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.

Colonial Nanaimo: Charles Bayley & William Hughes

Two new ultra-local reads! I purchased both of these books directly from the authors, which I was happy to do in theses strange COVID-19 times. Each book is biographical, following the life and times of a different yet contemporary white, male, colonial pioneer who spent time in Nanaimo.

McDowell, Jim. Pluck, Luck and Grit: Charles A. Bayley in Colonial British Columbia (1851-1869). Richmond, BC: JEM Publications, 2018.

Davidson, Carole. Early Nanaimo 1857-1876 from the Diary of William J Hughes. Victoria: Rendezvous Historic Press, 2020.

Picture of the two books

Pluck, Luck and Grit: Charles A. Bayley in Colonial British Columbia (1851-1869) was published by Jim McDowell in 2018. I recently learned about it when it was briefly profiled in the books section of the Summer 2020 issue of British Columbia History magazine. McDowell is a BC historian with several titles to his name. He only self-published a very small number (12!) of limited edition, full colour copies of Pluck, Luck and Grit, and I feel lucky to have one. The book follows the life of Charles Bayley, who came to Vancouver Island with his parents in 1850 aboard the Tory. The ship had been chartered by the Hudson’s Bay Company “to carry a few ‘settlers’ and numerous labourers around the horn of South America and north in the Pacific Ocean in order to start colonizing the Pacific Northwest Coast for Great Britain.”1 The Bayley family settled three miles from Fort Victoria, where Charles’ father Thomas was contracted by the HBC to manage a farm. Charles Bayley went on to become one of Vancouver Island’s earliest schoolteachers, working first in Victoria and then later in Nanaimo. According to the book’s dedication, McDowell’s mother was Charles Bayley’s “grand niece-in-law,” and her brother, McDowell’s uncle, was married to a granddaughter of Bayley. This connection likely gave McDowell access to Bayley’s memoirs, quotes from which are included in the text, adding Bayley’s own voice to the narrative.

Early Nanaimo 1857-1876 from the Diary of William J Hughes by Carole Davidson was just published this year and follows Hughes’ life as depicted in his daily (only one line per day) diary. Nanaimo history fans may be familiar with Davidson’s earlier book, Historic Departure Bay…Looking Back, which was published in 2006. Hughes and his Indigenous wife Mary Salacelowitz settled on a piece of land at Departure Bay in 1861, where they farmed, gardened, and generally seemed to work hard to earn their living. Mary, who was from the Cowichan Tribes, followed the traditional ways and annual seasonal patterns of her people. She frequently spent time away from home and took the children with her, while William’s days seemed to be mostly full of never-ending chores and work to support their family and property.

If I come away from a book about Vancouver Island having read one thing I didn’t know already, I’m usually pretty happy, and that certainly was the case for both of these books which cover some of the Island’s early settler history. For example, Davidson’s book explains how the land at Departure Bay where Robert Dunsmuir built his coal shipping wharves for the Wellington Colliery was originally part of William Hughes’ 150-acre pre-emption. Having read a lot about Dunsmuir, it’s not hard for me to imagine the canny Scot bullying Hughes into entering a lease agreement which gave Dunsmuir access to tidewater through Hughes’ land. Surprise, surprise, not only did Dunsmuir apparently go ahead and build a road and wharves on William Hughes’ land before sorting out the details of the lease agreement, but he also petitioned the Legislative Assembly to be allowed to appropriate even more of Hughes’ land for his use:

“The original lease granted Dunsmuir a strip of land thirty-three feet wide from the mine to the sea with one acre of land at the waterfront. The new petition asked for sixty-six feet of land from the mine and five acres of land at the seafront. William makes no comment in his diary to indicate his feelings about this second intrusion on his land, but one can assume he wasn’t happy as under these new terms his house was separated from the rest of his land.”2

What a guy! Robert Dunsmuir sure didn’t become one of the richest men in the province by playing nice with the neighbours. His “robber baron” label certainly seems to fit in this case. In her biography, Robert Dunsmuir: Laird of the Mines, local historian Lynne Bowen looked at the range of ways in which Dunsmuir was described after his death. A claim that he was “a man who knew what he wanted and took the shortest route”3 seems to perfectly describe how Dunsmuir dealt with Hughes.

A wonderful, trivial fact about Victoria is shared in McDowell’s book. Because of how his hotel was built on the corner of Government and Yates Streets, Charles Bayley left a lasting mark on the city. Apparently, there is what McDowell calls a “jog” in Yates Street, where Bayley “inadvertently built his hotel [in 1857] without allowing for a setback from the street line. Instead of relocating what was then Victoria’s finest building, surveyors simply shifted their measuring pegs, and created a slightly dysfunctional, unattractive ‘jog’ along the entire block which still exists.”4 McDowell goes on to suggest that “this engineering oddity deserves recognition by a modest, amusing historical marker,”5 and I can’t say that I disagree with him!

It was interesting to read these two books together. While they both cover relatively the same time period, in relatively the same place, the lives of Bayley and Hughes, two white men of a similar age, are significantly different. Bayley’s days in Nanaimo, which was called Colviletown at the time, were spent teaching the children of the settlement’s miners and HBC employees. “The census [of 1854] indicated Bayley had 29 (apparently all male) students,”6 and because a proper schoolhouse had not yet been built, he used a single room in a small, wood-frame cabin as his schoolroom. Bayley received a salary and his board (at the home of his future wife’s parents) was also paid. It seems like Bayley must have enjoyed a reasonably comfortable lifestyle, as by the end of 1856, after just three years of teaching in Nanaimo, he had enough of a nest egg to enable him to change careers and cities. “Tired of the monotony of the sedentary life of a teacher and having saved a few thousand dollars, [he decided to] embark on a more active life as a trader [in Victoria].”7 Bayley’s cash flow wasn’t always so stable, and in 1868, he took out an advertisement in Victoria’s British Colonist claiming his time was not “fully occupied” and he was looking for work he could do. As McDowell puts it: “One can sense how humiliating it must have been for a man…to be forced to publicly beg for work behind the thinly-veiled pretense of simply having too much time on his hands.”8

In contrast, Hughes certainly didn’t lead a life of comfort or one where he found himself sticking much money aside for future plans. When he died in 1876, “the value of his effects was less than $820.”9 The “monotony of life” for Hughes meant day after day of work. “He worked from dawn to dusk, seven days a week to feed his family, and to improve his land and living conditions.”10 Unlike Bayley, who could change occupations on a whim out a desire for something more fulfilling or lucrative, Hughes seemingly took any job that he could in order to just survive.

Although living markedly differently day-to-day lives, both men experienced instability. Charles Bayley moved from England to Victoria, to Nanaimo, back to Victoria, and then to San Francisco in the space of two decades. During the first years of his diary, Hughes moves around so much that Davidson isn’t actually able to determine where he really lived. He does eventually settle and file a pre-emption for land in Departure Bay in 1861, but even after that, he still spends time going back and forth to Newcastle Island, and also making fairly regular trips to Nanaimo, Victoria, and to St. Ann’s in Duncan where his children attended school.

Bayley shuffled from career to career, apparently not finding success or contentment with any one thing. After teaching for a few years, he went on to become a hotelier and storekeeper, next a gentleman farmer, and then a politician. He also tried to make money by investing in mining goods and equipment then hiring someone else to take the supplies in a pack train to where they could be resold for a profit. Bayley sent a pack train to Williams Creek (outside of Barkerville) to capitalize on the Cariboo gold rush, and he later funded a similar venture bound for the Leech River (outside of Sooke) where a gold bonanza happened briefly in 1865. McDowell describes Bayley as “a venturesome fellow who knew how to seize a new opportunity or meet an unexpected challenge when it appeared.”11

Hughes also moved from one job to the next, all of them apparently temporary. He seems to have made a large portion of his living by periodically crafting tool handles, selling fish oil he’d rendered down from dogfish livers, and through his farming ventures. Davidson proposes that he may even have been running one of Vancouver Island’s early nurseries, based on the large number of fruit trees he cared for. “The number of young trees produced seemed to be many more than he would use himself which leads one to suppose that he grew them for resale.”12 Hughes also tried his hand at gold mining outside of Yale, spent time at the quarry on Newcastle Island, and carried out small building projects. His diary reflects a life of constant chores and hard work with little room for luxury, rest, or frivolity.

I’m pretty sure the two men would not have been friends or even friendly acquaintances. McDowell frequently makes note of the stereotypes that Bayley upheld. He didn’t think much of the labouring classes, which Hughes certainly would have belonged to. “Bayley’s condescending references to a ‘medley of various characters’ and ‘incorrigible’ country folk in steerage indicate stereotypes and biases about labouring class people that aspiring ‘squires’ [like Bayley and his family] brought with them.”13 Bayley also had little respect for the Indigenous Peoples of the land, and at times apparently didn’t even acknowledge them. “Bayley’s unspoken, but obvious exclusion of Indigenous people from his estimate of the town’s population count rendered this group non-existent.”14 While Bayley might have summoned the respect to acknowledge Hughes in his store or on the streets of Nanaimo, he likely wouldn’t have looked favourably on Hughes’ choice of an Indigenous woman for a partner, and in all probability, he wouldn’t have treated the mixed-raced children of the Hughes union in the same way he treated the children of the white settlers of the community. I appreciated how McDowell wasn’t shy about critiquing the condescending and racist references in Bayley’s memoirs, and how he notes how Bayley’s views reflected a “narrow-minded 19th century colonial socio-cultural perspective [that] would remain largely unchanged in British Columbia for more than 100 years.”15

Like many self or community published titles, both of these books could have benefited with some additional editorial oversight, as they each include an assortment of minor spelling, punctuation, and grammar errors as well as some inconsistencies in font and format choices. But overall, I enjoyed reading both Davidson’s and McDowell’s latest books, and I will certainly look forward to anything they might publish in the future about the history of Vancouver Island.


Notes

  1. Jim McDowell, Pluck, Luck and Grit: Charles A. Bayley in Colonial British Columbia (1851-1869) (Richmond, BC: JEM Publications, 2018), 11.
  2. Carole Davidson, Early Nanaimo from the Diary of William J Hughes (Victoria: Rendezvous Historic Press, 2020), 103.
  3. Lynne Bowen, Robert Dunsmuir: Laird of the Mines (Lantzville: XYZ Publishing, 1999), 141.
  4. McDowell, 53.
  5. McDowell, 53.
  6. McDowell, 41.
  7. McDowell, 47.
  8. McDowell, 71.
  9. Davidson, 131.
  10. Davidson, 59.
  11. McDowell, 75.
  12. Davidson, 90.
  13. McDowell, 21.
  14. McDowell, 36.
  15. McDowell, 36.