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A Brief History of Nanaimo

If you are thinking of relocating to Nanaimo, you’re in good company. Nanaimo has been inhabited for thousands of years, first by the Coast Salish people and then by European explorers and settlers beginning in the late eighteenth century.

By 1850s, Nanaimo was a lively trading post for the Hudson’s Bay Company. The Nanaimo Bastion, all that remains of the fort built by the company, still commands an impressive view of the harbour and islands from its downtown lookout.

Photo from the Matt James - Restored Historic Nanaimo Images Exhibit -History

Nanaimo Mining Life

What really put the growing town on the map was the lure of coal from the mines founded by Robert Dunsmuir.

Even when lumber, pulp and paper eventually took over in the early twentieth century, the impact of mining life continued to shape the area. In fact, Nanaimo coal mines exported more than 50 million tonnes of coal right through the 1940s.

One of the most tragic events in the town`s history was the Nanaimo Mine Explosion on May 3, 1887, which killed 150 miners. It was the largest man-made explosion until the Halifax Explosion in 1917.

You can see a monument to the miners at the foot of Milton Street where the mine was located. The shafts of the Number One Mine extended under the harbour to Protection Island and Newcastle Island.

There’s even more to learn about Nanaimo in the stories of Chinese workers. The Chinese, brought in by the mining companies as strikebreakers, were an important part of the labour force in early Nanaimo.

Despite widespread racism, the Chinese community in Nanaimo thrived. Four different Chinatown locations existed around the city of Nanaimo between 1860 and 1960. The last Chinatown at the foot of Pine Street was destroyed by fire in 1960.

Where to Find Nanaimo’s Past

Part of Nanaimo’s charm is that evidence of its rich history is all around you and easy to access. For example, the Bastion in downtown Nanaimo is open year round. Kids love to scramble around the one-hundred and sixty year old monument. And, for a peek at mining life, Mordon Mine in Cedar and the downtown Nanaimo Museum tells the story.

One of my favorite history-flavoured day trips, is a visit to Newcastle Island (only five minutes by water taxi from Nanaimo harbour). Besides the 22 km of lovely walking trails, you can see the remains of an old sandstone quarry and herring saltery. At the island’s southwest corner, you can still find pieces of coal on the beach.

For information on walking tours and other historical must-sees, visit the Visitors Center, located on the lower level of the Vancouver Island Conference Center at 101 Gordon Street.

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