B.C. mapmakers have been unkind to coal mining Dunsmuirs

One might think that they’ve been deliberately snubbed.

I ‘ve mentioned before the somewhat tentative tributes that mapmakers have paid the Dunsmuirs of Vancouver Island coal mining fame/infamy. When one considers the economic, political and social clout that this coal mining dynasty held over B.C. for half a century, their immortality, as measured by their enduring geographical presence, seems slight.

One might think, in fact, that they’ve been deliberately snubbed.

Where’s the glory in Qualicum’s tiny Dunsmuir, Ladysmith’s Dunsmuir Islands and Burleith Arm, Cedar’s Joan Point, Crofton’s Joan Avenue, or Vancouver’s, Victoria’s, Nanaimo’s or Cumberland’s Dunsmuir streets? Not a mountain peak, river or city – not even those townships founded by the Dunsmuirs themselves.

Each of the above-named geographical features recognize father and mother (Robert and Joan) and first son James. There’s no mention of James’s younger brother Alexander although he helped to further the family fortune, too. According to the Gazetteer, B.C. has 12 Alexanders, six Alexandras, five Alex’s, one Alexandria and an "Alex Allan." Only Alexandra Peak, east of Buttle Lake, is on Vancouver Island. None of them is named for Alex Dunsmuir.

Years ago, there was the Alexandria Slope, one of many mines working the Douglas coal seam at South Wellington. Begun by James Beck in 1879, it was acquired by Robert Dunsmuir and partners three years later. When Robert became sole proprietor he named it (according to one source) the Alexander, the Alexandria or the Alexandra (after the Princess of Wales, wife of the future King Edward VII, no doubt).

Ah, we’re getting warm. Dunsmuir-Alexander – Alexander Dunsmuir? Nope, the B.C. Dept. of Mines’ Annual Report(s), but for a single reference to Alexandra, refer to Alexandria. Whichever spelling or gender, it’s a moot point now as the mine’s long shut down and filled in. Which more or less applies to Alex Dunsmuir, too: buried and forgotten.

So what’s the story behind "Mr. Alex’s" apparent anonymity, even when alive? He was, among other accomplishments, the first white child born in Nanaimo and his parents’ favourite son. Upon the death of Robert Dunsmuir he and elder brother James controlled one of the largest industrial empires on the Pacific Coast. Fame, to a degree, and fortune were his birthright. What went wrong?

As manager of the San Francisco office where the bulk and best of Dunsmuir coal was sold, Alexander found himself for the first time his own boss – no parents or older brother to watch over him. He began to drink – for more complex reasons than his being unsupervised, of course. By the time the family realized he had a problem it was too late. He would, in fact, die of acute alcoholism at the age of 46.

Sober, he and James made a formidable team, Alex handling American sales, promotion and distribution, James running the Island collieries, railways and steamships. They did it so well that the revenues poured in, further enriching themselves, their mother (sole owner since Robert’s death) and ensuring that their idle sisters (and their idle husbands) could live the lives of luxury to which they’d become accustomed.

After years of arguing business policy with the headstrong matriarch, and of increasing resentment at their sisters’ sharing the profits without contributing to the earnings, James and Alex bought Mrs. Dunsmuir’s interest, incorporated the company – and cut a secret deal whereby each willed his share of the company to the other brother rather than to his wife and children.

Finally freed of needing his mother’s approval, Alex married his "secret" live-in companion of 20 years and died from "alcoholic dementia." He’d literally killed himself with booze. Years of bitter litigation between the surviving Dunsmuirs followed.

In short, you won’t find mention of Alex Dunsmuir on a B.C. map. But he is immortalized in California.

When his train paused at the small station of Pusher in 1886, so struck was he by its lack of amenities that he offered its citizens a water fountain (there’s irony for you!) if they renamed their community for him. They did and the fountain’s there today, in Dunsmuir, Cal., its donor gratefully acknowledged by a small plaque.

The Alexander/Alexandra/Alexandria Mine had its own townsite during the few years it operated. After the mine closed, the small settlement (as many as 300 residents at its peak) survived as South Wellington village. By this time the Dunsmuirs were no longer active participants, Pacific Coast Collieries, then Canadian Collieries (Dunsmuir) Ltd. and smaller independents providing most of the employment for residents. Today, an unrecognizable depression immediately beside the EN Railway grade just north of South Wellington townsite is all there is to show for the Alexandria Mine. Or the Dunsmuirs, for that matter. www.twpaterson.com

Just Posted

Hometown Hockey visits the home of the Big Stick

Cowichan hosts Rogers broadcast and accompanying festival

North Cowichan raising stink over foul odours

Smell from Chemainus facility an issue for years

Find Your Fit at WorkBC tour in Duncan Jan. 23

Event to be held at Cowichan Secondary School

Cowichan wrestling camp kicks off New Year

Camp attracts wrestlers from Valley, Victoria and Mainland

VIDEO: It’s Hometown Hockey time in Cowichan!

See our videos and pictures by our reporters from the big event at The Stick.

VIDEO: Fuel truck and train collide in B.C. causing massive fire

More emergency crews are still arriving on scene of a massive fire at the Port Coquitlam rail yard.

Back to work: U.S. government shutdown ends after Democrats relent

Short-term spending measure means both sides could see another shutdown stalemate in three weeks

Man lives despite malfunctioning defibrillator at B.C. arena

A middle-aged man went into cardiac arrest after at game at Pitt Meadows Arena last Wednesday.

Cause of Northern B.C. seaplane crash released

TSB releases report on seaplane crash during a water landing in 2016 near First Nations community

Vancouver police crack down on pop-up pot vendors

Officers raided merchants’ tables on Robson Square late Sunday

Bell Media, NFL take appeal over Super Bowl ad rules to top court

At issue is a ban on substituting American ads with Canadian ones during the game’s broadcast

Crown seeks 4.5 years jail for B.C. woman convicted of counselling tax evasion

Debbie Anderson the latest from group to face jail for teaching debunked ‘natural person’ theory

Road conditions wreak havoc for Comox Valley drivers

Icy road conditions early Monday morning kept first responders very busy throughout… Continue reading

Most Read