This Week in History: the original Nanaimo coal mine application from Robert Dunsmuir

WatchBorn in Scotland in 1825, Robert Dunsmuir made his fortune mining coal on Vancouver Island. And the BC Archives has a file brimming with documents and maps connected to the original mine application.

Born in Scotland in 1825, Robert Dunsmuir made his fortune mining coal on Vancouver Island.   And the BC Archives has a file brimming with documents and maps from the 1870’s, connected to the original mine application.

“The file is the original application of Robert Dunsmuir for a prospecting license in the Wellington area of Nanaimo for his mine, the coal mine that led to all of his fortune,” says Michael Carter,  Government Records Manager at the BC Archives.

Carter notes that it’s remarkable that all these documents are together in one file.

“Normally, in the 1860’s and 70’s, the way that the government kept the records was that each individual document came in, and they filed it as an individual document.  This is an interesting one because it’s an entire file.

“There’s a document in the file from the Surveyor General, in which he’s reporting to the Governor, and he set out the entire history of the Dunsmuir application over the previous year and a half. He cited every single document, which they went through and pulled them all, and brought them together for the Governor to see what had been done over the previous two years” Carter explains.

The application was approved December 4, 1869. And it’s a fascinating file to look through 150 years later.

“The claim,” says Carter “is in the area of Long Lake and Diver Lake in Nanaimo.  The coal mine was landlocked.  Dunsmuir had to get [the coal] to Departure Bay, but there were other settlers in that area, so he asked for a right-of-way through William Hughes’s property, right at Departure Bay.  Of course he got to Departure Bay, where he built a wharf, and that’s where the coal was shipped off to market.

“Throughout the file are applications. He’s got a list of money, all of the expenditures in the first year.  He paid about $6600 in order to hire staff to prospect there, and he only made $1100 dollars, for selling the coal to others.  So, it was a losing proposition at first, but by 1878 this mine was the largest producing mine in British Columbia.”

The file came to the BC Archives from a government records warehouse on Herald Street in Victoria.

“It was a warehouse that the government cleaned out in the late 70’s, early 80’s, and the files in there included a lot of records from Lands Department. We were processing some records that came from that warehouse, and I came across this file” says Carter.

“It’s now available, and we’ve scanned a copy of it, which is going online for researchers to view, and for preservation purposes, so people don’t use the original file.”

Another fascinating piece of BC history, safely stored at the BC Archives.

Veronica CooperVeronica Cooper

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