters C-I-L paying tribute to the land’s earlier days under the CIL banner. There is little tangible evidence of CIL’s time in Nanaimo, just part of a concrete retaining wall and a few old footings from the company wharf, but the name and the stories continue to live on as part of Nanaimo’s history.
Douglas Steel, Nanaimo Past & Present: Stories of the City (Nanaimo, BC: Steelbro, 2013), 1.
A new, ultra local read! I first learned about the booklet, “Cedar By The Sea: 1890-1970” compiled by Roger Prior in the fall newsletter of the Nanaimo Historical Society. Since I live in Cedar myself, and I also like to support the creative work of fellow NHS members, it was a definite must-have! Only a limited number of copies have been produced, so I’m happy to have one to add to my always expanding local history library.
In his NHS newsletter article, Prior expressed that he felt that the history of Cedar’s early settlers was not well-known (I’d agree), and that he hoped that his “modest little booklet might help to recognize the endurance and vision of [Cedar’s] pioneers.” It’s so easy for stories to get forgotten if they aren’t recorded in any way. Local history matters, and I’m happy to see someone else writing about the history and development of the often overlooked small communities that surround Nanaimo.
The first and most lengthy section of the booklet features the Fiddick family, who moved to the Cedar area in 1872. Samuel and Elizabeth (Grandam) Fiddick pre-empted 250 acres on the west side of the Nanaimo River, building a home at the corner of Wilkinson and Akenhead Roads. Their son Charles later purchased 120 acres near Dodd Narrows, a property that was uncleared and included a quarter of a mile of waterfront. Charles Fiddick developed the land and moved his family into a house there in 1904, and descendants of the Fiddick family still live in the immediate area today.
Next there is a brief section in the booklet about the Long John Silver subdivision, which was developed by the realty company of Nanaimo’s pirate mayor Frank Ney on land purchased from the Fiddick family in 1963.
The next section features the Thomas family that first pre-empted land in Cedar in 1884. The Thomas family section is particularly focused on long time Cedar resident Ivor Thomas who lived in the area from his birth in 1889 to his death in 1981.
The final section of the booklet is about the Aquarian Foundation property. It was nice to see that Prior did not spend a lot of time on the mysterious (but sometimes over-embellished) tale of Brother XII that’s been covered at length elsewhere. Instead, the property itself is the focus in the booklet and what happened to the land and different buildings after the foundation dissolved and Brother XII and his followers dispersed.
I really appreciate the effort that goes into producing this kind of local history resource: peering at old newspapers, sorting through albums and boxes of photos, conducting interviews with neighbours, and exploring the resources of the Nanaimo Community Archives. As I contemplate my own writing ideas, I was pleased to read that Prior found his project to have a community building element. He shared that he “used the project as an introduction to even more neighbours and locals who added more of their memories.” The idea that neighbours can be brought together in the spirit of local history project is definitely one that I can get behind and something I will be thinking about in the future.
Two new ultra-local reads! I purchased both of these books directly from the authors, which I was happy to do in theses strange COVID-19 times. Each book is biographical, following the life and times of a different yet contemporary white, male, colonial pioneer who spent time in Nanaimo.
McDowell, Jim. Pluck, Luck and Grit: Charles A. Bayley in Colonial British Columbia (1851-1869). Richmond, BC: JEM Publications, 2018.
Davidson, Carole. Early Nanaimo 1857-1876 from the Diary of William J Hughes. Victoria: Rendezvous Historic Press, 2020.
Pluck, Luck and Grit: Charles A. Bayley in Colonial British Columbia (1851-1869) was published by Jim McDowell in 2018. I recently learned about it when it was briefly profiled in the books section of the Summer 2020 issue of British Columbia History magazine. McDowell is a BC historian with several titles to his name. He only self-published a very small number (12!) of limited edition, full colour copies of Pluck, Luck and Grit, and I feel lucky to have one. The book follows the life of Charles Bayley, who came to Vancouver Island with his parents in 1850 aboard the Tory. The ship had been chartered by the Hudson’s Bay Company “to carry a few ‘settlers’ and numerous labourers around the horn of South America and north in the Pacific Ocean in order to start colonizing the Pacific Northwest Coast for Great Britain.”1 The Bayley family settled three miles from Fort Victoria, where Charles’ father Thomas was contracted by the HBC to manage a farm. Charles Bayley went on to become one of Vancouver Island’s earliest schoolteachers, working first in Victoria and then later in Nanaimo. According to the book’s dedication, McDowell’s mother was Charles Bayley’s “grand niece-in-law,” and her brother, McDowell’s uncle, was married to a granddaughter of Bayley. This connection likely gave McDowell access to Bayley’s memoirs, quotes from which are included in the text, adding Bayley’s own voice to the narrative.
Early Nanaimo 1857-1876 from the Diary of William J Hughes by Carole Davidson was just published this year and follows Hughes’ life as depicted in his daily (only one line per day) diary. Nanaimo history fans may be familiar with Davidson’s earlier book, Historic Departure Bay…Looking Back, which was published in 2006. Hughes and his Indigenous wife Mary Salacelowitz settled on a piece of land at Departure Bay in 1861, where they farmed, gardened, and generally seemed to work hard to earn their living. Mary, who was from the Cowichan Tribes, followed the traditional ways and annual seasonal patterns of her people. She frequently spent time away from home and took the children with her, while William’s days seemed to be mostly full of never-ending chores and work to support their family and property.
If I come away from a book about Vancouver Island having read one thing I didn’t know already, I’m usually pretty happy, and that certainly was the case for both of these books which cover some of the Island’s early settler history. For example, Davidson’s book explains how the land at Departure Bay where Robert Dunsmuir built his coal shipping wharves for the Wellington Colliery was originally part of William Hughes’ 150-acre pre-emption. Having read a lot about Dunsmuir, it’s not hard for me to imagine the canny Scot bullying Hughes into entering a lease agreement which gave Dunsmuir access to tidewater through Hughes’ land. Surprise, surprise, not only did Dunsmuir apparently go ahead and build a road and wharves on William Hughes’ land before sorting out the details of the lease agreement, but he also petitioned the Legislative Assembly to be allowed to appropriate even more of Hughes’ land for his use:
“The original lease granted Dunsmuir a strip of land thirty-three feet wide from the mine to the sea with one acre of land at the waterfront. The new petition asked for sixty-six feet of land from the mine and five acres of land at the seafront. William makes no comment in his diary to indicate his feelings about this second intrusion on his land, but one can assume he wasn’t happy as under these new terms his house was separated from the rest of his land.”2
What a guy! Robert Dunsmuir sure didn’t become one of the richest men in the province by playing nice with the neighbours. His “robber baron” label certainly seems to fit in this case. In her biography, Robert Dunsmuir: Laird of the Mines, local historian Lynne Bowen looked at the range of ways in which Dunsmuir was described after his death. A claim that he was “a man who knew what he wanted and took the shortest route”3 seems to perfectly describe how Dunsmuir dealt with Hughes.
A wonderful, trivial fact about Victoria is shared in McDowell’s book. Because of how his hotel was built on the corner of Government and Yates Streets, Charles Bayley left a lasting mark on the city. Apparently, there is what McDowell calls a “jog” in Yates Street, where Bayley “inadvertently built his hotel [in 1857] without allowing for a setback from the street line. Instead of relocating what was then Victoria’s finest building, surveyors simply shifted their measuring pegs, and created a slightly dysfunctional, unattractive ‘jog’ along the entire block which still exists.”4 McDowell goes on to suggest that “this engineering oddity deserves recognition by a modest, amusing historical marker,”5 and I can’t say that I disagree with him!
It was interesting to read these two books together. While they both cover relatively the same time period, in relatively the same place, the lives of Bayley and Hughes, two white men of a similar age, are significantly different. Bayley’s days in Nanaimo, which was called Colviletown at the time, were spent teaching the children of the settlement’s miners and HBC employees. “The census [of 1854] indicated Bayley had 29 (apparently all male) students,”6and because a proper schoolhouse had not yet been built, he used a single room in a small, wood-frame cabin as his schoolroom. Bayley received a salary and his board (at the home of his future wife’s parents) was also paid. It seems like Bayley must have enjoyed a reasonably comfortable lifestyle, as by the end of 1856, after just three years of teaching in Nanaimo, he had enough of a nest egg to enable him to change careers and cities. “Tired of the monotony of the sedentary life of a teacher and having saved a few thousand dollars, [he decided to] embark on a more active life as a trader [in Victoria].”7Bayley’s cash flow wasn’t always so stable, and in 1868, he took out an advertisement in Victoria’s British Colonist claiming his time was not “fully occupied” and he was looking for work he could do. As McDowell puts it: “One can sense how humiliating it must have been for a man…to be forced to publicly beg for work behind the thinly-veiled pretense of simply having too much time on his hands.”8
In contrast, Hughes certainly didn’t lead a life of comfort or one where he found himself sticking much money aside for future plans. When he died in 1876, “the value of his effects was less than $820.”9The “monotony of life” for Hughes meant day after day of work. “He worked from dawn to dusk, seven days a week to feed his family, and to improve his land and living conditions.”10 Unlike Bayley, who could change occupations on a whim out a desire for something more fulfilling or lucrative, Hughes seemingly took any job that he could in order to just survive.
Although living markedly differently day-to-day lives, both men experienced instability. Charles Bayley moved from England to Victoria, to Nanaimo, back to Victoria, and then to San Francisco in the space of two decades. During the first years of his diary, Hughes moves around so much that Davidson isn’t actually able to determine where he really lived. He does eventually settle and file a pre-emption for land in Departure Bay in 1861, but even after that, he still spends time going back and forth to Newcastle Island, and also making fairly regular trips to Nanaimo, Victoria, and to St. Ann’s in Duncan where his children attended school.
Bayley shuffled from career to career, apparently not finding success or contentment with any one thing. After teaching for a few years, he went on to become a hotelier and storekeeper, next a gentleman farmer, and then a politician. He also tried to make money by investing in mining goods and equipment then hiring someone else to take the supplies in a pack train to where they could be resold for a profit. Bayley sent a pack train to Williams Creek (outside of Barkerville) to capitalize on the Cariboo gold rush, and he later funded a similar venture bound for the Leech River (outside of Sooke) where a gold bonanza happened briefly in 1865. McDowell describes Bayley as “a venturesome fellow who knew how to seize a new opportunity or meet an unexpected challenge when it appeared.”11
Hughes also moved from one job to the next, all of them apparently temporary. He seems to have made a large portion of his living by periodically crafting tool handles, selling fish oil he’d rendered down from dogfish livers, and through his farming ventures. Davidson proposes that he may even have been running one of Vancouver Island’s early nurseries, based on the large number of fruit trees he cared for. “The number of young trees produced seemed to be many more than he would use himself which leads one to suppose that he grew them for resale.”12Hughes also tried his hand at gold mining outside of Yale, spent time at the quarry on Newcastle Island, and carried out small building projects. His diary reflects a life of constant chores and hard work with little room for luxury, rest, or frivolity.
I’m pretty sure the two men would not have been friends or even friendly acquaintances. McDowell frequently makes note of the stereotypes that Bayley upheld. He didn’t think much of the labouring classes, which Hughes certainly would have belonged to. “Bayley’s condescending references to a ‘medley of various characters’ and ‘incorrigible’ country folk in steerage indicate stereotypes and biases about labouring class people that aspiring ‘squires’ [like Bayley and his family] brought with them.”13Bayley also had little respect for the Indigenous Peoples of the land, and at times apparently didn’t even acknowledge them. “Bayley’s unspoken, but obvious exclusion of Indigenous people from his estimate of the town’s population count rendered this group non-existent.”14 While Bayley might have summoned the respect to acknowledge Hughes in his store or on the streets of Nanaimo, he likely wouldn’t have looked favourably on Hughes’ choice of an Indigenous woman for a partner, and in all probability, he wouldn’t have treated the mixed-raced children of the Hughes union in the same way he treated the children of the white settlers of the community. I appreciated how McDowell wasn’t shy about critiquing the condescending and racist references in Bayley’s memoirs, and how he notes how Bayley’s views reflected a “narrow-minded 19th century colonial socio-cultural perspective [that] would remain largely unchanged in British Columbia for more than 100 years.”15
Like many self or community published titles, both of these books could have benefited with some additional editorial oversight, as they each include an assortment of minor spelling, punctuation, and grammar errors as well as some inconsistencies in font and format choices. But overall, I enjoyed reading both Davidson’s and McDowell’s latest books, and I will certainly look forward to anything they might publish in the future about the history of Vancouver Island.
Jim McDowell, Pluck, Luck and Grit: Charles A. Bayley in Colonial British Columbia (1851-1869) (Richmond, BC: JEM Publications, 2018), 11.
Carole Davidson, Early Nanaimo from the Diary of William J Hughes (Victoria: Rendezvous Historic Press, 2020), 103.
Lynne Bowen, Robert Dunsmuir: Laird of the Mines (Lantzville: XYZ Publishing, 1999), 141.
I’m happy to be writing a series of blog posts about my great-grandparents, Ole Olsen and Konstanse Fyhn. This second installment is the story of my great-grandmother’s journey from Norway to Hagensborg, British Columbia in the spring of 1914, including thoughts about some possible reasons for her emigration as a young, single woman. Konstanse settled in the Bella Coola Valley, joining an aunt and uncle whom had emigrated earlier. Before the year was out, she found herself a bride, marrying my great-grandfather, Ole Olsen, in December of 1914.
Konstanse Wilhelmine Aminda Fyhn left Norway for Bella Coola, British Columbia in the spring of 1914, when she was just 19 years old. Several generations and over 100 years later, it’s difficult to determine Konstanse’s motivations for leaving Norway, but one can speculate. Family legend points to a problematic relationship with a Norwegian man (the brother of the wife of one of Konstanse’s half-brothers) as the likely reason for her emigration.
Apparently, both the boyfriend’s family and Konstanse’s own mother were not supportive of the match. Lars Martinsen “had been her boyfriend for a while, at least two years.”1 The relationship was serious enough that Konstanse and Lars had their photo taken together with another couple – Konstanse’s half-brother Anders and his wife, Alette, who was Lars’ sister. Was the photo a promise or a dream of a life together for Lars and Konstanse?
A letter my grandmother, one of Konstanse’s daughters, received from her Norwegian cousin reflects on Konstanse’s emigration and Konstanse’s mother’s views about the young couple:
“Maybe the main reason why grandmother wanted [Konstanse] to go was that she didn’t like aunt’s boyfriend Lars. Aunt was rather young. Maybe grandmother was afraid that the same thing should happen to aunt as to herself. She had three children before she was married. Two of them died early. The third, Johan, lived until he was five years old. Grandma was put in prison for a little while for this. It was like that at the time in Norway, that the girl was punished. The boys were innocent.”2
Was Konstanse sent away by her family to prevent a deepening relationship with her boyfriend? It’s entirely possible. However, it’s also possible that a determined young woman just wanted to create her own adventure in the new world. Immigration historian Theodore C. Blegen reminds us that: “Since the days of Puritan and Cavalier, children of the Old World have thronged to the shores of the New seeking well-being and happiness.”3 After years of being raised as the only daughter among sons, perhaps Konstanse wanted to escape a life of doing unpaid chores for her parents and six brothers. Or perhaps she just didn’t see any favourable social or economic opportunities for herself if she stayed in Norway.
“Women, like men, responded to economic opportunities abroad. As the Norwegian Bureau of the Census concludes, ‘From the earliest beginnings the main reason for emigration from Norway seems to have been young people’s desire to improve their economic circumstances.’ Nineteenth-century Norway, the bureau explains, was not considered well developed economically, and opportunities for advancement or a living wage were grossly inferior.”4
Norwegian historian Ingrid Semmingson writes that “to 1914 America became the prime goal of the wanderlust of impecunious Norwegian young people.”5Konstanse was young, she was unmarried, she was from a small fishing village in rural, northern Norway, and she was the only daughter of a large family. Perhaps she didn’t see her life playing out the way she dreamed. During the period from 1866 to 1940, women accounted for 41% of Norwegian immigration to overseas countries, and “most women, like men, were not married and immigration might represent a liberating aspect of their lives.”6
So when an opportunity to travel to the New World came up, perhaps she was ready and willing to go – to break free and take charge of her own life, and to assert her independence. And what was that opportunity? Companions to travel with.
Konstanse’s niece thought that Konstanse travelled as part of a group: “I’ve heard that a member of a family, that was from this area, that had emigrated to Amerika was here [back in Norway] visiting. It was said that if they brought with them another person from Norway to Amerika, then they wouldn’t be charged anything for the return ticket.”7
Konstanse did travel as part of a group. Her aunt, her father’s sister Nille, was married to a man named Eilert Knudsen. Nille and Eilert had immigrated to Canada in 1907, settling in Hagensborg, a Norwegian community in the Bella Coola Valley. Eilert’s brother Kasper Knudsen, Kasper’s wife Hanna, and Kasper and Hanna’s two youngest sons must have decided to join not only Nille and Eilert, but also the two eldest Knudsen children, who were already in the Bella Coola Valley. Konstanse travelled with the Knudsens on their journey to Canada. Her name can be found together with theirs on the manifest of the Allan Line’s Victorian.
So, although Kasper and Hanna Knudsen were not emigrants back in Norway visiting, they were headed to Amerika – the land of new chances – and Konstanse took the opportunity to join them on their journey. While not closely related, Konstanse likely would have known her uncle’s family, as they also were from the same Norwegian county, and she and her parents all must have felt more comfortable about the long journey ahead knowing she was travelling with trusted companions.
The mention of the Knudsen party’s arrival in the March 28, 1914 issue of the Bella Coola Courier gets almost as many details wrong as it gets right, but I’m quite confident it is Konstanse’s travel group being described and she is the “daughter” mentioned:
“S.S. Camosun arrived in port on Sunday last with the usual large number of passengers. Mr. and Mrs. Kasperson, three sons and a daughter, arrived by last Sunday’s steamer and intend to settle in the valley. They came from Norway by the Allan Line of steamers, purchasing their tickets through the steamship company’s local agent at Bella Coola. Mr. and Mrs. Kasperson have relatives and friends in the valley.”8
Along with Konstanse, Kasper and Hanna Knudsen travelled with their two sons, 15-year-old Morten Kasperson, and 11-year-old Jorgen Kasperson. The ship’s manifest from the Victorian, shows another young man grouped together with the Knudsen family and Konstanse, 24-year-old Johan Fredricksen, who declared himself a farm labourer. Perhaps he was coming to help the Knudsen family make their new start in the Bella Coola Valley.
The Fyhn family house in Lattervik in the Troms County of northern Norway is still home to Fyhns today. A granddaughter of Konstanse’s brother Anfinn Fyhn lives there now, and recently welcomed two of my father’s brothers to Norway for a visit. My relatives there have the sense that Konstanse left in sadness, which agrees with the letter my grandmother received from her Norwegian cousin: “The day aunt [Konstanse] left, my mother walked with her to Jægervatnet [a village about 10 kilometres away from Lattervik]. Aunt wasn’t happy the day she had to leave everything she cared about in Norway.”9
While I love the idea of my great-grandmother being an adventurous woman of action, if Konstanse left Norway in great sadness, she doesn’t sound very much like a young adventurer, eager to make a new start in an exciting new land. While it’s impossible to know the actual motivations for her emigration from Norway, I do know the spring of 1914 found Konstanse sailing from Liverpool with the Knudsens and landing at St. John, New Brunswick. She travelled seven days by train across Canada, arriving in Vancouver for the final leg of her journey by steamship to Bella Coola. Once there, she joined her aunt Nille and uncle Eilert.
After arriving in Bella Coola, Konstanse may have worked as a mother’s helper for early colonists Mattie and Barney Brynildsen (whom a Norwegian relative tells me may also have been relatives of Konstanse’s), helping with their two young boys, Robert and Alger. A family story spins the romantic yarn that each of Hagensborg’s three Olsen brothers, Ole, Ingvald, and Paul, initially attempted to woo the newly arrived Konstanse, but she picked Ole as her match.
Konstanse’s memory of the first time she met her husband-to-be was shared with a granddaughter: “It was on a Sunday in church that I first saw him. I was wearing my new green coat and hat and looked my best. Your grandfather was a fine figure of a man, and I decided that I would marry him.”10 The couple was married on December 23, 1914, in the home of Ole T. and Mina Ovesen in Hagensborg.
Ole and Konstanse lived in a frame house built by Ole on a 22-acre property bounded by the river. When the river’s path changed, their farm became an island, accessed either from the Salloompt Valley by the main Salloompt bridge, or from Hagensborg by the smaller Branch bridge. The Olsens’ first son, John, was born in 1915, with Arnold (1919), Einar (1922), Olive (1925), twins Herbert and Henry (1927), my grandmother Eva (1929), Eleanor (1930), and Robert (1934) following after.
The Olsens stayed in the Bella Coola Valley until their home was damaged by a great flood in October 1934, after which, together with Ole’s brothers’ families, they moved to Sidney on Vancouver Island.
Aagoth Fyhn, “Why Konstanse Fyhn Emigrated to Canada,” interview by Per-Kristian Fyhn, July 25, 2010.
Aagoth Fyhn, letter to Eva Johnson, December 13, 1995.