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

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

South Wellington (#1)

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

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

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

East Wellington

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

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

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

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

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

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

West Wellington

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

North Wellington

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

South Wellington (#2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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: https://youtu.be/rYy5xcvQDhE.

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.


Notes

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

2. Also seen as Ki-et-sa-kun.

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

4. 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, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/sad-last-day-as-nanaimo-school-shuts-its-doors/article20385043/.

6. Andréa Coutu, Twitter direct message to author, July 12, 2021; “Mt. Benson School History,” YouTube video, 7:30, “wellingtonbcaca,” March 3, 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ll6pW29hu1k.

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