top of page
  • Writer's pictureShahin Dashtgard

Suquash Beach: Vancouver Island's First Coal Mine

Updated: Sep 18, 2023

In 1835, a First Nations family told the Hudson's Bay Company about coal at Suquash Beach (1). The First Nations were the first to mine the coal, but it wasn't long before the Hudson's Bay Company began mining operations to support the increased use of steamships in the region (1, 2). The Suquash Coal Mine is situated very close to Suquash Beach, and the underground mine extends beneath the nearby ocean. There is plenty of old mining equipment and the remnants of old houses hidden in the woods just behind the beach (2). It's a pretty cool spot to visit both for the historical aspects and the rocks exposed on the beach.

Suquash Coal Mine | Suquash Beach
Access to Suquash Beach from Port McNeill, Vancouver Island. The underground mine extends under the nearby ocean.

The Suquash Mine operated from 1849 to 1851 before it was abandoned in favor of the much richer coal beds near Nanaimo (1). The mine operated during a second phase from 1908 to 1922, although mining was intermittent (1). Between the two phases, a total of 23,000 tonnes of high-volatile C to B bituminous coal was produced (3). The last attempt to make a go of the Suquash Mine was in 1952 but no coal was mined during this final phase.

Suquash Beach, Vancouver Island, BC
Views of Suquash Beach looking to the southeast (left) and to the northwest (right). There are two thin coal beds on the beach. The first (seen in the photo on the right) occurs on both sides of a very small anticline (a small bump in the rock), and the second is further to the southeast.

Aside from the historical importance of the Suquash Mine, the rocks at Suquash Beach are geologically intriguing. There is general agreement on the age of the rocks, which accumulated at about the same time as dinosaurs were in their heyday (Late Cretaceous: ~70 million years ago). However, there is less certainty about which westcoast sedimentary basin the rocks at Suquash Beach belong too. For the longest time, the Suquash sedimentary rocks were thought to be part of the Georgia Basin, which is situated mainly under southern Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland of BC (1). That view is now being challenged as new evidence suggests they are part of the Queen Charlotte Basin which extends from Haida Gwaii to northern Vancouver Island (4). This may seem like a bit of an esoteric debate, but it impacts where companies explore for new natural resources, how scientists reconstruct the geological history of Canada, and how natural hazard risks are assessed.

Suquash Basin, Vancouver Island BC
Left: The four sedimentary basins on Canada's westcoast. Historvially, the Suquash coal field has been considered part of the Georgia Basin, but recent evidence suggests it is part of the Queen Charlotte Basin instead (image modified from: 4). Right: Geological map of the Suquash Basin (yellow). The dashed lines indicate the geologists are not really sure what the extent of the basin is and it's relationship to other rocks in the area (map modified from: 5).

The sedimentary rocks at Suquash Beach also contain a lot of interesting features that preserve evidence of processes and animals from 70 million years ago. There are old river channels, tidal flats, and swamp deposits preserved in the rocks, and you can find the burrows of ancient shrimp and bivalves preserved. Together the rocks record the geological history of on an old delta which probably looked something like the Fraser Delta but smaller, and that's pretty cool!

Suquash Beach geology, Vancouver Island BC
Sedimentary structures and trace fossils seen in the sedimentary rocks at Suquash Beach. Top left: Dipping surfaces of old dunes (dashed pink lines) in an old river channel. Top middle: More evidence of old dunes. Top right: Aggradational current ripples that formed when the sediment load in the old river was so high that the ripples both migrated along the channel floor (to the right) and built up vertically (aggraded). Bottom left: Sandstone-filled shrimp burrows (yellow arrows) in mudstone. Bottom middle: Shrimp burrows in sandstone. These burrows are lined with poo pellets that the ancient shrimp used to support their burrow walls. Bottom right: Sandstone-filled, eyeball-shaped structures in mudstone that record the resting position of bivalves that burrowed in the sediment.

If you enjoyed this post on the history of coal mining on Vancouver Island and are interested in more, subscribe and be the first to learn of new posts, geology in the news, and answers to subscriber questions.

Info Sources:

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

5) Nixon, G. T., Hammack, J. L., Koyanagi, V. M., Payie, G. J., Orr, A. J., Haggart, J. W., Orchard, M. J., Tozer, E. T., Friedman, R. M., Archibald, D. A., Palfy, J., and Cordey, F., 2011, Geology, Geochronology, Lithogeochemistry and Metamorphism of the Quatsino-Port McNeill Area, northern Vancouver Island (92L/11, parts of 92L/05, 12 and 13): BCGS.


bottom of page