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  • Writer's pictureShahin Dashtgard

Coal, railways and a scandal

Updated: Dec 15, 2022

It is hard to imagine that many of the communities in eastern Vancouver Island started as coal towns, supplying coal to the global shipping industry. Coal mining made Vancouver Island what it is today, and the impacts of coal mining continue to influence the lives of residents and visitors alike. Sadly, it is a history filled with violence, death, and one of Canada's first government scandals.

A History of Coal Mining and Three Coalfields

All coal seams on Vancouver Island started as peat that accumulated in swamps between 85 and 65 million years ago. The coal seams are concentrated in 3 regions known as coalfields, and include the Suquash, Comox and Nanaimo Coalfields. The oldest coal mines were founded near Port Hardy (Suquash Coalfield, 1849-1852), but the mines were small and exploited poor quality and thin coal seams. The Port Hardy mines never really got going even after multiple attempts (1).

Coalfields on Vancouver Island
Comox and Nanaimo Coalfields (2). The Comox Coalfield is geologically older than the Nanaimo Coalfield (3).

The most exploited coal seams were those found in the Nanaimo (Nanaimo Coalfield) and Comox-Campbell River (Comox Coalfield) areas, and the mines in these regions have a sordid history. Following the unsuccessful coal operations at Port Hardy, coal mining moved to the Nanaimo area in 1852 (4). There were at least 27 mines in the Nanaimo area (5) and many of these were controlled by Robert Dunsmuir. The Nanaimo coal mines include the dubious Granby Mine (1917-1932) that was nicknamed “The Slaughterhouse” because of the number of accidents that happened there (5); the infamous Extension Mine that claimed 16 lives in a mine fire in 1901 and 32 lives in a 1909 explosion; and, the No. 1 Esplanade Mine which has the dubious honour of experiencing the largest mine disaster in BC's history when in 1887, 150 lives were lost in a mine explosion (6). There were so many deaths in coal mines on Vancouver Island that the Ministry of Mines maintained statistics on them. The 10-year average in the early 1900s for mines in the Nanaimo area was 4.97 deaths per 1,000 miners, and in bad years deaths exceeded 10 per 1,000 miners (7). With 5,000 people working in the coal mines that’s a lot of fatalities. Thankfully times have changed. The last large-scale mines operating in the Nanaimo area closed in the early 1950s (4).

Coal mines in the Nanaimo area
Left: The 27 coal mines in the Nanaimo area. Right: Map of the East Wellington No. 1 Mine, which was one of several owned by Robert Dunsmuir. The position of the mine is shown by the red circle on the left image (source: 5).

The most prolific of the 3 coalfields and the last to be discovered and exploited is the Comox Coalfield. Coal mining in the Comox area began in 1860s, and it wasn’t long before the Dunsmuir family had control of these mines as well (8). Further north at Campbell River, coal exploration began in the early 1900s (also via Dunsmuir), and the Quinsam Coal Mine near Campbell River remains the last active coal mine on Vancouver Island (1987-present). Coal from the Quinsam Mine is shipped to Japan for use in the cement industry, both as fuel and as an ingredient in cement (9).

Historical coal mine photos from Vancouver Island.d
Left: Mine head for the Protection Island Mine near Nanaimo (source: 10). Right: Dunsmuir's coal wharves at Departure Bay (source: 11).

The Dunsmuir's, Coal Mining and the Pacific Scandal

The most famous coal miner that worked seams on Vancouver Island was Robert Dunsmuir, and his legacy continues to impact the lives of residents and visitors to this day. Dunsmuir arrived under contract to the Hudson's Bay company to mine near Port Hardy. When the Port Hardy mine proved to be economically hopeless, he was moved to the Nanaimo area to mine coal there. It wasn’t long before he set out on his own and established the Wellington Mine near Nanaimo. Within a few short years, Dunsmuir and his companies were the dominant coal miner on Vancouver Island. His rise to fortune as the richest man in BC at the time (11) came at the expense of the miners, as he was known for his lack of concern for miner safety and his anti-union stance. It was Dunsmuir's views on worker safety and unions that led to so many coal miners dying in his mines, and that was the impetus for the huge and violent Great Coal Strike that swept Vancouver Island for nearly 2 years (1912-1914) (12).

The Great Vancouver Island Coal Strike
Left: Coal miner's wives and children parade in support of the union in Ladysmith, 1913. Right: Coal miners in Ladysmith being led away by soldiers (source: 12 and BC Archives).

In the late 1870s to early 1880s, Dunsmuir used his economic and political influence with Canada's parliament and first Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald, to secure the rights to build the E & N (Esquimalt to Nanaimo) railroad in exchange for ownership of 10% of Vancouver Island (13). This was viewed largely as a land grab by Dunsmuir (14), and the land granted through the transaction remains in private hands.

Post-World War 1, the fuel of choice for shipping transitioned from coal to oil, and that spelled the downfall of coal mining on Vancouver Island and the end of the E & N railroad. What remains of that long history of coal mining are a series of quaint historical towns along the coastline of eastern Vancouver Island, bike trails that follow the old E & N tracks, and a huge swath of private timberlands between Comox and Campbell River that are largely inaccessible to the general public.

The Future of Coal Mining on Vancouver Island

The BC government estimates that there are anywhere between 800 million and 7 billion tonnes of coal remaining on the island, and mainly in the Comox Coalfield. Much of this coal is useful for making cement and for power generation, but it is likely that once the Quinsam Coal Mine permanently shuts its doors, we will have seen the last of coal mining on the island. Either way, the history of coal mining on the island is definitely interesting!

Quinsam Coal Mine
Left: The North No. 1 portal at the Quinsam Coal Mine near Campbell River. Right: Image of the Boundary Fault that truncates the No. 1 coal seam underground.

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Info Sources:

1) Kenyon, C., 1990, The Suquash Coalfield, Vancouver Island (92L/11): British Columbia Geological Survey.

3) Girotto, K., Dashtgard, S. E., Huang, C., Jones, M. T., Kent, B. A. P., Gibson, H. D., and Cathyl-Huhn, G., in review, Tectono-stratigraphic model for the early evolution of the Late Cretaceous Nanaimo Group: Georgia Basin, British Columbia, Canada: Basin Research.

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