Coal History Week in Nanaimo

No 1. Mine Nanaimo 1900 (Western Fuel Company - Chung Collection UBC)

This week marks the 125th year since the fateful explosion at the No. 1 Mine in Nanaimo which killed 150 miners. For a hundred years, coal was the industry that drove the economy here on the mid Island.

Nanaimo Coal – how did it get here?

The earth’s plates began to collide with the North American continent as it drifted northwest around 100 million years ago, and chunks of the ocean caught in the middle, were forced upwards. Sediments eroded from the rising Coast Mountains were carried west and deposited into the basin between Wrangellia Terrane (most of Vancouver Island) and the continental shelf from 90 to 65 million years ago. Sediments and swampy layers were deposited, buried, compressed by subsequent layers, slowly turned to stone and finally tilted, folded and deformed.

Nanaimo Group of Rocks

One of the early miners noted:

“You don’t get straight seams.  They will go here and then all of a sudden they will shoot off to the left or right and they’ll take a dip this and you’ll find them two hundred, three hundred feet below going in a different direction.  And with this over burden of rock a tremendous amount of pressure in there, and to make matters worse, because this was a marine sort of environment, you get a tremendous amount of bacteria down there, marine bacteria, very high sulphur content, and that so that gets embedded in the coal, so you are starting to get hydrogen sulfide and along with other gases in there too, so they are very explosive mines.”


How it all began

In 1849, Snuneymuxw Chief  Ki-et-sa-kun told the Hudson’s Bay Company that there was plenty of coal in the Nanaimo area where his people lived.  James Douglas, the chief factor in Victoria, sent an exploration company led by Joseph McKay the following year.  He described the harbour as sheltered and deep. He noted there was a coal seam that was visible near the Snuneymuxw longhouses.

In 1852, James Douglas came north to Nanaimo on a canoe trip with several others to examine the coal deposits. The Snuneymuxw showed the location of three coal beds: the Nanaimo harbour, Protection Island and the third site at Midden Bay on Newcastle Island.

Douglas appointed McKay as the Chief Factor of Nanaimo and his first responsibility was to take immediate possession of the coal beds on behalf of the HBC.  On September 9, 1852 the Cadboro sailed with the first shipment of coal – 480 barrels.  Snuneymuxw Chief Wun-wun-shum had asked for one blanket for five barrels of coal, but in the end they were given a two-and-a-half point blanket for every twenty barrels.

In the early days, the coal could be collected from the surface with picks and shovels. Eventually, workers had to dig deeper and deeper, following the seams. There were three main seams discovered: Douglas, Newcastle, and Wellington.

In 1861, HBC sold its coal-mining rights to the Vancouver Coal Mining and Land Company  led by James Nicol, the brother of the last manager of the Hudson’s Bay Company mines.

References:; Nanaimo Archives; Black Diamond City Nanaimo The Victorian Era by Jan Peterson.

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