Where Mountains Meet The Sea: A Coastal History

Posted by Daniel on Apr 25, 2010 - 5 comments

Part Five - The Coast at Mid-Century

In the middle decades of the nineteenth century the economy of the Northwest Coast was in transition. One resource staple, fur, was about to be replaced by others. Coal mines were going into production at Nanaimo, and the logging and fishing industries that would flourish later in the century were not yet established. A tour of the coast at this period reveals an Aboriginal population reeling from successive disease epidemics and a scattered European population just beginning to explore the area’s resource potential. A census at the end of 1854 showed that Vancouver Island had a white population of 774 people. Four years later the gold rush brought its flood of newcomers, but when the flood ebbed and the prospectors went home, the combined colonies were left with only a few thousand white inhabitants and about 1,500 Chinese. At Confederation (1871), seven out of ten British Columbians still were Aboriginal.


Along the coast, this sparse non-Aboriginal population was concentrated in a very few locations. The vast majority lived around the Strait of Georgia. In Burrard Inlet, the future site of Vancouver was unbroken forest except for a small clearing in what is today the city’s West End where three Englishmen--John Morton, Sam Brighouse and William Hailstone, the famous “Three Greenhorns”--began making bricks in 1862. Across the Inlet on the North Shore the Pioneer Mills sawmill went into production in May 1863, creating a focus for the growth of the area’s first white community, Moodyville.


On Vancouver Island, the majority of settlers lived at or within a few kilometres of Fort Victoria. There was a sawmill at Sooke, built by Walter Grant, the colony’s first independent settler, and taken over in 1853 by members of the Muir family, refugees from the failed coal mining experiment at Fort Rupert. By the 1860s there was another sawmill at Mill Bay, operated by William Parsons Sayward, and a scattering of farms owned mainly by former HBC employees and disappointed gold prospectors. In 1862 the British Admiralty decided that Esquimalt would become headquarters of the Royal Navy in the Pacific, leading to the expansion of naval activities there. The only other major community on the Island was Nanaimo, with its population of 150 gathered around the wooden bastion erected by the HBC in 1853 to protect its coal-mining operations. The company continued to manage the mines until it sold them to the Vancouver Coal Mining and Land Company in 1862. At the north end of the Island, Fort Rupert became less important to the company’s overall economic strategy with the closure of its coal operations, but the fort was maintained as a source of shingles and furs.


On the west coast, where the Nuu-chah-nulth had pioneered the sea otter trade, schooners began returning during the 1850s to trade for fish oil, a lubricant in the logging industry. One of these traders was William Eddy Banfield, a former British sailor who built a small cabin in Barkley Sound near the present site of Bamfield (a misspelling of his name) and had himself appointed Indian Agent for the area. He was joined in the Sound in 1860 by Captain Charles Stuart, a trader with the HBC until he was fired for drunkenness and moved to Ucluelet to open his own trading post. It was Banfield who guided the schooner Meg Merrilies to the head of Alberni Inlet in June 1860 with the first contingent of labourers to build a sawmill for Edward Stamp and his London financial backers. Logging commenced that year and by the next summer the Alberni mill was cutting lumber bound for Australia and Great Britain. Banfield died in mysterious circumstances in October 1862--he was probably murdered by a local Nuu-chah-nulth chief--but he was succeeded by other traders who cruised the Island’s west coast, establishing small stores here and there but nothing in the way of a permanent community.


The mainland north of Fort Rupert was almost empty of white settlement at mid-century. Fort McLoughlin at Bella Bella had closed in 1843, though it was replaced in 1850 by a small company store. Otherwise the only activity to disturb the Aboriginal inhabitants was the occasional passage of one of the HBC vessels, or a visit by one of the many illegal liquor traders who plied the coast in their weather-beaten schooners. On the Queen Charlotte Islands, home to the Haida people, a small vein of surficial gold was located in what became known as Gold Harbour in a deep inlet on the west side of Moresby Island in 1851. The discovery bestirred the British to assert their ownership of the islands, but in the end there wasn’t much gold and BC’s first “gold rush” turned out to be a flash in the pan.


Next time: Life at Fort Simpson