Vancouver and the Age of Coal

Posted by Daniel on Jun 11, 2009

Vancouver historian Chuck Davis writes:

On June 6 I gave a talk at the Hastings Mill Museum in connection with the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Native Daughters of British Columbia. The Daughters run the museum, which is in Pioneer Park at the north foot of Alma Street. The building, the oldest in Vancouver, was built in 1865, survived the 1886 Great Fire, and was barged to its Pioneer Park location in 1930 and, in archivist Major Matthews’ words, “gently placed amid the flowers.”

My talk consisted of a reading of the first chapter, “Before Incorporation,” of my forthcoming history of Vancouver. The audience of about 50 people listened, with politely few signs of impatience, to my reading . . . which included a brief reference to the discovery of coal on the south shore of Burrard Inlet. It was a small seam, and proved to be of poor quality, but nonetheless caused that small space to be named Coal Harbour. To my dismay, when time for questions arrived, all of them seemed to be centred on that coal. My knowledge of coal is on a par with my knowledge of Mayan inscriptions, which is to say non-existent, and when one fellow asked where Vancouver’s inhabitants of the time got the coal they used to heat their homes I realized, to my shame, that I didn’t know. He answered his own question by supposing that it came in from Vancouver Island, and I mumbled something like “I suppose so,” but the fact is I didn’t know. Such are the perils of historical research: there’s always some corner into which one hasn’t peeked.

I was able, however, to tell a little something about the curious name of the ship—HMS Plumper—that carried those 1859 explorers. That curious name had always intrigued me. Had there been a naval hero named Plumper? Well, thanks to a volunteer worker at the Maritime Museum in Victoria, Mike Harrison, I learned that “This is what might be called the ‘aggressive’ type of name, often given to small ships to boost their morale. ‘Plumper’ means a heavy blow, or sudden direct action.” Plumper, by the way, was under the command of Capt. George Richards, after whom Richards Street is named. The man who actually found the coal was his engineer, Francis Brockton, after whom Richards named a point in what is now Stanley Park.

Now please excuse me: I have to go do some research on coal.