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A Walk Through Time
by Goody Niosi

Right in the heart of Nanaimo, the city built on coal, is a fully exposed coal seam, yet even many people who work nearby are not aware of it.

That's what Christine Meutzner, general manager of the Nanaimo Archives, wants to change. The archives, together with the Nanaimo District Museum, have published a map that lays out a walk through the centre of Nanaimo and explains the history of each area.

Called A Walk through Time, the map has been published to coincide with Provincial Heritage Week, February 17-23. Meutzner recommends the Bastion, Nanaimoís most familiar landmark, as a good starting point for the historical walk.


The Bastion was once one of 250 similar forts built by the Hudsonís Bay Company across Canada and is the last survivor of an era of fur-traders, explorers and adventurers who blazed new trails on their way west.

Built in 1853, it is Nanaimoís first and oldest building. It still stands guard over what has been called the prettiest harbour on Vancouver Island but much has changed in 150 years. The view from the top story takes in Protection and Newcastle Islands, sailboats catching a breeze and floatplanes buzzing into the sky. At the foot of the old trading post is Pioneer Plaza with its coffee houses, chic shops and the waterfront walkway that winds its way around Swy-A-Lana Lagoon.

But step through the massive wooden door and youíll be transported back into another age. In the hush of the dimly-lit interior you can almost hear the scratching of the clerkís old steel-nib pen as he records the trades of warm Hudsonís Bay Blankets and sacks of rice, flour and oats.

Steep stairs lead to the second floor where the original cannons point out across the harbour. The third floor, which was intended as a gathering place for the early settlers in case of attack displays costumes of the times and tells the history of the sophisticated city that sprang up around the fortified building. But that city was vastly different to what it is now. Many of the main streets of the town were channels of water. Cameron Island with its modern apartment buildings was truly an island cut off from the rest of the city. The lower part of Front Street where the Port Theatre sits was under water and Terminal Avenue, the main highway running through town, was a ravine filled with water.

"Thereís really not a single part of the whole waterfront that hasnít altered so the topography is significantly different," Meutzner says.

The Bastion exemplifies Nanaimoís early architecture: it is rough, wooden, and highly practical. But between the 1850s and the early 1880s Nanaimo continued to grow. Most new buildings were still built of wood but as you walk north on Front Street you will come upon the Courthouse, which was Nanaimoís first city hall and was built of stone between 1895 and 1896. The architect, Francis Mawson Rattenbury was a colourful and notorious character. He emigrated from England in 1832 and won the competition to design the provincial legislative buildings in Victoria at the age of 26, much to the chagrin of older and more established professionals. Like the parliament buildings the courthouse is solid, permanent, and grand in its Richardsonian Romanesque style of architecture. This imposing building heralds a shift from a pioneer culture and makes a proud statement, "Nanaimo is a town that is here to stay."

The shift to permanence became especially pronounced in 1886 after the railway was built. More people came to Nanaimo and built homes of brick and stone.

Commercial Street is home to Nanaimoís single greatest concentration of heritage buildings. The Street began as a trail that followed the contours of the waters of Commercial inlet and meandered past the mines and minersí cottages. As you walk down this street you will notice a distinct difference between the east and west sides of the street. On the west side you can almost go back in time. Very little has changed here. The architecture, particularly in the ornate detailing around the rooflines has the feel of a charming, Edwardian era town. But look across the street and youíll see far more cement and far less ornamentation. The explanation is intriguing.

The buildings on the east, or water side of Commercial Street were built on pilings along the shoreline, literally above the water. One Nanaimo resident whose father owned a shop on Commercial Street recalls that they used to tie their rowboat up at the back door. But gradually Commercial inlet was filled in and the owners of the buildings took them off their stilts and settled them on new foundations. While they were doing that, most of the owners updated the buildings with new stucco or siding and much of the old ornamentation disappeared in favour of the modern, streamlined look of the 1960s. The buildings across the street didnít need to be shifted so the owners saved themselves the time and expense of changing anything at all.

At the end of Commercial Street you cross Terminal Avenue and continue your walk along Victoria Crescent, a street that is just as historically important as Commercial Street. Many of the buildings here are faced with the typical 1870s "boom town" false front architecture. Keep going along Victoria Crescent and at the corner of Victoria Street and Cavan, what looks like an ordinary cliff is perhaps Nanaimoís most poignant reminder of her early history. The cliff is a coal seam that was part of the Park Head mine.

"Thereís very little in Nanaimo where you can actually see coal," Meutzner says.

"You can read some things into the buildings - you can interpret them... but you canít follow the industry very well because its been so covered over. So to go there and see and touch it is kind of a nice experience."

Directly across the street from the coal seam is the old firehall, which ironically was built to replace the first firehall that was destroyed by fire in 1894.

There are many significant buildings worthy of note in Nanaimoís downtown core including the impressive Great National Land building, which was constructed in 1914 as a Bank of Commerce.

The Old City Quarter across the Bastion Street bridge began to blossom in 1886 when the E&N railway was built and the station welcomed visitors who came up from Victoria. But it is Nanaimoís south end with its many minersí cottages that is the cityís most authentic neighbourhood. Here you will see the humble abodes of the miners and the gingerbread homes of the mine managers but perhaps the one sight that will give you pause is a simple plaque erected at 1151 Milton Street, the site where the Vancouver Coal Company opened the No. 1 Esplanade mine in 1883. The plaque will tell you that workers at the mine produced 18 million tons of coal, more than any other mine on Vancouver Island by the time it was closed in 1938. The plaque pays tribute to the 153 miners who lost their lives in the 1887 mine explosion.

Written by
Goody Niosi
Freelance Writer
Nanaimo, BC
Email: gniosi@shaw.ca

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