George Robinson, Vancouver Island Pioneer


Heating fuel was no problem to the Hudson's Bay Company's forts in the Pacific Coast area, for there was abundant firewood in the forests which surrounded them. However such fuel was of little value to blacksmiths. Their forges required smithery coal, which had to be brought from England, eighteen thousand miles by sailing ship via the Straits of Magellan. Even with the paltry wages paid to seamen, such imports were expensive. Consequently when in 1835 a Kwakiutl Indian from northern Vancouver's Island had told the blacksmith at Fort McLaughlin on Millbank Sound that there was "fire-stone" on his tribe's land, the matter was reported to Fort Vancouver. A later check by the Hudson's Bay Company steamer Beaver disclosed coal outcrops at McNeill (Beaver) Harbour. The Company built Fort Rupert at the site to establish ownership, but the need was too small for significant development. The situation changed in 1848, when the Pacific Mail Steamship Company commenced service between Panama and the Oregon coast. Pacific Mail had three side-paddle ships of 1,000 tons burthen, and expected to have a steady need for steam coal.

The Hudson's Bay Company undertook to meet this need. Seven Scottish coal miners were engaged and sent out in the Company's brig Harpooner. They arrived in September, 1849, with their `oversman' John Muir, and started development of the Fort Rupert mine. Two years later a second contingent of Scottish miner arrived on the Company's brig Torrey. With them came Robert Dunsmuir with his wife and infant son James, who had been born at Fort Vancouver when the ship called there briefly enroute. Dunsmuir, whose name in later years was destined to become synonymous with Vancouver Island coal, was under contract to the Company to better develop the Fort Rupert mine, but by the time of his arrival the picture was already changing.

History had repeated, as it has a habit of doing. In 1849 an elderly Indian visiting Fort Victoria spent some time watching the Fort's blacksmith at work. On being told by the blacksmith that the coal in the forge had come all the way from England by ship, the Indian expressed great astonishment. The black-stone-that-burned was plentiful, he said, on the beach of a small island where his people lived. Checking further, the blacksmith determined that the island was situated many miles to the north, in a large bay which a Spanish explorer, Francisco Eliza, had seen in 1791 and had named "Bocas de Winthuysen". Later British charts had retained the name as Winthuysen Inlet.

The blacksmith promptly passed the information to Fort Victoria's clerk, Joseph McKay. McKay offered the Indian a bottle of rum and free repairs to his broken musket if he would bring some of the black stone to the Fort. The Indian did not reappear until the following spring, but he then brought with him a canoe-load of coal of fair quality.

McKay saw to it that the Indian was given his promised reward, and also bestowed upon him the title "Chief Coal-tyee-he". This honorific he is said to have insisted on using, in place of his former name Chee-wich-i-kan, for the rest of his life.

A month after the arrival of the canoe-load of coal, Chief Factor Douglas dispatched Joseph McKay to explore the find. McKay soon located three promising coal outcrops, at what are now Nanaimo Harbour, Newcastle Island and Commercial Inlet. The local Indians were a loose confederation of five tribes totaling some five thousand souls who called themselves collectively the Sne-Ny-Mo, meaning Great and Mighty People, but despite this awesome title they did not seem unduly aggressive. McKay's report was sufficiently encouraging that Douglas visited the area in person, and shortly reported the find to Hudson's Bay House in London. With the help of a few Indians, his party had raised several tons of coal from the outcrop on the Harbour in a single day. The coal appeared to be of better quality, more abundant and more accessible than the deposit at Fort Rupert.

Meanwhile the Fort Rupert mine had been far less successful than the Company had expected. The coal seam was narrow and the coal proved to be of poor quality. The Pacific Mail Steamship Company had canceled their contract in the autumn of 1850 because of trouble with soot and clinkers, and other customers were scarce. Even the Royal Navy, which had brought steam-driven ships to the Pacific starting with the side-paddle sloop Salamander in 1843, avoided Fort Rupert coal. They could more profitably bring in British anthracite from the South American coast, where it was brought as ballast by sailing ships engaged in the guano trade. Fort Rupert also had labour problems. When news of the California gold strike reached the Fort in 1849, most of the miners simply broke their contracts and absconded for California.

Douglas hoped to overcome these problems by development of the new find and closing down the Fort Rupert mine. He suggested in his letters to Hudson's Bay House that a new fort be built and that more miners be recruited, preferably married men with families who could be depended upon to stay with the job and not go chasing California gold. He proposed to name the fort and settlement Colvile Town, in honour of the Governor of the Hudson's Bay Company, Andrew Colvile.

The Company agreed. Douglas put Joseph McKay in charge and in 1852 sent him to the site with a small party who were to start construction of the settlement. This was to consist of a bastion to overawe the Indians and several houses for the miners. Exploratory mining was commenced at once, and in the first year the schooner Cadboro loaded an initial shipment of 480 tons of coal. There being no jetty, the ship anchored off-shore and the coal was lightered to it in Indian canoes.

There proved to be two main coal seams, composed of soft black lignite in beds six to eight feet thick, lying under some sixty feet of conglomerate. Later assays would show it to be approximately 67% carbon, 16% ash and 2% sulphur, with inclusions of sandstone and shale making up the remainder. Although it was still a rather low-grade coal, it was a marked improvement on the Fort Rupert product, and in the early years at least it was easily mined from readily accessible outcrops. At fifty shillings per ton, the Hudson's Bay Company expected to turn a handsome profit.

The name, Colvile Town, proved to ephemeral. Although this term or its alternative Fort Colvile were used in official correspondence for some years, the settlement was soon popularly known by its Indian term Sne-ny-mo or its Anglicized version, Nanaimo.

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