Reading Capi Blanchet

A flotilla of coastal cruising books! I just read The Curve of Time by M. Wylie Blanchet, and immediately following in its wake, I read the biography Following the Curve of Time: The Legendary M. Wylie Blanchet by Cathy Converse. Despite living on an island, I really don’t have any experience with boating, yet I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the marine adventures of Muriel Wylie “Capi” Blanchet that took place during the many summers she cruised the B.C. coast with her children in the 1920s and ’30s.


After her husband’s sudden and unexpected death, Blanchet loaded her five children into the family’s 25-foot boat, Caprice, and for year after year they spent from early June to late September adventuring in the coastal waters of British Columbia. The living and storage space aboard the Caprice was very small and was strictly organized out of necessity. I can’t imagine telling my own brood that they could only have one change of clothes, a set of pajamas, and a bathing suit for an entire summer! The book Blanchet wrote about the family’s years of summer cruising, The Curve of Time, has “become one of the classics in British Columbia literature.”1

At times pensive, while at other times quite humorous, I enjoyed Blanchet’s writing style. Her love and concern for her children comes through clearly in her prose. As a parent myself, my eyes raced across the page as Capi frantically returned from her foray into the forest to where her children played alone on the beach:

“‘Coming – coming!’ I shouted. What was I going to rescue them from? I didn’t know, but how desperately urgent it was! I finally scrambled through to the beach – blood streaming down my legs, face scratched, hands torn – blood everywhere. Five wondering faces looked at me in horror. The two youngest burst into tears at the sight of this remnant of what had once been their Mummy. ‘Are you all right?’ I gasped – with a sudden seething mixture of anger and relief at finding them alive and unhurt.”2

What parent hasn’t had a sudden flash of intuition that something was wrong with the children, followed by an urgent panic to check that everything is alright!?

Reading Converse’s biography about Blanchet gave me meaningful context and answered a lot of my questions. At no point in Blanchet’s book is the reader told what had happened to Capi’s husband, only that he had recently died before Capi and the children started taking their summer journeys. After finding out in Converse’s biography that Geoffrey Blanchet disappeared while out alone on the Caprice, I was even more amazed at Capi’s courage and strength.

For a woman to face grief head on like that, on the very boat that her husband disappeared from, really drove home for me what a strong person Capi was. I have to say, if I was in the same position, I find it very unlikely I would embrace boating as a pastime when my spouse had died doing that same activity. And I certainly wouldn’t find myself living on the same boat that he had disappeared from. But as Capi wrote, “Destiny rarely follows the pattern we would choose for it and the legacy of death often shapes our lives in ways we could not imagine.”3

Converse’s biography also outlines Blanchet’s life before her Caprice days. Growing up on the St. Lawrence River and summering in Cacouna, Quebec, she developed a love of water from an early age: “It was in Cacouna that Capi explored and honed her skills as an observer of the natural world, and this would set the tone and direction of her life in British Columbia.”4

Reading The Curve of Time in 2019, I was uncomfortable with the Blanchet family’s intrusions into several First Nations villages on the B.C. coast. The Blanchets not only wandered into abandoned villages, handled, photographed, and even removed some artifacts that they found there, but Capi also ignored locks and warning signs.

Converse explains to readers that during the time period of both when the Blanchets were adventuring and when the book was originally published in 1961, attitudes and practices were different than today: “There are now legal protections against the removal of indigenous property, but in Capi’s time no such regulations existed and cultural sensitivities were discounted.”5

While Converse’s reminder does help to situate the Blanchets’ actions in a time period when settler behaviours and attitudes served to damage traditional First Nations cultures of the B.C. coast, the sections about the Blanchets’ explorations of First Nations villages still sat uneasily with me long after I put The Curve of Time down.

Blanchet explains the family’s rationale: “We had made up our minds to spend part of the summer among the old villages with the big community houses, and try to recapture something of a Past [sic] that will soon be gone forever.”6 The thing is, at least some of the villages the Blanchets visited likely weren’t ‘old’ in the sense that they were abandoned. And the inhabitants’ lives weren’t something of the past. The people who lived in some of the villages likely just happened to be away at the time of the Blanchets’ uninvited and most likely unwelcome visit.

In her exploration of colonial women’s travel writing regarding contact with Indigenous peoples, author Dr. Nancy Pagh explains how Blanchet has employed a myth common to literature of the time period: “When Blanchet constructs Native people as the embodiment of ‘the Past’ [sic], she refuses to allow that these very real people are her contemporaries, alive and working in the summer fishery while she is fantasizing about them from their winter villages.”7

Capi trespassed and took things that weren’t hers, and in her book, she doesn’t seem to show any regret or remorse in doing so, even though The Curve of Time was written many years after her summer cruises. She even goes so far as to recount how in one empty First Nations village, the Blanchet family, “played with their old boxes-for-the-dead, trying to see if we could fit in.”8 Knowing that The Curve of Time still serves as a key text for those cruising the B.C. coast, I hope that anyone reading the book today isn’t encouraged to act in a similar manner in the event of finding an Indigenous artifact during their own adventures.

As her children grew, some of them no longer joined Capi for the family summer holiday, and the early 1940s and World War II brought the last cruise aboard the Caprice. In the biography, Converse outlines the remainder of Capi’s life on Curtesis Point on the Saanich Peninsula, and briefly summarizes the later lives of the five Blanchet children.

Overall, I found it meaningful and interesting to read the books together as a pair. Once I knew more of Capi Blanchet’s story than she revealed in her own writing, I was quite intrigued by this enigmatic woman from Vancouver Island, and I was curious to read more about her. As well as being mentioned in Pagh’s book, At Home Afloat: Women on the Waters of the Pacific Northwest, Capi Blanchet is profiled in Eve Lazarus’ book, Sensational Victoria: Bright Lights, Red Lights, Murders, Ghosts & Gardens, as one of five legendary women of Victoria. Author and historian Rosemary Neering, whose many books have focused on western Canada, includes a section about Blanchet in her book, Wild West Women: Travellers, Adventurers and Rebels. And in The Strangers Next Door, Edith Iglauer, a leading chronicler of Canadian life and culture, devotes a chapter to Blanchet, which originally appeared in Raincoast Chronicles, the well-loved journal of the Canadian west coast.

Converse adeptly covers much of this same material in the biography, but it was still interesting to read other authors’ takes on Capi. Lazarus includes a quote from Blanchet’s daughter-in-law that reminds us that The Curve of Time is after all an “account” of the Blanchets’ cruises, one that “is neither a story nor a log”9: “When I read The Curve of Time when it was first published, my governing thought was this was not the woman that I knew, because Capi comes across much more tender and sensitive in that book than she appeared to me.”10

How much did Capi Blanchet blur the lines between fact and fiction in The Curve of Time? Converse reveals that the Blanchet children were not necessarily in agreement about the accuracy of Capi’s writing: “When Elizabeth, who became an accomplished writer in her own right, first read her mother’s book, she remarked, ‘A lot of what is in that book is bunk. I ought to know, I was there.’ Some of the others chose not to read it or did not comment on it.”11

So much of Capi Blanchet’s life remains a mystery, including what her real motivation was for packing her children aboard the Caprice for those long summer cruises. Did she just need the money she received from renting out the Blanchets’ Little House over the summer? Was it the pull of adventure? An act of defiance and confidence building when her family expected her to go back east after her husband’s sudden death? Or was it just that she loved being out on the water, cruising and exploring, and she wanted to share a pastime that she enjoyed with her children? We’ll never really know, but I definitely enjoyed reading about Capi Blanchet, a remarkable west coast woman.


  1. Iglauer, Edith. “‘Capi’ Blanchet.” In The Strangers Next Door (Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing, 1991), 222.
  2. Blanchet, M. Wylie. The Curve of Time (Vancouver: Whitecap Books, 1996), 3.
  3. Blanchet, 161.
  4. Converse, Cathy. Following the Curve of Time: The Legendary M. Wylie Blanchet (Victoria, BC: TouchWood Editions, 2008), 29.
  5. Converse, 143.
  6. Blanchet, 45.
  7. Pagh, Nancy. At Home Afloat: Women on the Waters of the Pacific Northwest (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2001), 114.
  8. Blanchet, 52.
  9. Blanchet, xv.
  10. Lazarus, Eve. Sensational Victoria: Bright Lights, Red Lights, Murders, Ghosts & Gardens (Vancouver: Anvil Press, 2012), 35.
  11. Converse, 67.

Obituary: Eva Joy (Olsen) Johnson & Erling Isador Johnson

2002-06-21 50th ann

Eva Joy Johnson
December 30, 1929 – May 2, 2019

Erling Isador Johnson
December 10, 1925 – May 3, 2019

Together Forever

It is with heavy hearts we say goodbye to our loving parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, Erling and Eva Johnson, who passed away within hours of each other in Williams Lake on May 2nd and 3rd, 2019.

They leave behind many memories for their ten children: Chris (Tina), Ingrid (Jerry), Darrell (Maechlin), Paul (Pauline), Bruce (Jackie), Byron (Laurie), Stephen (Rubina), Garth (Coleen), Ben (Tanya), and James (Kim), as well as their 22 grandchildren and a growing number of great-grandchildren.

Eva was predeceased by her parents, Ole and Constance Olsen, as well as her brothers John, Arnold, Einar, Hank, and Robert, and her sister Olive Broomfield. She is survived by her brother Herbert and her sister Eleanor Rodgers.

Erling was predeceased by his parents, Ted and Elfreda Johnson, as well as his sister Irene Fulla. He is survived by his younger sister Ivy Stubbs. Eva and Erling are also survived by numerous nieces, nephews, cousins, and extended family members in Canada, Sweden, and Norway.

Remembered for their devotion to both their family and their Christian faith, Eva and Erling were married for almost 67 years. They shared a wonderful life together that was a model for all our family, and they will be greatly missed. During this difficult time, the family takes comfort in knowing that Eva and Erling’s walk throughout their married lives was always in step with one another, and with the Lord.

The eldest child of Swedish immigrants, Ted and Elfreda (Stenvall) Johnson, Erling Isador Johnson was born in Sylvan Lake, Alberta on December 10th, 1925. After a difficult time spent attempting to farm, Erling’s parents moved the family to Smithers in the late 1920s. In 1938, the family moved again, this time to Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island, where Erling attended John Shaw High School.

After graduating, Erling attended Grade 13 in Vancouver, in preparation for university. But instead of heading off to UBC as planned, he enlisted in the Canadian Army on August 3rd, 1944, at age 18. He was trained in Vancouver and England and was sent to Holland in 1945. Discharged on December 4th, 1945, Erling enrolled in the Forestry program at UBC, and as an Armed Forces veteran, his tuition was paid.

Erling is remembered for his great patience and kindness. He was so proud of all his children, and he loved to tell stories of their many accomplishments.

Eva Joy Olsen was born in Hagensborg, outside Bella Coola, on December 30th, 1929, to Norwegian immigrant parents Ole and Constance (Fyhn) Olsen.

The Olsens moved away from the Bella Coola Valley in early 1935, after their home was destroyed by a great flood from which the family had to be rescued. The family moved to Sidney on Vancouver Island, and although her older siblings felt the strain of the move, Eva loved growing up there, and living near Roberts Bay. She remembered the family growing strong ties within their church community, and she had fond memories of days spent on the beach.

In 1942, the Olsens moved to Nanaimo, where Eva attended John Shaw High School. She got her first job in an accountant’s office when she was 17, and she also worked for a few years in the office at Northwest Bay Logging Company.

Eva is remembered for her lovely singing voice, which graced not only family events and church functions, but also could be heard during quiet moments at home.

Eva and Erling first met in 1947. Thinking back on the day they met, Eva wrote in her journal: “He walked into our church, and I promptly fell in love.” The couple were married in Nanaimo, on June 21st, 1952, after Erling received his degree and was working in the forest industry.

Living in Nanaimo on St. Andrews Street, the Johnsons started a family of their own. Christopher, Ingrid, Darrell, and Paul were born in Nanaimo. Sons Bruce, Byron, Stephen, Garth, Benjamin, and James followed after the family moved to the Cowichan Valley.

In the late 1950s, the family moved to Nitinat, a logging camp at Kissinger Lake. By 1962, they had moved to Lake Cowichan, and four years later, they moved to Herd Road, outside of Maple Bay. They lived at the Herd Road house for about eight years before moving to a rented home in Duncan, and then to their own home in Crofton.

In 1976, the family moved to property outside of 100 Mile House. Over the next 30 years, Eva and Erling, with the help of their sons, developed a ranch at Upper Lake, and enjoyed a rural lifestyle.

With their children grown up with families of their own, Erling and Eva fulfilled their long-time dream of moving back to Vancouver Island in 2006. They settled in French Creek, enjoying a life of retirement by the ocean’s shore.

In 2015, Erling and Eva returned to the Cariboo. They were happy to have loving family members visit them at the Williams Lake Seniors Village, offering comfort and support during their final years.

The family would like to thank the staff at the Williams Lake Seniors Village, and a special thank you to Dr. Schreve. A memorial service for the Johnsons was held on Saturday, May 11th at the Cariboo Christian Life Fellowship Church at the 108 Mile Ranch. In remembrance of Erling and Eva, donations can be made to Cal Bombay Ministries, a charity which the Johnsons supported for many years.

Norway to Bella Coola: Ole Olsen

I’m happy to be writing a series of blog posts about my great-grandparents, Ole Olsen and Konstanse Fyhn. This first part of the story is a look at my great-grandfather, Ole Kristian Kaspersen Olsen, including his emigration from Norway, his eventual settlement in the Bella Coola Valley with his two brothers Ingvald and Paul, and his marriage to my great-grandmother, Konstanse Fyhn, in 1914.

By October of 1912, my great-grandfather, Ole Kristian Kaspersen Olsen, was living in the Bella Coola Valley. He and his younger brother, Ingvald, had settled in Hagensborg, the Norwegian community that had been established approximately 20 kilometres east of the Bella Coola townsite. Ole and Ingvald’s younger sibling, Paul, had joined his brothers by 1913. Prior to his arrival in Hagensborg, Ole had left Norway, landed in New York, and lived in Minnesota for about a year. In the early 1900s, Ole’s two elder sisters, Konstanse and Eleonora, had immigrated separately from the family’s home in Helgeland, a district in the Nordland County in northern Norway, to Minnesota, where large numbers of Norwegians had been settling since the 1860s.1

The 1910 US Census indicates that Ole’s eldest sister, Konstanse, was the first of the family to leave, emigrating from Norway in 1901. She married Iver Bottolfson in 1905, and settled in Freeborn County, Minnesota. The 1920 US Census shows that Nora immigrated next in 1906, likely to join her sister. In 1908, Nora married Mandius Monson in Freeborn, and remained there until her death in 1948. Both Bottolfson and Monson were American born sons of Norwegian immigrants. It’s likely that Ole joined his sisters and their families with thoughts of starting a farm of his own in Minnesota.

Ole was the second son in the large Kaspersen family. It would have been expected that his elder brother, Arthur, would inherit the entirety of the family’s farm. Many parts of Norway are dominated by mountains, with only a small portion of the country suitable for farming. At the start of the 20th century, Norway was one of the poorest countries in Europe.2 Poverty and a lack of land opportunities, combined with the odel system of land tenure in Norway, which dictated that only the oldest son – the “odelsgutt” – inherited the farm, saw many younger sons immigrating to ‘Amerika’.3

Picture of nine men, five standing, with four seated in front.
Ole Kristian Kaspersen Olsen is seated on the far left; his older brother, Arthur Rosenius, is seated beside him; a man who is possibly his brother-in-law, Iver Bottolfson (husband of his eldest sister Konstanse), is seated next to Arthur; and his father Ole Jorgen Kaspersen is seated on the far right. Younger brothers Paul Waldemar and Ingvald Hagen are standing, with Paul in the middle and Ingvald on the far right. Circa 1910.

A relative in Norway tells me that even two generations earlier, Ole’s own maternal grandfather had wanted to emigrate from Norway:

“Erik Pedersen was born in Lom in 1824 and died in 1887. His family tried to move to Amerika but could not afford it. He and his brother Johannes walked then to Helgeland [a journey of hundreds of kilometres]. Erik settled down on a small island and built a small farm. Living off fishing and the small farm. Lom is a mountain village. The change was enormous.”4

Hundreds of thousands had left Norway for North America by 1920.5 This mass migration brought many Norwegian immigrants to the American mid-west where land was readily available, especially after 1862, when the United States Homestead Act allowed newly arrived immigrants to become land owners. Applicants could become owners of 160 acres for just an $18 filing fee if they moved onto the land, built a home there, and farmed the property for five years.6

Despite the availability of land and the relatively low cost of becoming a land owner, some immigrant settlers, including a group of Norwegians in the mid-west, were not content in the United States. “Some had lost their farms, others were tired of the frigid prairie winters and the blazing hot summers.”7 A severe economic depression coupled with challenges to religious freedoms, led the group of Norwegians to select their pastor, Rev. Christian Saugstad, to look for a new place to start a settlement. Ideally, the group wanted the geography of the new settlement to be more like their homeland, as “they missed the comforting backdrop of enclosing mountains and the moderating presence of the ocean.”8

Articles written by Bernard Fillip Jacobsen initially led Saugstad to the Bella Coola Valley.9 Jacobsen was one of the first white settlers in the area. Seeing beauty and potential in the land, Jacobsen not only encouraged the B.C. government to settle the Bella Coola Valley, but he also submitted articles praising the valley to Norwegian language newspapers in the United States. It was these articles, in which Jacobsen compared the coast of British Columbia to that of Norway, and indicated that “the climate, soil, and lifestyle [of the Bella Coola Valley] would be ideal for Norwegians”10 that drew the attention of Saugstad.

After visiting the valley, liking what he saw, and then making arrangements with the provincial government to reserve land for the formation of a colony, Saugstad led the first group of about 85 Norwegians to the Bella Coola Valley in 1894. Under the terms negotiated with Colonel James Baker, the Provincial Secretary and Minster of Education, Immigration and Mines, each man was to receive 160 acres of free land after five years of occupancy, if he could prove $5 per acre in improvements.11

Before arriving, the group members created and signed a charter which stated their intent to form a utopian community: “The purpose of this colony shall be to induce moral, industrious and loyal Norwegian farmers, mechanics and business men to come to Bella Coola and make their homes there under the laws of British Columbia.”12

By the time my great-grandfather and his brothers arrived in Hagensborg, Saugstad was dead and the colony charter had dissolved. However, the community remained primarily made up of Norwegian immigrants, with over 200 settlers living in the area, and farming, fishing, and family were the fundamental aspects of community life. Combined with the fjord-like coastal landscape of the Bella Coola Valley, it must have seemed like a comforting and familiar place, a place to call home.

Picture of three men, two standing and one seated in the middle.
Brothers Ingvald, Ole, and Paul

Somewhere in the process of immigrating to North America, the three brothers, Ole, Ingvald, and Paul, became Olsens rather than Kaspersens. Family lore points to either an immigration official changing the family name because he couldn’t pronounce Kaspersen, or another immigrant at Ellis Island choosing Olsen as his new surname, and then the Kaspersen brother behind him in line following suit. I’m not sure either of these theories is the whole story.

It wasn’t until 1923 that it became law in Norway for families to use a single, hereditary surname.13 While Ole and his brothers may have used the hereditary surname Kaspersen like their father, they might also have used it together with Olsen, a patronymic surname (their father’s first name plus a suffix denoting relationship). The Norwegian-American Historical Association explains that “on the whole, the immigrants were not very particular about which surnames they adopted. The most important factor was apparently whether the name could be written and pronounced in English.”14 The brothers may have felt that Olsen was a choice better suited for life in North America than Kaspersen. Or perhaps the choice really was made for them when an immigration officer filling in their paperwork couldn’t pronounce or spell Kaspersen.

As an aside, while I can’t be 100% sure that I’ve found that right passenger list, I did find a Konstanse Olsen immigrating in 1901 from the family’s region of Norway to the US. If this was in fact Ole’s older sister, it could indicate that the family was comfortable using Olsen as a surname long before having its name changed suddenly in an immigration line.

Most likely arriving at different times, the three Olsen brothers made the Bella Coola Valley their home. They lived together in a house on the Salloompt side of the river’s banks. In 1914, my great-grandfather Ole’s life changed forever. Springtime brought nineteen-year-old Konstanse Fyhn to the Bella Coola Valley, an event which surely caught the attention of all three of the bachelor brothers. A family story spins the tale that each of the three men brought the newly arrived Konstanse a different gift to win her favour. Ingvald brought her a fresh caught salmon, Paul brought her a box of chocolates and made her laugh, and Ole brought her a bouquet of wild flowers. A granddaughter of Konstanse reflects: “It was all prescient as Ingvald would go on to become the most successful fisherman, Paul remained a good friend, and Ole was somewhat of a romantic at heart.”15 Ole, “the most sought after bachelor in the Bella Coola,”16 won Konstanse’s heart and the couple was married on December 23, 1914.

Ingvald and Paul served overseas in World War I as part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, while Ole stayed at home and started a family with Konstanse. After the war, Ingvald and Paul returned, married, and started raising families of their own. The three branches of the Olsen family remained close, all moving to Sidney on Vancouver Island after a heavy flood in 1934.


  1. Carlton C. Qualey, “Pioneer Norwegian Settlement in Minnesota,” Minnesota History 12, no. 3 (September 1931): 247-280,
  2. Larsen, Erling Roed, “The Norwegian Economy 1900-2000: From Rags to Riches, A Brief History of Economic Policymaking in Norway,” Economic Survey 4 (2001): 25,
  3. According to some of my family documents, “Amerika” is what Norwegians of Ole’s generation called both the United States and Canada.
  4. Hans Egil Hansen, email message to author, February 3, 2019.
  5. Eric Faa, Norwegians in the Northwest: Settlement in British Columbia, 1858-1918 (Victoria: Runestad, 1995), 2.
  6. “About the Homestead Act,” National Park Service, last modified October 24, 2018,
  7. Gordon Fish, Dreams of Freedom: Bella Coola, Cape Scott, Sointula (Victoria: Provincial Archives of British Columbia, 1982), 5.
  8. Hans Granander and Michael Wigle, Bella Coola: Life in the Heart of the Coast Mountains (Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing, 2004), 114.
  9. Cliff Kopas, Bella Coola (Vancouver: Mitchell Press, 1970), 245.
  10. Faa, Norwegians in the Northwest, 83.
  11. Faa, Norwegians in the Northwest, 116.
  12. Kopas, Bella Coola, 246.
  13. Judy Jacobsen, Norwegian Connections: From Arctic Fjord to American Prairie (Baltimore, MD: Clearfield Publishing, 2002), xi.
  14. “Norwegian Names,” Norwegian-American Historical Association, accessed March 11, 2019,
  15. Marcy Green, Facebook message to author, February 21, 2019.
  16. Hank Olsen, Bella Coola Lady and That’s No Maybe (Victoria, BC: Trafford Publishing, 2003), 14.

Telling My Norwegian Story

The theme for this year’s BC Heritage week was “The Tie That Binds.” In celebration, I attended the City of Nanaimo’s 2019 Heritage Summit at the Nanaimo Museum which included a presentation by Christine Muetzner, manager of the Nanaimo Community Archives. In her talk, Muetzner spoke of how stories told over the years bind together the past, present, and future. She reminded the audience that each and every one of us has a story to tell, and we should think about sharing it. This thought inspired me to continue to explore my family’s history, and to write about my discoveries. While I didn’t find answers to all my questions, I did learn a lot. And one thing that became clear: family is another tie that binds.

Through researching and writing the story of my Norwegian great-grandparents, Ole Olsen and Konstanse Fyhn, I reached out to several relatives whom I had never met before. Not only were they happy to help me with my questions, but they were also curious about both the information I’d pulled together, and about my own little family. I was touched. Even though we shared a common ancestor (sometimes rather distant), these were basically strangers. Why would they care about me? But they did. And I cared about them too.

So after asking a lot of questions, and reading many books about the Bella Coola Valley, Sidney, and Norwegian immigrants, I’m happy to share a series of blog posts about my great-grandparents, Ole and Konstanse. It is the story of their individual emigrations from Norway; the life they built together in Hagensborg in the Bella Coola Valley, and their eventual move to Vancouver Island, which three generations later, I call my home. I never met Ole and Konstanse, but I feel a connection now, not only with them, but also with some of their other descendants whom I’ve met through my research.

As I finish writing parts of my Norwegian family’s story, I will link them to this post. The first part, Norway to Bella Coola: Ole Olsen, is a look at my great-grandfather’s emigration from Norway, his eventual settlement in the Bella Coola Valley with his two brothers Ingvald and Paul, and his marriage to my great-grandmother in 1914. The second part, Norway to Bella Coola: Konstanse Fyhn, is the story of my great-grandmother’s journey from Norway to Hagensborg in the spring of 1914, including thoughts about some possible reasons for her emigration as a young, single woman. The third part, The Olsens in Bella Coola, covers the years 1915 to 1935, after Ole and Konstanse’s marriage, when they started a family which eventually grew to nine children including my paternal grandmother. This part of the story also includes the harrowing tale of how the Olsens escaped from a destructive flood in October of 1934. The final part of the story, Bella Coola to Vancouver Island, chronicles the Olsens’ move away from the Bella Coola Valley to Sidney on Vancouver Island.

Learning about my heritage has been both enlightening (my dad likes butter on everything because that’s a Norwegian thing!) and frustrating (why can’t I figure out where my great-grandfather was in 1911?!). As I mentioned before, I certainly don’t have all the answers, but learning about my roots has been interesting. If you have ever thought about doing your own genealogical research, I encourage you to start. Ask questions, read books, listen, and learn. More and more records are accessible online, and family history groups are becoming more common. We all have stories to tell, and people want to hear them. No one’s story is perfect, but that shouldn’t stop us from sharing. Family and stories are both ties that bind, and by researching and telling my family’s story, I learned more about not only who my ancestors were, but also about myself.

If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.”

George Bernard Shaw

Remembering Ingvald Olsen

I’m researching my family’s history, and recently I was able to connect with one of my dad’s first cousins who also lives on Vancouver Island. After seeing a newspaper article about the Canadian Letters & Images project at Vancouver Island University, she revealed that she had a letter I might be interested in. It was written to my great-grandfather, Ole Olsen, by his younger brother, Ingvald, who was serving overseas in the First World War. The letter had been tucked away in a family Bible, and because I work at VIU, the cousin was hoping I could facilitate the letter being added to the project.
Originally written in Norwegian, I was grateful that at some time over the last 100 years, the letter has also been translated into English. I read the letter for the first time on Remembrance Day, and the lines: “I’m sure you have heard the good news that the war is over. It is almost too good to believe for many of us who have witnessed hell on earth,” were incredibly moving for me.
Belonging to a generation that has thankfully only known times of peace, one that is frequently criticized for glossing over the importance and significance of Remembrance Day, I suddenly had a better sense of what it really meant. It’s like Ingvald was writing directly to me. Maybe it takes having a personal connection to a serviceman or servicewoman to really wake up to the importance of why we remember. This shouldn’t be the case. As Canadians, we should honour and respect the service and sacrifice of all of the men and women who have served this country, regardless of having a personal connection or not. But that’s easier said than done. We can willingly take the day off work or school, even observe a moment of silence, or attend a commemorative service, but it can be a little more difficult to really feel thankful.
I’m happy to share that the letter from Ingvald Olsen is now part of the WWI collection of the project, and that both the scanned original and the translated text are openly accessible. Initially, I had wondered if the project team may not be interested in digitizing a single letter, especially one written in Norwegian! I’m a big believer in the value of open access, so I’m not exactly sure what made me doubt. I think it’s because while Ingvald and Ole were definitely important individuals within my own family’s story, neither of them made headline news before, during, or after the war. They were just regular guys, who went on to live regular lives after the war was over.
Ole and Ingvald Casperson, together with a third brother, Paul, immigrated to “Amerika”1 from Norway in the early 1900s. Somewhere along the line in the immigration process they collectively changed their surname to Olsen. The brothers settled in Hagensborg, a Norwegian community in the Bella Coola Valley. Ole married my great-grandmother Konstanse Fyhn at the end of 1914, and started raising a family there.
Paul Olsen
While the youngest brother Paul volunteered for service in December 1916, it’s likely that Ingvald was conscripted. He was enlisted in November 1917, after the Military Service Act became law in Canada earlier that year. His personnel record includes attestation paperwork clearly stamped “Military Services Act,” and seems to have an exemption claim number – one that must have been unsuccessful.
Both Paul and Ingvald were sent overseas, fighting in France, and both were wounded several times. Paul suffered a gun shot wound to the head in October 1917, rejoining his unit in January 1918 after spending time recovering at field hospitals. In October of 1918, he was wounded again at the Battle of Cambrai, this time suffering a gun shot wound to his right arm. Paul did not return to battle after this second injury. He recuperated at several military hospitals, including Frodsham and Epsom, until he was discharged in February 1919.
Ingvald was wounded at the Arras Front in June 1918. He received multiple shrapnel wounds as the result of a hand grenade explosion during a raid. He spent several months in the Taplow and Bexhill hospitals, healing from wounds in both his legs and his back. His personnel record includes an x-ray of his left shoulder clearing showing three fragments embedded under his arm. I wonder if he ended up going home with those. Ingvald was discharged back to active duty on September 13, 1918. After the Armistice, he was discharged in February of 1919.
Of the 58 Bella Coola men who took part in the First World War, Paul and Ingvald were among those who came home again.2 Paul married Ruth Nordschow in November 1919, and Ingvald married Ida Engebretson in October 1924. Both couples went on to start families in Bella Coola. The bond between the three Olsen brothers seems to have remained strong. After my great-grandparents’ home was destroyed in the flood of 1934, all three Olsen families moved to Vancouver Island, settled together in Sidney.
Ingvald Olsen
Ingvald’s letter to his brother Ole was written just after the Armistice. He doesn’t speak to dramatic battles or heroic rescues, but of looking forward to going home. While the letter was certainly interesting to me, I wasn’t sure it would have value for anyone else outside my family.
Before making any assumptions, I should have reviewed the website of the Canadian Letters & Images Project a little more thoroughly. Having first been a history student at VIU, and now an employee, I was already aware of the project, but what I didn’t know much about was its dedication to its objectives.
“Too often the story told of Canada at war has been one of great battles and great individuals, an approach that unfortunately misses the ‘ordinary’ Canadian and the richness of their wartime experience. This project attempts to make visible again those who have made contributions and sacrifices for Canada, but who now have become largely invisible.”3
If I had read this statement from the project’s website earlier, I could have put any unsureness about the letter’s value to the project aside. It’s like this statement was written with my exact doubts at mind. This made me think that there must be a great number of people who share the same reservations that I experienced. If you’ve hesitated about contributing your family’s photos or letters to the Canadian Letters and Images Project – please reconsider.
“Every item that comes to us in the collections has merit and so all collections will appear in their entirety. … Our place is not to judge the historic merit of one person’s experiences over those of another, nor is it to judge the appropriateness of language or content from the perspective of the present.”4
Dr. Stephen Davies and his project team were happy to add my family’s letter to the collection, and even returned it in an archival document sleeve to help preserve it for future readers. I was able to easily deliver the letter to the university, but if you aren’t able to do so, “The Canadian Letters and Images Project will make arrangements at our expense to have any materials picked up and returned by courier to ensure the safety of those materials.”5
If you have any war letters or photos in a family album or keepsake box in the attic, please think about sharing them. We must remember, and contributing to a collaborative project like The Canadian Letters & Images Project can help us to do so. Through this type of project, we can share with one another the wartime experience of “regular” Canadians like Ingvald Olsen, and we can continue to honour their service and sacrifice for years to come. Lest we forget.

1. According to some of my family documents, “Amerika” is what Norwegians of Ole & Ingvald’s generation called both the United States and Canada.
2. Leslie Kopas, Bella Coola Country (Vancouver: Illahee Publishing, 2003), 63.
3. “About Us,” The Canadian Letters and Images Project, Vancouver Island University, accessed December 1, 2018,
4. “About Us.”
5. “About Us.”

Reading Bella Coola

My great-grandparents, Konstanse Fyhn & Ole Olsen on their wedding day in December 1914.

Although my interests typically are centred on Vancouver Island, lately I’ve also been exploring my family’s history. Before my great-grandparents moved to Vancouver Island in the mid-1930s, they lived in Bella Coola. After immigrating separately from Norway in the early 1900s, they both eventually settled at Hagensborg, a Norwegian community about 20 kilometres east of Bella Coola.

Hagensborg, originally known as Kristiania, was the 1894 stopping point for a group of Norwegian settlers coming up from the United States. The group was led by Rev. Christian Saugstad whom hoped to establish a utopian Norwegian colony there. While not part of the original group of approximately 80 colonists, my great-grandparents joined their fellow Norwegians once the community had been established. They married there in 1914, and had a family of nine children.

In order to gain insight on what their lives might have been like, and to know more about the Norwegian immigrant experience in British Columbia, I began searching around for some books. Luckily, between the titles I had already had at home, my dad’s collection, and university and public libraries, I’ve been able to put together an impressive reading list that should keep me busy for quite a while.

Here’s an overview of what I’ve found so far:

Olsen, Hank. Bella Coola Lady and That’s No Maybe. Victoria, BC: Trafford, 2003.


This is a self-published book written by my great-uncle about the family’s time in Bella Coola. Apparently it was received with mixed feelings within the family itself – a sure hint that it will be an interesting read. I can’t wait! This is probably going to be my best opportunity to get a sense of what my relatives’ experience was actually like. Even if the story has been romanticized or embellished some what, it’s likely my best source for describing the specific time period, people, and events I am most interested in.

Green, Marcy (Olsen). “An immigrant’s journey: The Olsen family”. Vancouver Sun. 29 April 2008. pg. B3. Online at:

This article based on family stories and legends gives the account of my great-grandparents’ experiences of immigrating to Canada from Norway. In 2008, to mark the 150th anniversary of the founding of the colony of British Columbia, the Vancouver Sun invited readers to send in written submissions which shared their families’ histories as a way to reflect on and celebrate the experience of ordinary British Columbians. My dad’s first cousin, another grandchild of the couple featured, submitted this article.

Wild, Paula. One River, Two Cultures: A History of the Bella Coola Valley. Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing, 2004.

So far I’ve only just glanced at this book, but I was excited to see it includes information from an interview with one of my great-uncles (not the one that wrote the book) about the 1934 flood which was the impetus for the family to move away from Bella Coola.

My great-grandmother and seven of her nine children, including my grandmother whom was just five years old at the time, were stranded on the island they lived on after the two nearby bridges were washed away in the flood waters. Luckily, the family was rescued by members of the local First Nation in canoes, but their home was severely damaged. Shortly after, they left Bella Coola, moving to Sidney on Vancouver Island.

Fish, Gordon. Dreams of Freedom: Bella Coola, Cape Scott, Sointula. Sound Heritage Series 36. Victoria, BC: Provincial Archives of British Columbia, 1982.

This book gathers together oral interviews concerning three of the province’s ethnic communities: Bella Coola (Norwegian), Cape Scott (Danish), and Sointula (Finnish). A bulk of the Bella Coola sections are based on oral interviews CBC radio producer Imbert Orchard conducted with Milo Fougner and siblings Ted and Anne Levelton, whose fathers had arrived with the original group of Norwegian settlers. These are supplemented with additional interviews done for the BC Archives by the author Gordon Fish.

Made up of excerpts from these interviews, this book doesn’t read like a stuffy scholar writing about a far-flung community. The stories and memories are captured in the speakers’ own voices. It’s like the interviewees are sitting in the room with you, telling you their story in their way. This text serves as a valuable record of the people and families who were actually in Bella Coola at the time it was growing as a Norwegian community.

This photo is found in the Dreams of Freedom book and is captioned as “Bella Coola fisherman hauling in salmon gillnet”. A Clifford R. Kopas photo, my grandmother thinks that this is a picture of her eldest brother, Johnny.

Kopas, Cliff. Bella Coola. Vancouver, BC: Mitchell Press, 1970.

Faa, Eric. Norwegians in the Northwest: Settlement in British Columbia, 1858-1918. Victoria, BC: Runestad, 1995.

These books include lots of great information about the Norwegian settlement in Bella Coola. Unfortunately, the time period discussed for the most part pre-dates my great-grandparents’ arrivals in 1909 and 1914. Understandably, a lot of research focuses on the original group of Norwegian colonists, but as my relatives were not part of this first group, I think it’s going to be tougher to find information about Bella Coola when they were living there. However, I’m sure these books will still be interesting and useful for understanding how the community came to be, and what it was like to live there.

And one that I haven’t put my hands on yet, but will be looking into:

Solhjell, Peter. Spuds Among the Stumps: Norwegian Immigrant Settlement Photos, Bella Coola, 1896-1897. Hagensborg, BC: Solly’s Pub, 2008.

The pictures in this book also pre-date my great-grandparents’ arrival in Bella Coola by over 10 years, but I still think it will be an excellent resource, especially for getting a visual sense of what the community might have looked like when they arrived.

While I’ve certainly got a lot of reading ahead of me, it’s easy to be motivated when you feel like you’re discovering a part of your own history. I look forward to learning more about an area of BC that I’ve never visited (I predict I’ll be planning a trip after this research is through), and to becoming more familiar with the great-grandparents that I never got to meet.

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 Alexandra 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 Alexandra, 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 a very similar 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.


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. (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!


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:

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: (Thatcher) & (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

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

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:

South Wellington Heritage Day 2018

On Sunday, May 6th, I attended South Wellington Heritage Day at the community hall on Morden Road (next to the Cranberry fire hall). South Wellington Day happens only every two years, so I always try to make it. Despite my family having moved to the area almost 30 years ago, they’re still considered “newcomers”. But I guess that’s what happens when you have families with roots going back to the community’s earliest days as a coal mining town still living in the area generations later.

4A-DalysI was pleased to see a small glimpse of myself captured in the school display. The display includes large format South Wellington Elementary all-school photos from the 1990s and 2000s, in some of which I found myself, my brother, and my friends. And at some point in the last two years an enterprising community member tracked down a South Wellington Elementary award plaque that happens to have my name on it for 1994/1995. My parents were so proud!

The hall was set up with displays detailing the community’s history. Many of the informational posters have been tirelessly created for the event by local historian Helen Tilley. Helen’s husband’s family has been in South Wellington for several generations, and Helen has a real passion for uncovering the history of the area. She’s helped descendants of coal miners connect with their ancestors’ pasts, and with each other. Her knowledge of the area is truly incredible.

There are coal mining artifacts at the event, and a huge number of photos. Some great door prizes were available, and there were tons of free snacks. There were also activities designed for younger attendees: a photo area with props was set up under a representation of the iconic PCCM arch, colouring sheets, and even a scavenger hunt activity.

Because I didn’t get the chance last time, I was happy to go on the community bus tour this year. At first I was somewhat skeptical that the tour would be “about an hour.” Can’t I walk all of South Wellington in an hour?! But once we got going, I was pleased to have the opportunity to see the entire community, including parts of the Camp, Bluff, Scotchtown, Morden, and Old Highway neighbourhoods.

From the fire hall, we turned right onto what was at one time part of the highway, but is now called South Wellington Road. We toured the south part of the Old Highway section of town, with the bus heading down Addison’s Hill. This apparently used to be a favourite sledding spot for the youngsters of the area. The bus continued down South Wellington Road, turning left at Nanaimo River Road and going underneath the highway through “the tunnel”. We travelled north, back up the Island Highway, bisecting what was originally the 160 acre Williams farm. It was pleasing to hear that part of the property is still farmed today by a Williams descendant.

The bus turned right at the lights, entering the Morden section of South Wellington. We took an immediate right on Main Road, following the road as it changed names into Thatcher, Emblem, and Frey Roads. What you may not know is that there’s an access to the beautiful Nanaimo River Regional Park down this way (the other end is accessed off of Fry Road down by the tunnel). It’s a pleasant, easy walk along the river, great for anyone looking to take a stroll in a natural forest setting. Perfect for kids and dogs, it’s one of my family’s favourite walks.

Map showing the route covered by the bus tour, as well as the coal mines of the area.

After successfully completing a turn around in the parking lot of the beautiful Yoga Weyr property, the bus driver doubled back the way we came until we reached Eglington Avenue. We turned right here, left on Akenhead, and then right onto Morden. This is a quiet residential area, originally developed when miners moved here to work at the Pacific Coast Coal Mine Ltd.’s Morden Mine.

Despite a narrow road and tight parking lot, the bus driver managed to get us right up to the impressive concrete structure that is the remains of the Morden Mine head frame and tipple. With a chuckle, one of my fellow bus riders fondly remembered an ascent to the top, motivated by some liquid courage. Somewhat entertaining for me was the fact that this adventure yarn was spun not by a daredevil teenaged boy, but by a middle-aged woman. The site has been designated a historic provincial park, and efforts to preserve this unique reminder of our coal mining history are undertaken by the Friends of Morden Mine group. I’m definitely looking forward to exploring this park’s trail further with my family.

Leaving Morden, we crossed the highway, passed the present and former locations of the Ruckledge Store, and at the fire hall intersection, turned right onto South Wellington Road. This brought us through the northern section of Old Highway. Next we turned left on Minetown Road, entering the area known as The Bluff. We saw the former location of the Green School, where many South Wellington children received practical education: manual training for the boys, and home economics for the girls.

Coming down Minetown Road, we reached probably what could be considered the original hub of South Wellington: the intersection of Scotchtown and Minetown Roads with Minto and Dick Avenues. We turned right onto Minto, which together with Dick Avenue formed the original main drag of the town and was known as Camp. Few reminders of South Wellington’s heyday remain. A large fire in 1914 destroyed many of the original buildings that had formed the backbone of the mining town. Some of the original miners’ homes still remain today, but none of the buildings that made up the original commercial district of stores, boarding houses, and hotels are still standing. The  United Church building, which has been converted into a private home, was rebuilt after the fire.

We executed another turn at Thelma Griffith Park, named after the community’s long time post mistress, whose family operated a small store with the post office across the street. We headed back to the intersection, this time turning right down the hill. Over the railroad tracks, past the former No. 5 Mine site, and into the valley, we headed into the area known as Scotchtown or Mushtown.

I was pleasantly surprised when the bus turned left onto Gomerich Road. While I was happy the street I grew up on was going to be part of the tour, my instant thought was: “How are we going to get out of here again?” The road basically dead ends in a driveway, and is narrow at even the widest sections. We passed by my parents’ property, which was originally the farm of Robert Miller, who was one of 19 miners killed in the 1915 flooding accident in the South Wellington Mine. Our barn, over 100 years old and somewhat of a landmark in the valley, still stands, but for how much Barnlonger, no one knows. The light the comes in through the cracks makes me nervous to go in there, never mind the building’s distinctive lean to one side. My dad has plans to pull it down and reuse the barn board for projects, but it’s still standing for the moment.

We ended up doing a guided, many point turn at the dead end of Gomerich Road, and we headed back to the hall. Even though I was very familiar with the area, I thoroughly enjoyed the bus tour. It’s a wonderful idea for connecting people with the landmarks of the community, and the pictures in the guidebook we received complemented the tour well. Doug Catley and Marjorie Stupich did a great job not only pointing out local landmarks like old barns and sites of important former buildings, but they also highlighted some of the current local businesses. This included Dudink’s U-Pick Berry Farm on Gomerich Road, and Kleijn Nurseries and Eagle Quest Fiddlers Green golf course on opposite sides of Thatcher Road. If you go to the event in future years, I’d highly recommend the tour.

treasuresofsw-e1526169547167.jpgBack at the hall, I of course checked out the books for sale. I picked up a copy of Treasures of South Wellington, written and illustrated by former resident Clare Singleton. Singleton has been working as an artist in B.C. for over 30 years, painting the “joys and trials of small town Canadian life, a life she wants to document before she fears it disappears.” South Wellington is lucky to be one of the communities Singleton captured with her art during her time on Vancouver Island. My particular favourite is her rendition of the Stupich family’s picturesque pink farm house on Scotchtown Road. On the bus tour, Doug Catley shared the idea that you can’t help but feel a sense of peace when you drive past the house, with its leaning fruit trees and sea of daffodils. I definitely agree.

SWBookAlso for sale was South Wellington: Stories From the Past, which was published by the South Wellington Historical Committee in 2010, compiling a series of interviews and submissions by past and present community members. This is a fantastic book, full of stories and personal anecdotes about early families in the area. If you have any interest in the community’s history, I would strongly encourage you to pick one up. They are usually available for sale at the Literacy Central Vancouver Island bookstore, and I’ve also seen them at Salamander Books in Ladysmith.

Overall, I had an enjoyable time attending what was probably my favourite South Wellington Day yet. The sense of community was strong, with people reminiscing about the past, talking about the present, and planning for the future. Neighbours clearly enjoyed sharing stories, laughing, and remembering together. It’s an important community event that I hope continues to take place for many years to come.

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 VCMLC 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 population 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 as miners and their families moved away to pursue jobs in other mines, but Wellington continued on as a rural community until it was eventually amalgamated with Nanaimo. On January 1, 1975, Nanaimo’s boundaries expanded and Wellington, along with Harewood, Chase River, Northfield, Departure Bay, and Protection Island, became part of the City of Nanaimo.4

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 tucked away 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. For more information about the Wellington Cemetery, make sure to check out the Nanaimo Historical Society’s virtual tour at:

Wellington Cemetery
The Wellington Cemetery

While the current Island ConnectEd building (formerly Mount Benson Elementary School) only dates back to 1950, the property has a long history as the home of the school in Wellington. On May 20, 1875, on land 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 built nearby. This third school was given the new name of Mount Benson Elementary, and was open until 2008. This school was closed after the 2007/2008 school year by the Nanaimo-Ladysmith School District as part of a business plan that would see the land sold to provide capital funding for other district projects.

There was some interest raised in the Wellington area about using the closed school building for community-focused activities. Community members also brought forward a concern that the “top field” (the land originally donated by Dunsmuir) could not be sold by the school district because it was held in trust for the people of Wellington.6 The site was not sold and the former Mount Benson Elementary School building is now home to Island ConnectEd, Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools’ facility to support distance learning. With over 140 years of public education on its grounds, the site off of Jingle Pot Road has the distinction of being the oldest known operating public school on its original site in British Columbia.7

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


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:

4. Jan Peterson, A Place in Time: Nanaimo Chronicles (Nanaimo: Nanaimo Museum, 2008), 278.

5. Justine Hunter, “Sad last day as Nanaimo school shuts its doors,” Globe and Mail, June 28, 2008,

6. Andréa Coutu, Twitter direct message to author, July 12, 2021; “Mt. Benson School History,” YouTube video, 7:30, “wellingtonbcaca,” March 3, 2011,

7. For more information about the history of the school site see: 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.