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.
I 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.
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 longer, 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.
Back 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.
Also 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.