Looking back at February 8, 1881 in coaltown Nanaimo

If we had the power to go back in time, what would we see? Well, if we found ourselves in Nanaimo on February 8, 1881, we’d see that this was a busy place.

Top story of the day was the death of “Coal Tyhee,” the aged member of the Snunymeux who, more than any other single person, contributed to Nanaimo’s founding, 30-odd years before, when he alerted the Hudson’s Bay Co. to the seashore coal deposits to be found here.

“What mighty changes has civilization made in this district since ‘Coal Tyehee,’ in a blanket perhaps, poked around the beach in what is now the City of Nanaimo and discovered the dusky diamonds that made her famous throughout the world,” marvelled the Free Press. “The primeval forest has given way to macadamized roads, the stately buildings and the magnificent works of the Collieries. While the screech of the locomotive whistle is now heard, where the hungry growl of the wolf and the purring sound of the panther reigned supreme. May the old man enjoy rich pastures and overflowing streams of pure water in the happy hunting grounds of his kindred, and may his camp fire never been extinguished.”

In 1881 James Dunsmuir, eldest son of the family that owned the rich Wellington colliery, was not yet the reviled despot that he was to become in the eyes of many. Proof of this was the “sumptuous supper” given to him in the Forester’s Hall by the residents of Wellington. He was presented with a gold watch, Mrs. Dunsmuir with a six-piece silver tea service, upon his retirement from the underground management of the Wellington Collieries, to assume charge of the company’s shipping and loading business at Departure Bay.

R. Scott, acting as MC, said that residents and employees wanted to express their “high regard and esteem” for the “able services” Dunsmuir had performed over the years.

Scott praised him for always having acted “in a most considerate manner, making the safety of Miners, and thereby the safety of the Mines, your especial study and care… With those under your charge you have been most courteous and gentlemanly while to your assiduous supervision and attention much of the harmony and security of these Collieries is due…”

Oh, how the miners present that evening would come to eat those words! But to get back to daily life in Nanaimo, as it was 133 years ago. Those involved in laying an underwater telegraph cable from Valdez Island to Point Grey were red-faced when their cable came up four miles short; they promised to have the service up and running within a month. A fire in the Chase River mine continued to burn despite efforts by the company and the city fire department to extinguish it without flooding the mine, an expensive antidote. At least the blaze, half a mile underground, was thought to be confined.

It was unusually quiet in magistrate’s court before JP’s John Pawson, J.P. Plant and C.M. Chambers: only three defendants, charged with possession of stolen property – blankets, clothes and tobacco. It was even quieter in the municipal council chambers, the regular meeting having to be cancelled for want of a quorum.

On the commercial side, James Knight of the Talbot Hotel hoped to “merit a share of the public patronage” with a large stock of the finest ales, wines, liquors and cigars, Mrs. Raybould offered her services as a milliner, the Presbyterian Manse had a piano for sale for $130, and H.G. Hall, bookseller and stationer, had a fine stock of plain and fancy “stationary,” German accordions and concertinas, and “cheap jewelry.” The Glasgow House offered ladies’ clothing, A. Bullock “the best selected and nicest lot of Dry Goods ever imported into Nanaimo” at bargain prices if paid in cash. Marshall Bray, city assessor and collector, was after citizens’ pocketbooks, too, having posted notice that property and school taxes were due.

That’s the way it was, on this day in February of 1881.


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