T.W. Paterson column: Big changes afoot for former Dunsmuir coal port

By T.W. Paterson

It was quiet that early of a March Sunday morning in the mid-’60s and we almost had the place to ourselves.

But not quite. The wrecking crews were hard a-work even then; nails groaned, reluctant boards screamed as they were pried loose…

Driving under the massive trestle-wharf we parked in a wide clearing. Hardly a blade of grass showed in the ground where this waterside strip of Union Bay was built on a black midden of coal waste known as slack. No surprise, really, as millions of tons of Cumberland’s black gold were shipped through here over the years since the Dunsmuir family began working the Comox coal fields in 1889.

That trestle-wharf was the largest I’d ever seen, perhaps one of the largest built in the province. From the bay it ran for an amazing distance towards, then parallel to, the adjacent Island Highway. Coal cars could be shunted right out to the yawning bunkers and holds of ocean-going ships. Although intact when we visited its rails had been pulled for years but its timberwork was mind-blowing: thousands of beams thick as a man’s waist of first-growth fir, mostly preserved from the elements by a thick coat of creosote and by appearances all worthy of salvage.

Climbing a rickety stairway to the top we were treated to an inspiring sight. The jade waters of Union Bay were perfectly still; away off to port a tug inched by Denman Island’s northern beak with her tow of log booms; to our starbord was the sleeping village of Union Bay, a store, a service station and a row of houses shouldering the highway.

But the scene stealer was Mount Joan to the southwest, its snowy cap glowing fluorescently in the morning sun and almost worthy of our trip from Victoria in itself.

Turning back to the historic coal port we noted a rotting water tower from the days of steam railroading. Because it had seen its last service long before the rest of Union Bay was retired it was in considerably worse condition than the trestle and only our party’s youngest, and lightest, member dared its crumbling ladder for a better look.

To landward, the trestle-wharf followed the highway for hundreds of feet, eventually merging with an embankment. The rotting ties, shorn of their rails, trailed off into the trees where they curved from sight and crossed the highway some distance away to arch toward the old mines at Cumberland.

Where the trestle began were the remains of several structures which had been torn down long before. Only broken concrete foundations and weathered scraps of timber were left, interspersed with young alders poking skyward.

Back at the dock, as a geologist reads the earth’s history by stratas of rock, so could one read Union Bay’s history here. Some of the bank had washed away, revealing several layers of rock, rust and wood. These indicated the old coal terminal had seen generations of change. As piers, buildings and machinery became obsolete their bones were used in the foundations of their successors. Other pilings bore mute testimony to Union Bay’s past glory — these rotting slivers of wood sticking forlornly from the seabed had known ships of every nationality when steamers from all over the world loaded Comox bituminous coal.

Union Bay’s rocky beach was littered with rusty scraps of unidentifiable junk although one relic, a gangplank, hadn’t deteriorated beyond recognition. Its wheels were sunk in the beach and barnacles studded its wooden frame. How old was it, we wondered, and which ships had it greeted over the years? How many seamen from around the world had trod its planks?

In a tumbled-down shed nearby we made an interesting find. Blackened with age this curio immediately aroused our interest. Of copper its shape suggested the chimney of a lantern. But what piqued our curiosity was the small stamp near its top: a small arrow. This is the famous “broad arrow” used for centuries to denote property of the Royal Navy.

Certainly the most historic of Union Bay’s ruins — among those that were left at the time of our visit — were its famous coke ovens. These two enormous brick structures, each containing double rows of 50 ovens, were overgrown with trees, one of which had to be at least 80 feet tall.

Their fires were stoked around the clock and even if one man could supervise several at a time, the 200 furnaces must have employed a large crew. Built of tens of thousands of bricks (conical Clayburn firebricks on the inside, standard red brick on the outside) they clearly denoted Union Bay’s past glory.

The actual kilns were shaped like beehives with a hole in the roof for a chimney. Several had crumbled since being abandoned decades before but most appeared to be in excellent shape when we visited. A railway spur ran between the two rows; it, too, was a thing of the past, its former bed sprouting trees and brambles.

Behind the kilns were the company buildings. The wreckers, who apparently didn’t stop for lunch, were working on the largest, a giant barn-like structure. They’d already removed part of its roof and one wall and were engaged in yanking down another wall by hooking it to their dump truck. There were several other buildings they hadn’t yet touched, including a power house, stores shed and offices. All showed their neglect and their windows had been smashed by vandals but appeared to be quite sturdy; the power house was still in operation, however, and a weathered sign warned, Danger, Keep Out.

Other than considerable rubble the buildings were empty but the office still had its large, expensive set of scales in a booth. There was broken glass everywhere.

Before leaving we drove over the Bay’s rolling dunes of coal slack. Not so much as a single weed grew in that black desert and under a cloudy sky the reflected heat was intense…

Such was Union Bay in the 1960s, then but a ghost of the Island’s once roaring coal industry. Today, Union Bay is slated to become an 850-acre residential and commercial development that will include two hotels, a marina, possibly a golf course and an instant downtown for as many as 7,500 new residents, making it the most ambitious development underway on Vancouver Island.

The coal dunes that I described above will be “remediated” and a 30-acre park will include a hiking trail atop the former Union Bay-Cumberland colliery railway grade.


Right: The industrial buildings at Union Bay had broken windows by the 1960s, but were still sturdy. (T.W. Paterson photo)
Above: A coal train during Union Bay’s heyday of production. (T.W. Paterson collection)
Right: The coke ovens were still there, though overgrown at Union Bay in the 1960s. (T.W. Paterson photo)
Inside Union Bay’s industry. (T.W. Paterson collection)
Inside Union Bay’s industry. (T.W. Paterson collection)
Above: A ship is loaded with coal at Union Bay. (T.W. Paterson collection)
A once booming industrial operation at Union Bay. (T.W. Paterson collection)

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