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Nanaimo History

From the Snuneymuxw to Today

The name “Nanaimo” comes from the people who dwelt here long before the first Europeans arrived. The Snuneymuxw (Snuh-NAY-moo) were living along the shores of Departure Bay and Nanaimo harbour when the Spanish ship, Santa Saturnina under the command of Juan Carrasco, sailed into the harbour in 1791.

After signing a treaty with the British, the Spanish were to leave Vancouver Island behind before they had a chance to establish a permanent settlement. So Nanaimo, with its stunning, natural harbour became little more than a fur trading post throughout the early 1800s.

In 1849, the Hudson’s Bay Company who had interests well beyond fur, were given the rights, including fishing and mining, for all Vancouver Island. Soon after, in 1850, Snuneymuxw Chief Che-wich-i-kan known to history as Coal Tyee, paddled a canoe laden with coal to Victoria.

It was good coal – very good coal – and the 19th century version of black gold launched an industry and a town. Nanaimo, or Coleville as it was called until 1860, was born as a coal-mining centre.

As the coal mining industry boomed, Nanaimo attracted the adventurous from England, Europe, across Canada, the US and China. The town took on an international feel and boasted its own Chinatown, which survived until destroyed by a fire in 1960.

Coal and other goods were sent to Victoria for export on the Esquimalt Nanaimo Railway. Sir John A. Macdonald himself drove the last spike in 1886 on his only visit to BC.

But coal waned, not because of a ferocious mining explosion in 1887 that killed 150 miners, but because the mine eventually gave up all its coal. Forestry, in the form of pulp mills took over as the dominant industry and remains a vital part of the region’s economy. Along with commercial fishing, a thriving commercial port, and a marine biological research centre, Nanaimo is a thriving city that attracts visitors – business people and tourists alike – from around the world.

It truly is the heart of Vancouver Island.