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.