George Robinson, Vancouver Island Pioneer

A Second Venture For Queen Charlottes Coal

We do not have any record of George Robinson's workaday life in the early part of 1869. Presumably he earned enough as a photographer and dentist to support his family in modest circumstances, but he had never quite lost the hope of making a financial killing in mining.

As for his activities in the Masons, our only record for the year is a copy of a committee report, also held in the Provincial Archives, which dealt with the proposed borrowing of three hundred dollars on a mortgage by Columbia Chapter No. 12. George Robinson was one of the four signatories of the report.

In any event, vocations and avocations were to be put aside when the Queen Charlotte Coal Company invited him to return to Cowgitz. Our first intimation that something was happening comes from a continuing announcement in the Colonist. This announcement was first published in the issue dated 29th March, 1869, and continued daily until that dated 6th May.

Practical and Mechanical Dentist,

"RESPECTFULLY INFORMS his patrons and the public that he contemplates leaving Victoria in a short time for a few months, and will feel obliged by an early visit from those friends who wish to avail themselves of his professional services, previous to his departure.

"The business, apparatus, etc. etc., of the old established 'THEATRE PHOTOGRAPHIC GALLERY' to be disposed of upon reasonable terms.

"Parties indebted to the above are respectfully requested to make an early settlement, as all outstanding accounts will be placed in the hands of an attorney for collection in a few days."

While this notice was being run, we learn from the Colonist something of what was behind it. The issue of March 30th, 1869, bears a paragraph:

"DENTISTRY. - We direct the attention of our readers to the card of Mr. George Robinson, Dentist, in today's paper. Mr. Robinson designs leaving Victoria for a few months, and persons wishing to avail themselves of his professional services should do so at an early date."

While this only summarizes the advertisement, the issue of April 19th, 1869 is more informative:

"BRIEF MENTION. - Mr. George Robinson, of this city, has contracted with the Queen Charlotte Coal Mining Company to raise and deliver at the place of shipment, by the middle of September next, 1000 tons of anthracite coal. Mr. Robinson is an experienced engineer, having been many years in the employ of the Hudson Bay Company in that capacity at the Nanaimo mines."

So the Queen Charlotte Coal Mining Company had raised more capital and was going back for another try, with George Robinson once more in the thick of things!

From the Colonist's issue of April 22nd, 1869, we learn:

"FOR THE NORTH. - The Hudson Bay Company's steamer Otter will sail for Nanaimo, Fort Rupert, Queen Charlotte Island, Fort Simpson, &c. on Monday next. Among her passengers she will carry Mr. George Robinson and 18 men for the Queen Charlotte Coal Company. At Saanich the Otter will take on a quantity of lumber for the same company."

Finally, from the issue of April 27th, 1869:

"FOR THE NORTH. - The steamer Otter will sail at 3 o'clock this morning for Nanaimo, Fort Rupert, Queen Charlotte Island, Fort Simpson, etc. Mr. George Robinson, who has the contract for raising 1000 tons of anthracite coal from the Queen Charlotte Company's seam, with 18 men, will go up in her. At Saanich Inlet, on her way up, the Otter will take on board from Sayward's mills a quantity of timber for use of the miners in sinking shafts. We expect to hear great things from Queen Charlotte shortly."

In the issue of May 31st, 1869, the Colonist published an encouraging report of progress:

"Important from the Skidegate Coal Mine. The H.B. Co.'s steamer Otter arrived at Hastings, Skidegate Bay, Queen Charlotte's Island, with Mr. Robinson and a staff of miners and labourers for commencing the opening of the coal mines there, on Monday, May 3rd. Mr. Robinson went and made preparations for work the same day. The day following all hands were at work - a few being employed in prospecting for the seam nearer the water than where the present mine is opened. They succeeded in finding it some 20 or 30 yards lower down the creek. It is also satisfactory to know that there is not so much explosive gas in the mine as represented; for although no person had been in the mine for several months previous, the "Davy" only showed a slight indication of the presence of gas; and what is more surprising is that the mine was not then ventilated at all; and when the "water blast" had been at work a few hours the "Davy", upon being tried again, showed no indication whatever of the presence of gas. Mr. Robinson represents himself as sanguine of being able to put out 1000 tons of coal long before the tramway is completed. The latter is rapidly progressing under the personal superintendence of the contractor, Mr. Gibbs, of Victoria, assisted in the surveying department by Mr. Landale. The road promises to be a most durable one, and likely to reflect credit upon its builder."

Our next, and most informative report on the mining venture, comes from a report written by a Government official who accompanied Governor Frederick Seymour on a trip to northern British Columbia on board H.M.S. Sparrowhawk in the summer of 1869. The main purpose of the trip was to settle a simmering dispute between the pagan Tsimpsean Indians and the Christian Nass Indians which had already taken eight lives and threatened to erupt into all-out war. Seymour was not well. While Governor of British Honduras in 1862 he had contracted " Panama fever", which permanently injured his health. Of late, too, he had become more and more addicted to alcohol, a habit which his personal staff tried to discourage.

His tenure had taken place in a time of tremendous change. Four years earlier the British Government had passed an "Act of Union of the Colonies", merging the Colony of Vancouver Island with the Colony of British Columbia. Seymour remained as Governor of the combined Colony. All staff of the two previous governments had simply been jumbled together into one unwieldy bureaucracy, which was just getting settled in New Westminster when the Assembly met and decided that Victoria should be the capital city. The move to Victoria was then made in argument and even more confusion. Both Colonies had been in debt at the time of the merger, and a business depression which had been brought on by the receding of the Fraser River gold-rush made matters worse. Bureaucracy, debt, political in-fighting and business depression had all brought worries to the Governor, and the question of the Colony's joining Canada, associating with the United States of America or remaining independent were coming to a head. Pressure groups pushed the hesitant Governor first this way, then that. It is not surprising that at Bella Bella, enroute home from the successful negotiations with the Indians, His Excellency somehow acquired a bottle of brandy and drank it all in one short session. Next day, 10th June 1869, he died suddenly of what was diplomatically called "dysentry".

One of his entourage, the Honourable the Chief Commissioner of Lands and Works, kept a journal from which he later wrote a "Report of the Proceedings in Connection with the Visit of His Excellency the Late Governor Seymour to the North-west Coast in Her Majesty's Ship Sparrowhawk"

"... After a quick run across the Sound, the weather being fine and the sea smooth, we crossed Skidegate Bar at half-past 6 p.m., and reached the anchorage off the Queen Charlotte Coal Company's Station at Cowquitz at half-past 8. Soon after we anchored Mr. Gibbs and others connected with the Coal Company came on board.

"June 6th. - At anchor all day. Heavy showers during last night and this morning, but the afternoon was clear and bright. About noon, I went ashore with Mr. Lowndes and Dr. Comrie. The Company's buildings consist of a storehouse, office, and boarding-house for their workmen, all framed buildings, with some minor houses scattered around. Here we found Messrs. Gibbs and Landale, who are engaged under contract with the Company in constructing a tramway from the harbour, into which it is to be extended by piling and trestle-work, so as to afford a pier affording a depth of over 20 feet of water alongside at low tide, to the coal works about a mile distant. From the proposed pier the tramway will rise gradually for a distance of 3600 feet to a height of 184 feet above high water. From this point a chute will be constructed, from the top of which a further short section of tramway will connect with the mouth of the tunnel, at a height of 448 feet above the level of high water, and distant about 4600 feet from the sea-shore. Of this tramway, about 1700 feet from the sea-shore is now nearly finished, and from the character of the portion already done, I anticipate that when the whole is completed it will be a very substantial work, and afford an economical and very efficient means of leading the coal down for shipment.

"Accompanied by the gentlemen above named, I walked up to the tunnel from which the tramway is to be connected. There we found Mr. Robinson who has at present charge of the coal working, being employed by the company under contract to get out and deliver at the top of the proposed chute a specified amount of coal.

"By this gentleman we were conducted into the tunnel - called Nicholson's tunnel - which is 619 feet long. At 210 feet from its mouth the coal is struck, and thence extends to the end of the tunnel, where there is a fault, the walls of the vein coming together gradually for the last 100 feet until they close altogether. The whole thickness of this seam is nearly 6 feet, in which there are two veins of pure coal, averaging 3 feet and 1 foot 3 inches respectively, separated by a slatestone midstone 6 inches thick. These veins are nearly vertical, and their general course bears N. 40° W. The coal has been proved by practical experiment to be of a very good quality. We were also shown by Mr. Robinson three other tunnels which have been driven 112, 433 and 450 feet respectively. In the first, called Robinson's tunnel, the coal had been found, but broken and disintegrated; the other tunnels, Hutchinson's and Wilke's, are designed to strike the vein now being worked in Nicholson's tunnel above, but have not yet been run to the full distance. These tunnels are all driven into the steep north slope of a range of high hills, the summit peak of which - Mount Seymour - is about 4000 feet high. Outcrops of coal are found in the beds and along the banks of almost every stream running down this mountain slope. There can be no doubt of the abundance of the coal in this neighbourhood; and its valuable quality is, I believe, fully ascertained. From the facility with which it can be got out and, after the tramway is constructed, put on board ship, in a harbour of easy access for vessels of any size, there appears every reason to anticipate that this coal bed may be profitably worked. The only contingency to be feared, in my mind, arises from the broken character of the formation in which this coal is situated, which may render the continuous working of the coal more difficult and expensive than is now anticipated."

Long before this report became public, the Colonist for July 12th, 1869, had stated:

"FROM QUEEN CHARLOTTE ISLAND, ETC. - By the arrival of the S.S. Otter, Capt. Lewis, on Saturday, from Queen Charlotte Island and intermediate ports, we are placed in possession of gratifying intelligence of the operations of the anthracite coal miners, which will be found detailed elsewhere by a correspondent. Mr. Smith, purser of the Otter, has favoured us with the following memorandum: - Arrived at the coal mine, Queen Charlotte Island, on the 21st June. Good progress was being made on the tramway. Mr. Robinson would be ready in a few days to take out coal; he was engaged in completing the air shaft. ..."

The next word is from the Colonist for September 21st, 1869:


Sept. 9th, 1869.

"The works here are still progressing, though the season having been a very rainy one, has prevented the progress being so great as it otherwise would have been. Mr. Gibbs has now got his tramway laid within about 200 feet of the shutes, and that distance will (weather permitting) be complete in another week. He will then have about 350 feet of the upper tramway to make, which will make a connecting link with the shutes and Mr. Robinson's tramway, which latter is now completed except the laying of the rails. Mr. Robinson has the No. 1 mine now thoroughly open, and the shutes fixed, and is ready to put out coals therefrom at the rate of one thousand tons per month, if the tramway is ready to transport the coal away. The coal was struck in the No. 2 tunnel yesterday, and the miners are now employed in driving upon the seam. It is expected that this seam will also be thoroughly open long before the tramway is complete. There is now probably about 600 tons of coal ready for shipping."

The Colonist's issue of October 31st, 1869, however, cast a shadow on the previous optimistic reports:


"Str. Otter left Victoria Oct 5 and arrived Queen Charlotte Island on the 14th, calling at all the intermediate ports. Found, on arrival, that three successive explosions had occurred in the Queen Charlotte Coal Co.'s mine, three men being burnt about the face, and that all miners had struck in consequence. They all came on board and demanded passage to Victoria, which was refused them. Mr. Robinson's report of the occurrence is that it was entirely through negligence on the part of the men. The roadway from the mine is progressing slowly, the weather having been wet. ..."

We hear no more during the rest of the year, but with the issue of January 18th, 1870, the Colonist had a cautiously optimistic paragraph:

"FROM QUEEN CHARLOTTE ISLAND. Among the passengers by the Olympia last evening was Mr. George Robinson, mining engineer, who left the Queen Charlotte Coal Company's mine on the 9th December, and proceeded to Tongas, where he took passage on the Constantine for Port Townsend, arriving at the latter port on Sunday. He reports the tramways at the coal mine as complete to within some 200 or 300 feet of the wharf. The shute was finished and ready to receive coal, and Mr. Gibbs expected to have the whole of his work complete some time in February. The weather was very mild, the thermometer not having been below 44 deg. previous to his leaving. The quantity of rain, however, which has fallen there during the past few months surpasses the conception of those who have not witnessed it, and it is owing to this fact, principally, that Gibbs has not had the roads completed long ago. The mine has been opened ready for the delivery of coal since the beginning of September last. There are now four men employed in putting out coal. With a sufficient force, 1000 tons of coal per month, if required, can be obtained."

Next day, the Colonist printed an expanded report:

"MR. GEORGE ROBINSON - HIS TRIP FROM QUEEN CHARLOTTE ISLAND TO VICTORIA. - Mr. Robinson left the coal mines, Queen Charlotte Island, on Thursday, Dec 9th, and was accompanied to the Skidegate village by Mr. Trounce, the Company's Superintendent. Owing to the difficulty of inducing the Indians to go to Fort Simpson at this season of the year, and to the bad state of the weather, Mr. Robinson did not succeed in getting away until the Thursday following, He landed in the night of that day at a place some 20 miles above Skidegate village, called by the Indians "Klut". The beach was very flat and stony - the tide running out at low water for nearly half a mile from shore, and there seemed to be an incessant surf breaking upon the beach. The canoe was landed with great difficulty, the Indians having to wade up to their waists in order to protect the canoe from being smashed upon the loose boulders. The following morning, the weather and wind being adverse, Mr. Robinson took the opportunity thus afforded him of examining the country. The coast is bounded almost the whole distance from Dead Tree Point to Rose Spit by high banks of drifted white sand which, at a distance, has the appearance of white cliffs; but there is almost an entire absence of rocks for the whole of that distance. These sand banks, generally, are not more than 100 to 200 feet in width and very seldom more than 100 feet in height. They are, however, so steep, and the sand so loose, that it is only in a few places that they can be crossed. The country at the back of sand banks is very level and very lightly timbered. A fresh water lagoon or lake of more than half a mile in length and probably a quarter of a mile in width exists at Klut, and Mr. Robinson thinks the best agricultural lands he has seen in the colony lie there. There is very little underbrush - the country being covered with a strong, coarse grass growing quite three feet high. There is comparatively no fern. The soil near the coast is principally drift sand, but as you advance into the interior it becomes more of a loamy nature. The timber (what little there is) is principally hemlock, but short, scrubby and useless except for fire wood, In the afternoon they went a few miles further, to a place called Chali-wuck, where they landed about midnight.

"On the following morning, the wind being fair, they made a start to run across to Fort Simpson, but after having got out to sea a few miles the wind became adverse and the sea so rough that the Indians were afraid to go any further. They therefore turned the canoe round and made for the more northerly point of the Island and landed at Sanhoe, a point some four or five miles below Rose Spit. At each of these places the character of the country is as before described and presents a strange contrast with the southern part of the Island, where it is next to an impossibility to find a quarter of an acre of land fit for cultivation. The great drawback, however, to the section described is the entire absence of any harbour nearer than Skidegate or Masset, from each of which places it is probably some 15 or 20 miles distant. About midnight on Sunday, Dec. 19th, the wind being fair and a bright moonlight night, they again started for Fort Simpson. When probably about half way across the wind got right ahead of them, and the sea very rough, the canoe shipping water almost constantly, keeping them employed in bailing out. They were therefore obliged to change their course, holding more to the South. When within some few miles of land the sea became more smooth, and they eventually landed upon an island some 20 miles below Metlakatla where Mr. Robinson was hospitably entertained by Rev. Mr. Duncan until the Friday following. On Thursday the Rev. Mr. Tomlinson and lady, accompanied by a number of canoes full of Indians, arrived from Naas to spend Christmas with their friends at Metlakatla.

"They were all in high spirits, and the reception they met with from the Metlakatla Indians is more easily imagined than described. Such joyous faces, such hearty shaking of hands and such a welcoming to their homes is rarely witnessed in a civilized community. The self-denying labours of Messrs Duncan and Tomlinson have well deserved the great success they have had. The great advance in civilization and the moral and intellectual improvement of these Indians must be seen to be believed. Some of their habitations would put many white people to the blush. Some of them read very well, and a few of them write quite nicely. The daughter of the late Chief, Legaic, writes as nicely as any lady in the colony. People who believe that the Indian is not capable of becoming civilized and receiving an intellectual education, would feel well repaid by making a trip to Metlakatla. The friends of this mission will be sorry to know that Mr. Duncan proposes soon to leave it, and to return to England. Two or three addresses have already been written and presented to him by some of his Indians, expressing their regret at his leaving them, and expressing a hope that it may be the `will of God' that he may again return and dwell amongst them. Mr. Robinson left Metlakatla on the morning of Friday, the 24th of December, and arrived at Fort Simpson the same evening. The weather being bad, he was unable to go to Tongass until the following Wednesday, when he got a passage across through the kindness of two gentlemen from that place. He staid there until the 10th of January enjoying the hospitality of the officers of the garrison stationed there. He left there by the U.S. mail steamer Constantine, had a fair run down, arrived at Nanaimo on Friday morning last. On Saturday morning the Otter arrived there, and the Constantine left about 11 o'clock a m, and arrived at Port Townsend the same night, from whence Mr. Robinson came to Victoria by the Sound steamer."

The mission at Metlakatla was probably the most famous and most successful of the Church of England's missions among the Coast Indians. It was founded by church lay-reader William Duncan, who with a few Indian converts started construction in May, 1852. The main building was a large church, built in the native long-house style with dirt floor and a hole in the roof to carry away the smoke from a large central bonfire The church was completed in time for the first service to be held on Christmas Day, 1852. In time the community grew to thirty-five houses and ancillary buildings. James Douglas was one of those who gave encouragement to the mission, not only by words but by donating the four windows required for each house and by paying for the nails used in house construction.

William Duncan was strong-minded in the extreme. He would stand for no interference whatsoever in his leadership of the mission. His methods generated tremendous devotion in his Indian followers, who kept joyfully within the straight and narrow path of righteousness and increased continually in numbers. However he managed eventually to fall out with every minister sent to assist him, and he continually resisted the authority of his nominal superior, the Bishop of New Caledonia. He was several times offered ordination, but steadfastly refused in the belief that his appointment as lay reader gave him greater freedom of action. Finally, he gave up the running battle with the Church hierarchy, and removed to Alaska, taking most of his congregation with him. Here, free from the Bishop's influence, he founded New Metlakatla and continued as before. Deprived of his forceful leadership, the original mission lost its vitality and decayed into mediocrity, while New Metlakatla never quite fulfilled the promise which the original mission had possessed. In every way, it was a sad end to a great beginning.

What happened to the Queen Charlotte Coal Company's mining venture? In September of 1870, when the Company had been in existence for five years and had yet to produce a single ship-load of coal, the Victoria office despairingly sent William Russell as a final trouble-shooting engineer, with instructions to get things moving, Russell found that much of the work of his predecessors had been more hasty than methodical; in particular the two tramways had been flimsily built and one of them had developed a huge sag. Loaded coal cars passing this sag flipped over with monotonous regularity, spilling their loads and at times damaging themselves, and on two occasions loaded cars had careened the length of the line and dock and vanished in the waters of Anchor Cove, causing waste of time and money in building replacement cars. At the mine itself, the forebodings of the Honourable, the Chief Commissioner of Lands and Works had been borne out. While the coal was indeed of good quality, the seams were greatly faulted and discontinuous, so that much time was wasted locating whither they had wandered. Considerable rock was included with the coal and had to be separated by hand before shipment. In four months, Russell got out only 435 tons, which were loaded on the steamer Lulu on Christmas Day, 1870; and in order to produce even this partial ship-load he had to rebuild the tramway roadbeds and, as he soon found, take measures to stop the Haida youth from nearby villages from taking wild midnight roller-coaster rides in empty coal-cars down the rickety way.

The Company struggled along for two more years, until an entire ship-load of coal enroute to San Francisco was lost at sea. Operations then ceased with the wages of the miners in arrears. It seems that in not remaining at Cowgitz, George Robinson had made the right decision.

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