2011: Discovering the Secrets of B.C.’s Newcastle Island

Whether you visit Nanaimo BC. by sea or land, you should find time to visit Newcastle Island, the Provincial Marine Park that sits just a short distance from the city’s center. If you are berthed at the downtown marina or on foot, you can take advantage of the small passenger ferries that run from Maffeo-Sutton Park on the hour and half hour—round trip fare is $9. if you are on a mooring buoy in Mark Bay (no anchoring allowed), you can dinghy across to the island’s dock, which also allows overnight tie-ups (first come—first serve).

The island is also very popular with kayakers, who launch at the Brechin boat ramp two miles north of the town center. With this much access available, you might well think that the island can easily get crowded, but that is seldom the case, except on weekends around the historic dance pavilion and tent-camping area close to the dock. Within minutes, the four-mile shoreline trail can lead you away from the activity, back into the history of this intriguing destination.

Less than 200 years ago, this was still the home of a Coast Salish tribe who call themselves the Snuneymuxw. In 1849, the Hudson Bay Company heard stories of coal deposits 60 miles north of Victoria. They named the island after the famous coal mining town of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, in N.E. England. This was an important find because the steam ships of the day required fuel to power their steam engines. In 1852, 480 barrels of coal were dug from surface seams and shipped south; by 1854, miners were being sent out from England to tunnel beneath the island. But by 1882, all the underground seams were exhausted.

Attention turned to the excellent sandstone under the island’s thin soil, which was quarried from 1869 until 1932. There were also more typical coastal trades: a fish salting operation was started in 1910 by Japanese fishermen near Shaft Point. They added a boatyard that flourished until 1941–when all the Japanese-Canadians who lived along the coast were sent to internment camps in the interior.

The 1930s was the decade when the island’s fortune rebounded. The Canadian Pacific Steamship Company purchased the island for $30,000 and turned it into a resort, with a dance pavilion, teahouse, picnic shelters, bath houses, a soccer field and a wading pool. Every weekend in the summer, ships carried hundreds of people on day trips from Vancouver for company picnics, church outings etc. For those who wanted to stay longer, a retired passenger ship was docked at Mark Bay and served as a floating hotel. A week’s stay cost $7.50.

The change in lifestyles after World War II led to a sharp decline in visitors. When the CPR decided the resort was not making enough money, they persuaded the City of Nanaimo to buy the island in 1955 for $150,000. But the city soon began to lose money managing the island and maintaining the facilities, so asked the province to take it over in 1960. Today, the only development is around the dock, and there are no permanent dwellings. But there are many signs along the trails with images from the heyday, when couples relaxed on the shore wearing the beach fashions,of the day, as others relaxed in the pavilion (with its sprung dance floor!) until the band began to play.

After kayaking around the island, I was ready to stretch my legs, and set off in a counter-clockwise direction, alongside the shallow channel that separates it from Protection Island, which is private property and has its own small ferry. Apparently, you can walk across at extreme low tide, barely getting your feet wet. The trail skirts an exquisite shelving bay before it reaches the open water of the Georgia Strait, with views east to the mainland. If the tide is dropping around Kanaka Bay, you will soon realize that the sandstone of which the island is formed is slowly eroding into horizontal layers creating some unique forms.

At one conspicuous point, I was amazed to find myself standing on rock shapes carved out by water that looked like fossilized dinosaur skulls. (Researching this story, I learned that one Indian ancient story about this place tells how Haals, the transformer, moved about the land and turned animals and people into stone.) Past McKay Point the trail splits. I took the fork leading inland to Mallard Lake, which was actually a reservoir created by the coal miners to provide fresh water. Here you will see a variety of trees like Douglas fir, arbutus, Garry oak and dogwood, and perhaps glimpse racoons, deer, or rabbits.

The trail emerges from the woods at Shaft Point with views of Departure Bay and the big car ferries that connect the mid-island region to Vancouver. But the most memorable part of this hike is still to come: a short distance south of here, there is a turn-off to the quarry area. Here, you will drop down to an abandoned sandstone quarry that looks as if the workers have just downed tools, leaving unfinished work as a reminder of this unique piece of coastal history. During the coal mining era, the island’s sandstone was found to be exceptional and was sought after for years to construct important buildings as far away as California.

Quarrying began in 1869 when Joseph Emery from San Francisco arrived. He was searching for top quality sandstone for the new United States Mint and found it here, where he saw how the island’s rock withstood weathering because of its high quartz content. He signed a five-year lease with the Vancouver Coal Mining and Land Company for 8000 tons. It took five years to cut by hand and ship that huge quantity.

Eight stone columns 27 feet 6 inches long and 4 feet in diameter were loaded, two per ship per year. Six of them were installed on the mint’s exterior where they survived the great earthquake and fire and can still be seen today. The pair that never arrived were on the three-masted barque Zephyr that left Departure Bay on February 12, 1872 carrying 500 tons of rock. It soon came to grief on Mayne Island in a snowstorm. The captain drowned but the rest of the crew made it ashore safely.

The pillars, worth S6,000, remained on the bottom and undisturbed for over 100 years, until they were located by a team from the Underwater Archaeological Society of British Columbia. With funding from the Nanaimo Harbour Commission and BC Provincial Parks, a floating crane was employed to salvage the 40-ton columns. One was returned to the quarry in 1987, where you can see it today, perched high above the water, just a stone’s throw from the busy moorages along the south Nanaimo shore. The second was transported by barge to Kitsilano and placed outside the entrance to the Vancouver Maritime Museum. (In Nanaimo itself, you can also see two pieces of the salvaged cargo between the two piers in Maffeo Sutton Park, and in their finished stage on the Post Office and the Court House.)

That’s not all the local sandstone was used for. It was also ideal for the pulp-stones that were used to grind up wood fiber into pulp for papermaking. In 1923, the McDonald Cut-Stone Company was created to take prepare these grind stones. The finished product was 18-20″ high with a 48″ diameter. The entire operation was moved to nearby Gabriola Island in 1932, where it remained until the advent of artificial stones, which last four to five years—far longer than genuine sandstone. The next day I went biking on Gabriola Island in search of signs of this traditional industry. Riding south from the ferry terminal towards the Silva Bay Shipyard School, I passed one resident’s personal monument to the quarrymen—four pulp stones stacked up to form an impressive and unique garden sculpture.

The Discovery of Coal

One day in December 1849, while in Fort Victoria getting his gun repaired, Che-wech-i-kan saw the blacksmith using coal in his fire. He told the blacksmith that he knew of a location where coal was in abundance. This information was quickly passed on to Joseph McKay, a company clerk, who investigated the matter. In exchange for a bottle of rum and to have his gun repaired for free, McKay asked Che-wech-i-kan to bring proof of his claim. After months without seeing Che-wech-i-kan again, McKay and Governor James Douglas gave up on him. In April 1850, approximately fifteen months after his initial appearance in this blacksmith’s shop, Che-wech-i-kan returned with a canoe full of coal. This coal proved to be superior to the coal being mined at the current site at Fort Rupert. Although Newcastle Island coal was better than that found at Fort Rupert, it was another two years before any coal was mined there in hopes that Fort Rupert’s mines would be sufficient. In 1852, a mine was sunk on Newcastle Island and 50 tons of coal was collected in one day. In honour of Che-wech-i-kan’s discovery, he earned the name Coal Tyee, meaning Great Coal Chief and McKay Point was named for Joseph McKay because of all the work he did for the island.

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