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British Columbia history that informs readers while entertaining them.

‘Island idyll Just Minutes from Nanaimo’

So read the headline in the Vancouver Island Free Daily of the idyllic Newcastle Island, immediately off Nanaimo.

And make no mistake, Newcastle truly is a treasure island of natural beauty. It also comes with a fabulous pedigree of industrial and dramatic history.

There’s something for everyone including summer camps for kids.

For me, of course, it’s the historical provenance that has been the draw to Newcastle (and its immediate southern neighbour, Protection Island) numerous times.

What’s now Newcastle Island Marine Provincial Park
owes its christening to officers of the Hudson’s Bay Co. who named it for the Northumberland, Eng., coal city, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. On maps, Newcastle Island and Channel date back only to 1853; their namesake was thriving in the days of the Roman occupation.

HBC officials obviously coined Newcastle because of its long history as a coal port—surely you’ve heard the expression, “coals to Newcastle”? The fur company had hopes that Nanaimo (aka Colville Town) would prove to be a major coal producer. As indeed it did.

Northumberland Channel (known locally as Exit Channel) and Tyne Point achieved their designations in the same manner.

The original and present owners, the Snuneymux First Nation,
know the island as Saysutshun, which means “training for running”. That’s because competitive canoe puller’s would run the island’s trails to build strength and stamina.

The island also served as a spiritual retreat.

(A final note on the island’s place names: Kanaka Bay is named for a Hawaiian immigrant worker who lived here and was was buried here after he was hanged for murder.)

As I stated, Newcastle Island is rich in history. Long used by the Snuneymuxw as a winter campsite and burial ground (hence Midden Bay), the 760-acre (306 ha) island has seen service as a saltery, a sandstone quarry (a story in itself), fish cannery, dogfish oil refinery, boat yard, coal mine, resort and park.

Its potential for recreation was first promoted by the coastal steamship arm of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) in 1931 when it bought the island from Canadian Western Fuel Co. Coal mining on Newcastle Island’s inland shore had ended 50 years earlier and the sandstone quarry was winding down. A settlement of herring saltery and boatyard workers near Shaft Point was closed when their Japanese occupants were interned in 1942.

“In the same year that they purchased the property,” Wilhelmina Warwick wrote 60 years ago, “the CPR built [a] dance pavilion, bath houses, dining tables, a caretaker’s home, and included all the modern conveniences of electric lights, running water and flush toilets.

Improvements included a new dock
“A contract was let that year for a $50,000 dock to be constructed at Echo [Mark] Bay… This was destined to become the playland of the west. A tea garden was laid out under the shady trees in front of the pavilion…”

The old passenger liner Charmer was berthed dockside as a floating hotel. For 10 years Newcastle Island served exclusively as a recreational site “with CPR ferries making regular runs from Vancouver. Annual company picnics were held here, and crowds of 5000 revellers were not unusual.”

Newcastle Island’s popularity steadily grew. But the halcyon 1930s (so they sound now but, remember, this was the Great Depression) didn’t carry over to the ’40s. The Second World War meant a lack of shipping and the CPR discontinued its excursion trips to the island.

Even the Nanaimo-Newcastle Island ferry run was suspended for the duration.

Purchased by the City of Nanaimo in 1955, Newcastle Island was later re-deeded to the province as a marine parksite. Situated as it is on the city’s doorstep, it became the site of late May’s Coal Tyee Day, in recognition of Nanaimo’s founding industry.

Originally, Miner’s Day meant free beer—and lots of it—for the men who daily risked their lives underground.

T’was back in the 1850s that John McGregor began working Newcastle Adit which operated sporadically for two and more decades. (Nanaimo’s bituminous coal came from three major seams: the Wellington, the Douglas and the Newcastle).

But other mines in and around Nanaimo offered greater returns and the pioneering Newcastle mine lapsed into history although Midden Bay’s Fitzwilliam Mine continued to operate as its grade of coal was superior.

This mine, long plagued by poor ventilation and accidents, did make one unique contribution to British Columbia history: a young employee, Edward Gawley Prior, went on to become premier.

The coal is still there
About the turn of the last century, when geologists examined Newcastle Island, their boreholes revealed a large coal seam off its eastern shore. But coal mining was never resumed here.

More successful was the mining of high-quality (some said the highest) Newcastle Island sandstone. Some was used in construction of the U.S. Mint in San Francisco (which survived the great ‘quake of 1906), Nanaimo’s imposing court house, and bank and public buildings throughout B.C., including the provincial penitentiary.

Today, Newcastle’s abandoned quarries are (says I) its most interesting attraction—great cookie-cutter holes from which decorative pillars and grindstones were extracted, the latter for use in pulp mills. Some of the rejected sandstone discs are displayed near the park entrance.

Reduced Fares
As part of its plan to build the tribe’s economy and provide work for its members, the Snuneymuxw bought the existing water taxi service from its Victoria owners and have reduced fares.

A return trip to Newcastle Island for this summer is now just $5. A bargain at twice the price for anyone wishing to spend a day on Newcastle Island, I can assure you!

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