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.
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.
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.
not a single part of the whole waterfront that hasnít altered so
the topography is significantly different," Meutzner says.
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
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.
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.
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."
the street from the coal seam is the old firehall, which ironically
was built to replace the first firehall that was destroyed by fire
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.