George Robinson, Vancouver Island Pioneer

Queen Charlottes Coal

The mining prospects at Barclay Sound and Nootka Sound over which George Robinson had waxed enthusiastic in 1864 never reached the development stage. The dwindling of his hopes that they would be valuable may have resulted in feelings of frustration which helped fuel his choleric letter anent taxes. However George was not one to give up easily, nor to be tied down indefinitely to the life of a sedentary photographer. Hardly had he finished tilting at windmills - or the Government, which is much the same thing - than he was off and away in quest of another coal-mining opportunity. The Colonist for May 3rd, 1865, recorded:

"QUEEN CHARLOTTE COAL MINE - The steamer Emily Harris will sail on Saturday or Monday next for Queen Charlotte Island carrying up a party of miners to work the seam of cannel coal known to exist there. A company has been formed in Victoria to work the mine, and Mr. Robinson, formerly of Nanaimo, has been appointed manager. The coal is said to be of excellent quality."

The New Westminster `British Columbian' of June 8, 1865, added some further data on the project:

"Queen Charlotte Coal Mining Company ... The expedition is under the management of Mr. Robinson, for many years manager of the Nanaimo mines ... Hon. Mr. Hamly has been pleased to appoint Mr. Robinson as Custom House Officer at Queen Charlotte Island. Mr. Robinson, who is also the present proprietor of the Theatre Photographic Gallery in Victoria, takes his apparatus with him, and intends to take views of the surrounding country."

This is our first word that George Robinson had closed his first studio, "opposite Selim Franklin & Co.s office", and had bought the Theatre Photographic Gallery in its place. But to return to the mining venture, where development work had been going on throughout the summer, we find that with the issue of September 30th, 1865, the Colonist was able to report:

"QUEEN CHARLOTTE COAL CO. ... The directors of this company are adopting most energetic measures to develop their promising coal mine at Queen Charlotte Island. About thirty men, consisting of miners, carpenters, blacksmiths, and labourers, have been engaged to proceed by the schooner Alpha at the commencement of the week to the Island. She will take with her the rails and material for one mile of tramway from the wharf to the shore, and about 50,000 feet of lumber. A large wharf, about 180 feet wide and 120 feet long, is to be constructed by a party under Mr. W.V. Brown, foreman. Mr. Robinson is to be the general overseer of works. We understand that the steamer Cariboo is to be fitted up forthwith by Dougal & Son, and will be chartered by the company to convey lumber and provisions to the mines as soon as she is ready, which will be in about a month."

We get more information from a letter addressed at Skidegate Bay, Queen Charlotte Islands, to "His Excellency A.W. Birch, Acting Governor of British Columbia.

"Sir,

"I have the honor to advise you of the arrival at this place of the Schooners "Alpha" and "Goldstream" with men and materials under my directions for the commencement of the working of the "Queen Charlotte Coal Mining Co's" mines, the total number of men employed, including Carpenters - Blacksmiths - Axemen - Labourers and surveyor, exclusive of myself, being 30. I, however, make a requisition to the company for a further supply of Axemen.

"It is with pleasure that I can assure Your Excellency of the good feeling shown towards us by the Indian tribes near here - most of them expressing themselves as highly pleased at our coming to settle amongst them.

"Upon the other hand, it is with deep regret that I have to inform Your Excellency of an apparently extensive system of trading spirits with the Indians at Masset Harbour, and which is said by the Indians to be carried on by a Victoria firm, great quantities of spirits are thro' that source brought to this place, and which of course, does not fail to produce its usual demoralizing effects amongst its victims.

"Except the above - there is nothing that I am aware of - that appears likely to cause us trouble, as the Q.C.C. Co. strictly prohibit all their employees from introducing spirits into the Island - except as Medicine. The Coal Mine at present looks very promising. The seam where we are now at work being over 5 feet in thickness, and of the very best quality.

"I am - Sir -
Yours obediently

George Robinson
Novr 3rd 1865"

This is our first intimation of George Robinson's feelings about liquor, though more is to come later. As to the optimistic reports on progress at the mine, these were unchanged in the Colonist's issue for February 2nd, 1866:

"FROM QUEEN CHARLOTTE ISLAND. ARRIVAL OF THE OTTER. - The steamer Otter, Captain Swanson, arrived last evening from her trip to Queen Charlotte Island and stations on the Northwest Coast of British Columbia, having been absent 28 days. On board were Dr. Tolmie, M.L.A. of the H.B. Co., Messrs, Trounce and Gibbs, Directors of the Queen Charlotte Coal Co. Mr. Robinson, Overseer, Capt. Loudon and others. The tenor of news brought by these gentlemen from the mine is very satisfactory. ..."

But no matter how promising all reports had been to date, there was trouble brewing. Perhaps development costs outran available capital. At any rate, later in February the Queen Charlotte Coal Company went into bankruptcy.

There was evidently an enquiry into the matter, for three months later again we find George Robinson making a deposition of facts in a letter to the "Queen Charlotte Coal Mining Co. Limited", which is also held in the Provincial Archives.

"Victoria V.I.
10th May 1866

"I certify that I proceeded to Queen Charlotte Island in May 1865 and again in October 1865 as General Superintendent of the Queen Charlotte Coal Mining Company's Works and that I remained in that Capacity untill the Middle of January 1866, that during My stay on the Island I was ordered by the Board of Directors to prospect the Lands granted to said Company for seams of Coal & Coal Oil. That early in November 1865 while prospecting on the Lands at the Southerly side of the Bay Known as Cowgitz Bay I discovered outcroppings of Coal which I claimed for the Company as being on their lands and not knowing at the time that an arm of the Sea divided our land in a Northerly direction but believing that the inlet as marked on the Government Map joined the Isthmus about one half mile lower down.

"That Mr. Farwell together with a Small party arrived about one week after the discovery and I informed him of the fact in the presence of Captain Louden our Storekeeper at the Same time telling him it was on our lands, Mr. Farwell having learned from our Workmen that I was accompanied by an Indian in our employ at the time I made the discovery engaged the Indian to accompany him to the Spot. I claimed the discovery for the Comp'y which I represented as it was a continuance of our original seam, the bearings on the Government Map guiding me in my researches as no other official Map was in existence at that time.

"That I Wrote full particulars of the Discovery to the Chairman of the Comp'y which with other Letters including one to The Officer Administring the Gov't in British Columbia I forwarded to Schooner Gazelle in charge of the Captain to be delivered to the Post Master in Victoria to whom the package was addressed but which letters I have since ascertained were never delivered the Captain stating they were stolen from him in Victoria.

"On my first hearing of this matter I wrote informing the Officer Administring the Govt in British Columbia & related the Facts.

"George Robinson

"James Moorhead - Witness"

And that was that, at least for the moment. Having thrice been frustrated in his efforts to make his fortune in coal, George turned back to photography. The Colonist's issue July 5th, 1866, carried a "teaser" item:

The `Alert' Taken! - On Wednesday, H.M.S. Alert was taken without resistance on the part of her officers and crew, who are believed to have lent themselves to the plot. The ship was lying at anchor in Esquimalt harbour when the affair occurred, and the time chosen by the enemy was noon-day The captor was Mr. Robinson the Photographer, and the only weapons he used in effecting his object were a Camera, and a bit of glass."

The Naval Historian, Department of National Defence, Ottawa, states that H.M.S. Alert was a sloop of 1856 which was twice on the Pacific Station. Her tours of duty were in 1858-1860 and in 1867. Then how did she get her picture taken in Esquimalt harbour during the summer of 1866? Just to make matters even more confusing, the only picture of H.M.S. Alert among the dozen men-o'-war which remain from Victor Ernest's collection is marked on the back "H.M.S. Alert Esquimalt B.C. 1867". Was this the picture in question? Another conundrum to add to our own collection of queries.

Probably there were numerous "field trips" of like nature, for it seems that George Robinson was spending more time out and around the city and less time taking portraits in the studio. The next newspaper advertisement was in the Colonist's rival, the recently founded Evening Telegraph, for July 6th, 1866.

"THEATRE
PHOTOGRAPHIC GALLERY
(UP STAIRS)

"THIS GALLERY, LONG AND FAVORABLY KNOW to Victorians and strangers, has facilities in the way of light, materials, &c., and the experience of the proprietor enables him to furnish Cartes de Visite, Ambrotypes, and photographic work of superior finish unequalled by any other house in town, and at AS LOW PRICES AS OTHER ESTABLISHMENTS charge for common and inferior pictures - in fact at prices to suit the times.

"Cartes de Visite - $5 per Doz

"Out door work attended to at short notice, and on the most reasonable terms.

GEORGE ROBINSON
Proprietor."

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