Explosive Times: The Black Powder & Dynamite Industry in Nanaimo

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.

blackpowderroadRoad from Departure Bay plant to Northfield plant,
Hamilton Powder Company, Nanaimo, BC, 1909
Photo VIEW-8951 from the McCord Museum Collection is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 Canada License

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 The Daily 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.

CILCollageCIL crates and blasting machine
photos courtesy 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.


Notes

  1. Douglas Steel, Nanaimo Past & Present: Stories of the City (Nanaimo, BC: Steelbro, 2013), 1.
  2. Carole Davidson, Historic Departure Bay…Looking Back (Victoria, BC: Rendezvous Historic Press, 2006), 103.
  3. T.W. Paterson, “Deadly Cargo Cost Nanaimo Teamster His Life,” Nanaimo News Bulletin, March 10, 2019, https://www.nanaimobulletin.com/opinion/column-deadly-cargo-cost-nanaimo-teamster-his-life/.
  4. Lynne Bowen, Boss Whistle: The Coal Miners of Vancouver Island Remember (Lantzville, BC: Oolichan Books, 1982), 107.
  5. “James Island’s Huge Factory,” The Daily Colonist, May 2, 1920, 32, https://archive.org/stream/dailycolonist62y119uvic.
  6. “Representative Business Men of Nelson and the Kootenays: Hamilton Powder Company,” The Daily News, September 24, 1910, 4, http://dx.doi.org/14288/1.0383752.
  7. “The Dynamite Plant at Departure Bay,” in Nanaimo Retrospective: The First Century, ed. E. Blanche Norcross (Nanaimo, BC: Nanaimo Historical Society, 1979), 146.
  8. Norcross, 145.
  9. Davidson, 106.
  10. “Terrific explosion at Nanaimo,” The Cowichan Leader, January 16, 1913, 1, https://viurrspace.ca/handle/10613/7585.
  11. Jan Peterson, Hub City Nanaimo, 1886-1920 (Surrey, BC: Heritage House Publishing, 2003), 200.
  12. Bowen, 111.
  13. Bea Bond, Looking Back on James Island (Sidney, BC: Porthole Press, 1991), 19-20.
  14. Paul Gogo, Frank Ney: A Canadian Legend (Vancouver Island, BC: Sunporch Publishing, 1995), 109.

The Wellingtons of Nanaimo – Part 2: South, East, West, North, & South Again

I wrote a previous blog post about the boom and bust of Wellington, the mining community north of Nanaimo’s original downtown which grew rapidly after Robert Dunsmuir discovered coal in the area in 1869. The exodus from Wellington was equally rapid, with a majority of the coal miners and their families moving on to the new mining towns of Extension and Ladysmith after the last Wellington Colliery mine closed in 1900. Even though the Wellington townsite essentially faded away once the mines closed, the Wellington name spread to other parts of the Nanaimo region. The mines and settlements which adopted the Wellington name were above-ground reflections of the network of coal seams that local miners followed deep below the surface.

South Wellington (#1)

By 1877, another mining operation had started outside of Dunsmuir’s Wellington. A shaft was sunk on a nearby farm and developed into the South Wellington Colliery. An undated map titled ‘Dunsmuir’s railway and Nanaimo coalfield’ shows the original South Wellington Mine as being located between Brannen and Diver Lakes.1

This was not a Dunsmuir mine, it was owned by investor Richard D. Chandler of San Francisco, but it did tap the Wellington seam. Because it was located on the Nanaimo side of Wellington, it was indeed “south” of Wellington, but I suspect that there may have been an attempt to capitalize on Wellington coal’s growing name and reputation.

But this proved to be somewhat prophetic: by 1879, the South Wellington Colliery belonged to Dunsmuir and it became the No. 2 Mine of the Wellington workings. 1882 is the last year that South Wellington Mine is mentioned in the annual report of the minister of mines. Over time, it eventually just got wrapped up in the memory of the Wellington Mines, but for a few years at least, this first South Wellington was a distinct place.

East Wellington

The East Wellington Colliery was located on land originally owned by the Westwood family. The Westwoods had arrived in Nanaimo in 1864, and developed a 650 acre property halfway between Nanaimo and Wellington in the Mountain District. The undated railway map previously mentioned shows this mine site as being at approximately the intersection of East Wellington Road and Maxey Road. Think north of Westwood Lake, but the lake wasn’t there then, it has only existed since about 1907, when the Nanaimo Electric Light, Power and Heating Company dammed the Millstone to create it.

William Westwood died in 1872, and the coal rights for the property were eventually sold by the family to Richard D. Chandler of San Francisco, who formed the East Wellington Coal Company. Yes, that’s the same Chandler who had been the owner of the first South Wellington operations.  He was a San Francisco entrepreneur, with an obvious interest in British Columbia coal mining. At first I was pretty skeptical – was it really the same investor backing the South Wellington and East Wellington Collieries, or has the story just got muddled over time? But the annual BC mining reports point to Chandler being responsible for both operations.

In the 1878 report, Chandler is not named, but the South Wellington Colliery report is signed by agent R. Wingate. In the 1879 report: “Two bores were put down by Mr. Wingate, the manager for Mr. R. Chandler, the former proprietor of the South Wellington Colliery. ” While this statement is referring to prospecting work for the East Wellington Colliery, it also makes reference to Chandler’s previous ownership of the South Wellington operation.

Robert Wingate was a successful mining engineer in the Pacific Northwest, working for Chandler at several of his coal operations. In 1879, Wingate was sent to prospect along the Carbon River, in Pierce County, Washington. Liking the potential of the site, Chandler purchased the Carbon River Coal Mining Company’s claim. A year later the company incorporated, and Wingate was named superintendent. An article about Carbonado, the coal mining town that grew up around the mine site, suggests that the reason Chandler sold off the original South Wellington Colliery was to finance these new Washington operations. The timing certainly fits. While the 1879 coal market had definitely been in a downturn, it would also make sense that Chandler was trying raise capital for investing in Carbon River.

Mining operations at the East Wellington Colliery commenced in 1882, and despite limited success, the site was continually developed in the hopes of finding good coal. A second shaft was sunk in 1887, within a kilometre of the first. In 1893, the East Wellington Mines were closed and flooded, and in 1894, in what must have felt like a repeat of the past, Chandler’s mines were taken over by Robert Dunsmuir and became part of the Wellington Colliery. Dunsmuir pumped out the mines initially, but work only recommenced for a short period following the change in ownership.

EastWellingtonFirehallToday part of the Regional District of Nanaimo’s Area C, the land around the former colliery is now primarily residential, with a definite rural feel. Although the coal days are long over, small reminders of Vancouver Island’s mining history can still be found in the street names in the area. The local improvement district, the Mountain Fire Protection District, has also chosen to maintain the East Wellington name for its fire department and new fire hall. As a side note, it was interesting to read the City of Nanaimo’s May 2018 report about the currently undeveloped park at 2191 East Wellington Road.2 The Nanaimo Model Airs, a local model aircraft flyers club, approached the city with an appeal to create a safe flying site for model aircraft. The East Wellington Park is now being considered as a possible location for the concept. What the coal miners of days past would think about drones and remote controlled planes flying overhead, I can’t imagine!

West Wellington

A few kilometres out of Wellington and adjoining the western border of Dunsmuir’s land, another San Francisco investor, Dennis Jordan, Esq. started up a mining operation, calling it West Wellington. Although some earlier work had been done, in 1895 operations resumed, including building a tramway to Jordan’s wharf in Nanoose Bay.  By 1896, the mine was owned by the West Wellington Coal Company Ltd. Getting the coal to market proved to be difficult for this company, and the operation was closed after just a few years. In 1907, the West Wellington Coal Company’s coal rights were acquired by the Gilfillan Colliery, but this also proved to be a short lived venture, closing the next year. The final attempt at this mine was in 1928, when the Little Ash Mine opened at the site. This was a small operation which closed down after just a handful of years.

North Wellington

In 1925, Island Collieries, which was owned by King & Foster Company Ltd., opened north of Wellington, with the intention of recovering pillars from the original Wellington Mines. This was a small operation, employing just 10 men. Henry Shepherd was the superintendent, resulting in many remembering this operation as Shepherd’s Mine. By 1927, the mine was owned by Canadian Collieries (Dunsmuir) Ltd., which was what Dunsmuir & Sons was renamed after it was sold by family in 1911. The site was renamed Wellington Extension No. 9.  Like many small operations of the time, the No. 9 closed periodically due to downturns in the coal market, and did not work again after 1932.

South Wellington (#2)

As part of the exchange for agreeing to build the E&N Railway, Dunsmuir’s newly formed Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway Company received a huge land grant, amounting to approximately 20% of Vancouver Island. This included the mineral rights for nearly 800,000  hectares. Not long after this deal went through, Dunsmuir began to explore coal prospects up and down the Island in the railway belt. In 1884, the Alexandria Colliery3 was opened in the Cranberry District, just south of the Vancouver Coal Mining and Land Company’s Southfield Mine. The mineral rights for the area had previously been owned by early settler and local land owner James Beck, but no substantial mining was done until after Dunsmuir acquired the rights.

The mine didn’t turn out to be as successful as hoped. It ran for just a few years before it was closed down for a decade. But by 1895, work had resumed again at the site, and as was typical of coal mines at the time, a small settlement grew up nearby. The townsite shared the mine’s name and was called Alexandria, a tribute to the Princess of Wales, Alexandra. But in 1899, when the community made an application to the post office, it was pointed out that the name had already been in use for some time in the province.4

The now unused South Wellington name was repurposed for this new Dunsmuir mining community. A likely reason for this was to keep the mine and its coal associated with the Wellington reputation that had already been developed. In reality, this was somewhat of a misdirection, as the mines in South Wellington accessed the Douglas coal seam rather than the Wellington.

On August 1, 1899, the post office opened and the name South Wellington officially moved even further south.  Locals describe the boundaries as: “an area bordered on the east and south by the Nanaimo River, [with Cedar on the river’s east bank and Cassidy on the south bank], to the north by what are now Nanaimo city lands [approximately the Duke Point Highway], and to the west by a large forested area and a ridge which separates it from Extension and Cinnabar.”5 This is the South Wellington I know and love, and if you ever hear anyone talk about South Wellington today, this is almost certainly the one they are referring to.South Wellington Road

Today South Wellington isn’t as densely populated as it would have been at the time of active mining. Instead of people living clustered around the mine sites, homes are now spread throughout the rural area. Minto Avenue is no longer a main drag with stores and boarding houses, but a quiet residential street.

From 1869, when Dunsmuir made his first discovery at Wellington, to 1951, when the No. 10 Mine in South Wellington closed, coal was king in the Nanaimo region. If underground seams proved profitable, the townsites flourished and grew; but when the coal played out, the towns faded away. The Wellington townsite itself was practically deserted after just a short period, but its influential name spread north, south, east, and west throughout the Nanaimo region, leaving behind clues about coal mining’s impact on Vancouver Island.

Notes

1. Viola Johnson-Cull, Chronicle of Ladysmith and District (Ladysmith: Ladysmith New Horizons Historical Society, 1980), 356.

2. Kirsty MacDonald, City of Nanaimo, Staff Report for Decision: Pilot Park Site for Nanaimo Model Airs Radio Control Flying Club, 2018, File No. A2-4-1/D1-4-37, Nanaimo, B.C. https://www.nanaimo.ca/docs/default-document-library/eastwellingtondrive.pdf (accessed July 25, 2018).

3. The mine is remembered as the Alexander, the Alexandria, and the Alexandra. Even the Minister of Mines annual reports aren’t consistent from year to year.

4. Fort Alexandria was opened north of Williams Lake on the Fraser River in 1821, the last fort to be established by the North West Company before it merged later that year with the Hudson’s Bay Company. Alexandria was named after Sir Alexander Mackenzie in recognition of him being the first European visitor to the area in 1793. G.P.V. Akrigg and Helen B. Akrigg, 1001 British Columbia Place Names. (Vancouver: Discovery Press, 1973), 15.

5. South Wellington Historical Committee, South Wellington: Stories from the Past 1880s-1950s. (Victoria: First Choice Books, 2010), 1.

Morden Colliery

MCRTSignThe weekend was sunny and bright, and we decided to check out the Morden Colliery Regional Trail. This walking path runs through the Morden Colliery Historic Provincial Park, and is maintained by the Regional District of Nanaimo. The park and trail are on the original site of the Morden Mine, a coal mining operation which was active periodically between 1912 and 1930.

In 1908, the Pacific Coast Coal Mines Company was formed to prospect for coal, purchasing mineral rights from early South Wellington settlers. About two kilometres north of the South Wellington townsite, the PCCM operated the twin slopes of the Fiddick and Richardson Mines together as the South Wellington Colliery from 1908 to 1917. Boat Harbour opened as the company’s shipping point in 1909, with a rail line running from there to South Wellington.

The Fiddick Slope of the South Wellington Colliery was the site of the terrible flooding disaster of 1915, when the abandoned Southfield Mine workings were accidentally broken into due to an error in scale on maps. The mine rapidly flooded, killing 19 miners – a tragedy that must have shook the small community to its very core.1

Ground at the company’s nearby Morden Mine site was broken in 1912. This new mine, with PCCM’s Slopes No. 3 and No. 4, didn’t operate fully until after the Vancouver Island Miners’ Strike ended in August 1914. The company used its existing railway to transport Morden coal to Boat Harbour for shipment. Unlike other mines in South Wellington, which had walk in, slope entrances, Morden was accessed by a deep, vertical shaft. This required a massive 22.5 metres tall head frame for hoisting coal up from deep below. The head frame and tipple were built of reinforced concrete, a first in the district. Surface mining structures of the day, including the head frame of Morden’s secondary air shaft, were typically built of wood. The main shaft’s concrete head frame is the one that’s still standing tall at the site today.

Despite the mine’s modern equipment and the company’s hopes and investments, Morden never proved to be a very successful mine.2 By 1921, only one man was employed as a watchman. 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.

The Morden site was designated a provincial historic park in 1972, but for many years its story was not well told, with apparently no signs or plaques at the site. In 1995, the Regional District of Nanaimo started to develop the trail, and since then several interpretative signs have been added, and a significant miners’ monument was erected in 2017. This cairn not only memorializes the three men who died at Morden3 but the estimated 1,000 miners who died in Vancouver Island coal mines.

MordenHeadframeTippleThe impressive concrete head frame and tipple at Morden is a precious tangible remnant of Vancouver Island’s coal mining past. The structure is one of only two of its type in North America (the other one is at the O’Gara No. 12 Mine in Muddy, Illinois). For many years the site’s champions have been the members of the Friends of Morden Mine group, which has tirelessly advocated for funding and a more active preservation plan for the degrading heritage structure. Despite many attempts, the society has not been able to convince any level of government to fund what would be a costly restoration project. The society almost disbanded in 2015,4 but passionate volunteers can still be found at local heritage events. Their cause is a worthy one in my mind, and it will be a real shame when the head frame finally comes crumbling down.

banner.jpgAn interpretation of the iconic looming head frame was captured by local artist Patrick Belanger for Nanaimo’s Canada 150 celebration banners which were hung at major intersections around the city. The head frame and its adjacent tipple have also been replicated at the other end of the Modern Colliery Regional Trail at Cedar Road, with smaller wooden versions standing in tribute at the trail head.

Currently, the two parts of the trail are bisected by the Nanaimo River, but there has been talk for some time about a walking bridge to connect them. The Regional District of Nanaimo supports the connection in the parks section of its Area A Official Community Plan.5 I hope this eventually happens! It would be a great way to tie the neighbouring communities of Cedar and South Wellington together.

RailThe part of the trail at Morden follows the old PCCM rail grade, and is an easy walk through the natural forest. I was somewhat surprised to come across a small piece of rail next to the path. It’s easy to walk right by without noticing, so keep your eyes peeled. My sons loved the two wooden bridges, and easy access to a small pond which was home to tadpoles in various stages of metamorphosis. The trail ends at a great view of the Nanaimo River, and we instantly wished we had brought along some drinks to enjoy at the cleverly placed bench overlooking the view.

Heading back to the parking lot, we circled around the head frame and tipple on the Miners Loop Trail. I loved seeing the structure looming through the trees from different MordenArchpoints on the path.  In the trees not far away, the PCCM arch with a crumbling 1913 date is all that remains of what was a 60 foot smokestack of the boiler plant which powered the mining operation. I know a couple who had some of their wedding photos done there, and I have to say, I’m a little disappointed that I didn’t think of it for myself – especially because I grew up in South Wellington.

Overall, the whole family really enjoyed this trail, and I know that we’ll be back. We only saw two other groups the entire time we were there, so it seems like Morden is a bit of a little known secret. You’ll definitely enjoy the walk, but the site’s history is also pretty interesting – go explore it for yourself!


Notes

1. For more background information about the Pacific Coast Coal Mining Company, and about the February 1915 flooding accident in the Fiddick Slope of the South Wellington Colliery, including the subsequent investigation and charges see: Morgan, R. (2015). A tragedy of errors. Ladysmith & District Historical Society. Retrieved from: https://www.ladysmithhistoricalsociety.ca/histories/mining/a-tragedy-of-errors/

2. Interviews conducted with Vancouver Island coal miners as part of the Coal Tyee History Project, include speculations about Morden’s untapped riches. Lewis Thatcher, a long-time South Wellington resident, thought, “There’s about 15 or 1,600 acres of the Morden coal still there.” Experienced coal miner Nelson Dean thought, “Way out at Cedar district there’s plenty of coal under there, where Morden shaft was in the wrong place, really. … It should have been over by the Wheatsheaf Hotel.” When his interviewer asked about whether Dean thought the Nanaimo area was mined out or not, Dean replied: “There’s a lot of coal left here. Underneath the Wheatsheaf Hotel? Right underneath there, there’s a lot of coal there.” Audio recordings and transcripts of the interviews are available in VIU Library’s VIUSpace at: https://viurrspace.ca/1063/171 (Thatcher) & https://viurrspace.ca/10613/139 (Dean).

In a section about Morden in a book by Vancouver Island mining historian Tom Paterson, one expert speculates that the coal field at Morden had been hugely underdeveloped and may in fact be worthwhile reworking. “There are approximately 1,800 acres of coal lands in the Morden property. Only 70 acres have been worked… From the 70 acres that has been developed approximately 7,000 tons of coal per acre has been extracted. If it could be proved that even 1,000 acres of the remaining 1,700 [sic] could produce 7,000 tons per acre, this would mean 7,000,000 tons of coal.” While it is also pointed out that the expense of following up on this speculation would make it highly improbable that Morden would ever be reopened, one can’t help but wonder… Paterson, T.W. & Basque, G. (1989). Ghost towns & mining camps of Vancouver Island. Surrey: Heritage House.

3. J.W. “Darry” Milburn (33) died on March 21, 1916; Bart Galitzkey (37) died on April 23, 1920; and Tony Sabella (26) died on November 6, 1920. See: Tilley, H. (2010) Morden Mine. In South Wellington: Stories from the past, 1880s-1950s. South Wellington Historical Committee. Victoria: First Choice Books, 13-19.

4. Cunningham, T. (2015, May 12). Society ends fight to save Morden Mine. Nanaimo News Bulletin. Retrieved from https://www.nanaimobulletin.com/news/society-ends-fight-to-save-morden-mine/

Despite this article, I’ve discovered the society didn’t actually disband. For additional details about the Friends of Morden Mine, see: https://www.mordenmine.com/

5. See Policy 10.1.5 of Section 10: Enhancing and maintaining park land, green space, natural areas, recreational opportunities, and culture. Regional District of Nanaimo. (2011). A shared community vision: Electoral Area ‘A’ OCP. Retrieved from: https://www.rdn.bc.ca/electoral-area-a-cassidy-cedar-yellow-point

The Wellingtons of Nanaimo – Part 1: Old & New

A coworker who hasn’t lived on the Island very long recently asked me if I knew where South Wellington was.  My eyes lit up: “Do I? Yes!” Having grown up in the tiny community just south of Nanaimo city limits, I’m always eager to talk about my home town. Those familiar with Nanaimo will also know East Wellington, or at least East Wellington Road. And yes, for a time, there were also coal mining sites called West Wellington and North Wellington in the Nanaimo area. And don’t forget about just plain Wellington, the springboard for all these naming variations. So what’s with all these Wellingtons around Nanaimo anyway?

Wellington was the starting point of it all. Before 1869, the area around Diver, Brannen, and Long Lakes had just a few farms and cabins and was known as the Wellington District. The Comox Trail, a rough path leading from Nanaimo to Comox 120 kilometres away, ran through the area. Now, I haven’t found anything to confirm this, but I suspect that the Wellington District was named some time shortly after 1852. That would be the year that Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington died. Wellesley was an important 19th century British military and political figure. He defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, and served twice as Prime Minister. As one of England’s most celebrated heroes, he was mourned greatly, and was honoured in many ways including a state funeral, a poem by Alfred Tennyson, and a bronze memorial in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. It wouldn’t be surprising if a new district in the fledgling Colony of Vancouver Island was also named in tribute.1

The timeline fits for the district getting a name after Wellesley’s death. Snuneymuxw Chief Che-which-i-kan2, known afterwards as “Coal Tyee”, had brought a canoe full of black rock to Victoria in 1850 for the HBC’s perusal. This led to Joseph McKay being sent to Nanaimo to secure the area on behalf of the company, and coal mining around the harbour got going in earnest shortly after. It would make sense that in the ensuing years, as Nanaimo developed as a townsite, people would spread out into the surrounding areas, resulting in those districts being surveyed and assigned their own names. Maps from 1859 show that the nearby Cranberry, Cedar, and Mountain Districts had also been named by this time.

In 1869, independent miner Robert Dunsmuir discovered coal near Diver Lake, just outside of the northern boundary of the Vancouver Coal Mining and Land Company’s property. (The HBC had sold its Nanaimo interests to the VCML in 1862). Further investigations in the area led Dunsmuir to uncover a thick new coal deposit which he called the Wellington seam. This coal discovery led to the development of Dunsmuir’s successful Wellington Colliery, with a townsite, Wellington, growing up nearby.

The original “old” Wellington townsite was north of Diver Lake and was made up of company houses for the coal miners and their families. Robert Dunsmuir died in 1889, but the Wellington Colliery remained in operation under the direction of his son James. With the success of the mines, more people came to the area, and starting in about 1890, James Dunsmuir allowed lots to be sold off to miners in a “new” Wellington townsite not far away. This would be the area on the south shore of Long Lake, with numbered streets (now 101 – 107), and distinctively British avenues.3

Wellington Sign
BC Stop of Interest Sign – Wellington

With the huge success of Wellington coal, the town grew fast, eventually reaching a population of over 5,000, which was larger than Nanaimo’s at the time. But by the late 1890s, the mines were no longer the high producing operations they had once been. The Wellington Mines closed one by one, especially once a new coal discovery at Extension drew the company’s attention southward. A fire in 1899 destroyed many of the town’s key buildings, and others were moved to the new mining communities of Extension and Ladysmith. The population dropped significantly, but Wellington continued on as a rural community until it was eventually amalgamated with Nanaimo in the 1960s.

Few remnants of Wellington can still be see today. Some of the homes located in Extension and Ladysmith originally came from Wellington; they were transported by rail to their new locations when the miners moved away from the fading Wellington Colliery to work at the new Extension mines. Other larger buildings were also moved to Ladysmith from Wellington: the Anglican Church on Buller Street; the Temperance Hotel at the corner of First Avenue and High Street; and the Jones/Miner’s Hotel on Gatacre Street are a few that are still standing today and appear on the Town of Ladysmith’s Community Heritage Register.

In Wellington itself, the most tangible reminder is the Wellington cemetery, quietly hidden at the corner of Ledgerwood and Cardena Roads. This is the resting place of  some of the original Wellington residents, most likely many of whom were miners or their family members. While over 100 burials are recorded, only approximately 25 markers still remain. Many are difficult to read, overgrown, or damaged. The Italian, Belgian, and Finnish names which appear on the remaining headstones reflect the diverse ethnic makeup of the mining families of Wellington. Formally recognized on the Canadian Register of Historic Places, the cemetery is quiet and peaceful.

Wellington Cemetery
The peaceful Wellington Cemetery

While the current Nanaimo-Ladysmith School District Island ConnectEd buildings (formerly Mount Benson Elementary School) only date back to 1950, the site has a long history as the home of the Wellington school. On May 20, 1875, on property donated by Dunsmuir for the purpose, the Wellington Public School officially opened. This first building burnt down in 1904, but another school was rebuilt on the same site. The second school was also destroyed by fire in 1944, and yet another school was rebuilt on the site. This third school was given the new name of Mount Benson Elementary, and was open until 2008. It now is home to Island ConnectEd, the district’s facility to support distance learning. With over 140 years of public education on its grounds, the site has the distinction of being the oldest known operating public school on its original site in British Columbia.4

The Wellington Inn has also had a significant presence in the area, albeit from several different locations. The original saloon, operated by Charles “Donnybrook” Chantrell, was almost as old as the mines and was near the original townsite on the north shore of Diver Lake. Seeing an opportunity with the development of the mines, Chantrell built a larger hotel in 1875, and despite being called The Wellington Inn, most people called it Chantrell’s. The establishment burned down and was rebuilt at least once while it was near the lake. The hotel was eventually rebuilt in the new Wellington townsite, where the present Wellington Pub and Liquor store still operates on Victoria Avenue.

Even though Wellington townsite faded away once the mines closed, the Wellington name continued to spread to other parts of the Nanaimo region. To learn more about North, South, East, and West Wellington, please read my upcoming post, The Wellingtons of Nanaimo Part 2: South, East, West, North, & South Again.


Notes

1. In 1852, Vancouver Island was still its own colony. It was created in 1849, and was a separate entity until 1866, when it was joined with the mainland Colony of British Columbia.

2. Also seen as Ki-et-sa-kun.

3. Apsley Avenue was likely named either for Henry Bathurst, 2nd Earl of Bathurst, who was the Lord Chancellor of Great Britain from 1771-1778, and was known as Lord Apsley, or for his home, Apsley House, which was eventually sold to Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington; Wellesley Avenue was another tribute to Arthur Wellesley; Victoria Avenue named for Queen Victoria who was the reigning monarch at the time of Wellington’s development; and Corunna Avenue was likely named for the Battle of Corunna, which was considered a memorable British tactical victory against the French in the Napoleonic Wars. The naming pattern (numbered streets and British avenues) is reversed in Ladysmith, which was also named by James Dunsmuir, where the avenues are numbered and the streets carry names of British Boer War officers. For more info on Ladysmith’s street names see: https://www.ladysmithhistoricalsociety.ca/histories/street-names/.

4. For more information about the history of the school site see: http://www.mountbensonschool.ca/. Note: There is also a high school in Nanaimo called Wellington Secondary. This is at a separate site at 3135 Mexicana Road. The high school opened in 1967, initially as a junior high, but now has grades 8 through 12.