Nanaimo’s crown jewel faces change

Undisclosed plans are afoot to transform Newcastle Island’s 336 hectares of marine park from a summertime playground for day hikers, cyclists, campers and boaters, to a year-round tourist and recreation development.

“Our ultimate goal is to make Newcastle Island the number-one tourist destination in Nanaimo,” said Odai Sirri, spokesman for Waterfront Holdings Ltd., which has signed a precedent-setting agreement with the Snuneymuxw First Nation. He declined to elaborate in an interview with the Nanaimo Free Press although he acknowledged that a foot bridge is under consideration.

Enhanced popularity would be nothing new for the island which has long been considered Nanaimo’s crown jewel – as yet unspoiled because it remains accessible only by boat. Back in the 1930s, Newcastle, then owned by the CPR, was a destination for campers and vacationists. Recalled one happy camper of Newcastle’s glory days: “We’ve just had a super day for the company picnic. It was drizzling when we left Vancouver but over here it has been clear skies and sun, sun, sun! This year the company chartered a whole ferry, the Princess Elaine, to bring us over.

“It’s a good thing because I’m told that over a thousand people showed up for this year’s picnic. That’s the biggest turnout we’ve ever had. I do hope they’ll hold the picnic on Newcastle again next year; this has been much more fun than last year’s picnic on Bowen Island [at the competing Union Steamship Co.’s campground]. There was so much to do with all the games and races and that swim at the beach was really refreshing!

“There was even a wading pool for the children… The band played in the pavilion ’til the boat came to take us back to Vancouver. What a glorious day!” All of this was a far cry from the island’s initial role as a Snuneymuxw burial site then, with the arrival of whites, as the site of coal mines, a sandstone quarry, boat yards, a cannery and fish salteries. When the CPR acquired Newcastle from the New Vancouver Coal Mining Land Co. in 1931, it established tea houses and dances.

Each summer, the company’s aging Charmer and Princess Victoria were anchored offshore as floating hotels.

Work began with the construction of a wharf at Echo Bay, at the southern end of the island, and tennis, baseball and football grounds. Hiking trails, bathing facilities, covered picnic tables, a dance pavilion and a resident caretaker soon followed. Participating in the project, and fired by the potential for summertime passenger traffic, was the company’s EN Railway.

Nanaimo businesses were also pumped by the prospects of increased trade, to the point that the owners of the Globe Hotel, facing foreclosure, begged for a six-month extension: “As [it] faces the waterfront and has a beer parlour, it could not fail to benefit,” declared hotel spokesman P.R. Leighton. The hotel survived the crisis.

For grand opening day, June 30, 1931, Ian Baird tells us, 1,000 passengers “under the auspices of the CPR Social and Athletic Club,” arrived from Victoria aboard Princess Victoria and the company manager Capt. C.D. Neroutsos hosted a gala dinner in Princess Elaine’s main salon. Among the crowd were the Nanaimo and Victoria mayors and other civic dignitaries. Despite its being mid-Depression, Newcastle Island was so successful that, by the second season, the CPR had to anchor the aging S.S. Charmer, then the larger Princess Victoria, offshore to provide accommodation. A stateroom cost $5 per week, by the way.

But the Second World War brought the island’s closure. Despite a sizable investment to recapture its popularity, in the early ’50s, Newcastle’s heyday was over. The City of Nanaimo acquired the island in 1950 for $150,000 and sold it four years later for $1 to the province to operate as a provincial marine park. Newcastle has since been deeded to the Snuneymuxw as part of treaty negotiations. Until further notice, it continues in the role of a marine park.

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