When coal was first discovered on Vancouver Island, a most unlikely company exploited the commodity. We all think about fur trading when we hear of the Hudson’s Bay Company but it was in fact this company who first recognized the importance of the coal. Miners were at first hired mainly from Great Britain to work and manage the mines. One of these individuals was a young Scottish fellow named Robert Dunsmuir who actually got to Vancouver Island by accident as it was his cousin who was originally hired. He would go on to become one of the richest men in Canada.
Wellington – Dunsmuir’s First Coal Mine
While in the employ of the Vancouver Coal Mining & Land Company at Nanaimo, Robert Dunsmuir would do independent prospecting in his free time. In 1869 he discovered a thin surface seam coal on the roots of a fallen tree near Diver Lake. By 1871 he had discovered the Wellington seam which underlaid his initial discovery. He formed his own coal mining company and became fabulously wealthy from the mines at this location which soon out produced the operations of his former employer in Nanaimo. The coal was shipped through extensive wharves at Departure Bay.
Adding to his empire, he established coal mines in the Comox area further north and built the E&N Railway Company for which he obtained the huge land grant known as the Railway Belt from the government.
Robert Dunsmuir passed away in 1889 leaving the running of his Wellington Coal mines to his two sons, James and Alexander. By the mid 1890’s the pits at Wellington were beginning to run out. An individual by the name of Ephraim Hodgson discovered a seam of coal on the southern slope of Mount Benson seven miles to the south west of Nanaimo. This turned out to be an extension of the Wellington seam and as it was within the railway belt, Hodgson approached James Dunsmuir about his discovery.
The Wellington Coal Company began developing the new mine which was called Extension because it was an extension of the coal seam at Wellington. The intention was to ship the coal through the existing wharves, but Dunsmuir had previously had a dispute with the Western Fuel Company, over whose land the railway would have to go, and access was denied.
Dunsmuir decided that Oyster Harbour would be the shipping port, and in 1898, construction of a railway extension to Oyster Harbour began, together with building a coal washer (slack from which forms Slack Point), bunkers and wharves. Miners started moving from Wellington to Extension, but Dunsmuir said he did not want them to live near the mine, but to move to Oyster Harbour. While some did remain, most did move, bringing homes, shops, hotels and churches with them. They were loaded onto rail flat cars, brought to Oyster Harbour and re-assembled.
Meanwhile, back in South Africa
During all this activity, the Boer War in South Africa was being waged with the town of Ladysmith, South Africa, being besieged for 118 days. It was in 1900 that Dunsmuir heard of the relief of Ladysmith and renamed his instant town on Oyster Harbour Ladysmith in honour of the event (ten streets are named after generals of that war). The population now about 1,000 continued to grow and the town prospered, largely due to ships’ crews looking for provisions and entertainment. Trains carried miners to Extension and brought coal back.
The Early 1900’s
About 1898, copper was found on Mount Sicker some 14 miles to the south. Ore was brought via the E&N to the smelter at Ladysmith, which was up and running in 1902. However, this only lasted until 1912.
Over the next few years the population rose to almost 5,000, but miners began a strike which lasted over a year; it was a bitter one with much damage to machinery and houses, and much animosity between strikers and non-strikers. Many people left to look for better opportunities. The strike was eventually settled but the wounds remained.
In the 1930’s the demand for coal was falling off, partly due to coal being replaced by fuel oil in ships, and because of the general countrywide depression. These issues and the fact that the Extension seam was running out, caused the closure of the mine in 1931. Ladysmith fell into it’s own depression. People left town and the houses defaulted to the city for unpaid taxes.
In 1933, a violent windstorm blew down thousands of trees in the hills behind Ladysmith. The forest at that time was owned by the Rockefeller Foundation who refused to sell. The windstorm convinced them to sell the forest. Three years later the Comox Logging and Railway Company started logging and shipping logs through the harbour. Instead of digging coal, now we cut trees. This was Ladysmith’s mainstay until about 1986. Today, there are still two sawmills. Logs are exported through the harbour to sawmills and ships all over the west coast.
An Award-Winning Town
Much work has been done to preserve the heritage of the town. Ladysmith actually won a significant award for its initiative to make us the “Heritage By The Sea”. An artifacts heritage walk, the revitalized downtown and the construction of an amphitheatre have all contributed to making Ladysmith the award-winning town it is today.
Ladysmith is a vital community and an ideal place to live, play and raise a family. A lot of folks retire here and most of the descendants of the original families are still here, keeping our history and heritage alive.
Kit Wilmot, the original writer of Ladysmith’s History is credited with a valuable contribution to documenting this history of Ladysmith. Additional credit has to be given to others such as Viola Cull who have published histories of our rich past.