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Black Diamond City: Nanaimo- The Victorian Era

Hub City: Nanaimo, 1886-1920

By Jan Peterson

Review By Patrick A. Dunae

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 144 Winter 2004-2005  | p. 133-5

NANAIMO is A blue-collar community, but lately it’s been wearing a tie. Traditionally a tough-guy town, Nanaimo is projecting a kinder image to the world. The erstwhile Hub City (so-called because of the radial pattern of its streets) today promotes itself to tourists, investors, and retirees as the Harbour City – a name that suggests a cosmopolitan community on the ocean’s edge. This city, built on grimy coal mines and belching wood mills, is looking for a cleaner, sweeter future. But Nanaimo is fascinated by its sooty past. The downtown core is dotted with historical plaques, cairns, and markers commemorating coal-mining days. Nanaimo supports several coal heritage societies. It has a vibrant museum, with engaging exhibits of industrial artifacts and a first-rate community archives. The library contains the finest collection of Pacific Northwest historical material outside the provincial archives. So, this is a city that likes history. And it’s a city that likes to tell its story. In the last thirty years, the history of Nanaimo has been recounted many times, in myriad ways. Its history has been told not only in books, articles, and newspaper columns but also in poems, films, and dramatic productions. Relative to its size, Nanaimo may be the best documented city in the province.

Nanaimo’s bibliography was augmented recently by Jan Peterson. As she demonstrated in her highly acclaimed books on Port Alberni, Peterson has a keen eye and good nose for local history. (She has been honoured twice by the British Columbia Historical Federation for her historical writing.) Upon retiring to the Harbour City, Peterson turned her writing and research skills to producing a historical trilogy on the Nanaimo region. The first two volumes are now available. Black Diamond City (2002) touches on the precontact period and includes a brief chapter on the Snuneymuxw, the Aboriginal people whose territory straddles Nanaimo harbour. The Spanish are also mentioned. Captains Galiano and Valdes, who were attached to Alexandro Malaspina’s scientific exploring expedition, visited the area in 1792 and identified it as Bocas de Winthuysen on their charts. But Black Diamond City is principally framed by two dates: 1852, when the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) established a coal-mining settlement called Colvile Town; and 1886, when the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway was completed. The second volume, Hub City (2003), takes the story up to the end of the First World War. 

The author’s intention is to narrate “stories that link the past with the present” (Hub City, 5). Accordingly, she selects stories that will engage general readers, especially local residents. In Black Diamond City she recounts the story of Ki-et-sa-kun, the Snuneymuxw man who alerted the HBC to coal outcroppings on Nanaimo harbour. She describes how a stout octagon-shaped structure known as the Bastion was built in 1853. She recalls the appalling conditions endured by British settler families who travelled to the colony aboard the Princess Royal in 1854. Local readers can relate to these stories because they are part of the fabric of this community. Princess Royal Day is celebrated every year on 27 November in Nanaimo with a ceremony held near the settlers’ original landing site, a place called Pioneer Rock. Ki-et-sa-kun, known to local folklore as Coal Tyee, is commemorated in a prominently sited bronze bust and a newly built elementary school. The Bastion, one of the only fur trade era bastions in existence, is the corporate symbol of the City of Nanaimo. 

Local readers will recognize many of the leading citizens who feature in the two volumes. There are, of course, the Dunsmuirs – father Robert, son James, and the pretty daughters. (Dunsmuir Street runs behind Nanaimo City Hall and in front of the large bingo hall called Dunsmuir Palace.) There are many references to Mark Bate, longtime mayor and patron of Nanaimo’s celebrated Silver Cornet Band. (The band is still active and a bronze bust of the former mayor sits downtown in Mark Bate Memorial Tree Plaza.) Nanaimo’s ethnic communities and the contributions of immigrants from China, Finland, Italy, and Croatia are described. As might be expected, both volumes deal extensively with the coal mines of Nanaimo and nearby Wellington. But other commercial activities – ship-building, whaling, brewing, cigar-making, fishing, and logging – are also described. The author acknowledges industrial strife and the gruesome death rates in the mines. (An appendix to Hub City contains the names of nearly 300 men killed in the coal mines between 1879 and 1920. The descendants of many victims live in Nanaimo today.) But this is not a gloomy or melancholy narrative; rather, it is a chronicle of social diversity and community resilience. 

Promotional blurbs from the publisher promise a “Fact-Packed Nanaimo History.” The books deliver on this promise. Jan Peterson has mined the rich seams of the local museum and archives and has unearthed carloads of historical material (metaphor intended!). She has consulted many secondary works, as is evident from the bibliographies that accompany each volume. However, these fact-packed books may disappoint some readers of BC Studies. The books are long on action but short on analysis. There is no synthesis of the extensive literature on Nanaimo, no commentary on current research (John Belshaw’s work is not mentioned or cited), no suggestions for new lines of enquiry. But possibly the author intends to offer a critical perspective on Nanaimo’s history and historians in the final volume of the trilogy. If so, we look forward to it. It would be an opportunity to reconsider entrepreneurs like furniture manufacturer John Hilbert and sawmill owner Arthur Haslam. Since these men looked to Vancouver for leadership, the author may want to look at recent scholarship on Vancouver’s business elite. Similarly, she may want to place the labour movement in Nanaimo within a broader context. Were union activists in Black Diamond City different from their comrades in roaring towns like Rossland? And what about the character of modern-day Nanaimo? Is the tough-guy personality a legacy of 100 years of labour strife? Is the community still smarting from capitalists who left slagheaps on the waterfront and built castles in Victoria? These are compelling questions and, with her formidable knowledge of Nanaimo history, Jan Peterson might consider them in her concluding volume. 

On a more prosaic note, Volume 3 would be a good place to install conventional endnotes instead of the quirky and cryptic citations that appear in the first two volumes. Also, the publisher, Heritage House, should hire a copy editor and proofreader to oversee the bibliography in the new volume. The bibliographies in these volumes contain many errors and inconsistencies. 

Still, these are attractive and appealing books. The cover of Black Diamond City features a hand-tinted photograph, circa 1890, of the Bastion and Nanaimo harbour. Hub City features a 1984 painting by Paul Gagnon, depicting Commercial Inlet, circa 1910. The first volume contains charming line drawings by the author, and both volumes are illustrated with interesting, well placed, and well captioned historical photographs. Both books are indexed, and both are informative, entertaining, and well written. And they are popular: according to Nanaimo’s leading bookseller, P.B. Cruise, they are selling at an extraordinary rate. No surprise there: the people of Nanaimo have a big appetite for history and Jan Peterson has put two delectable dishes on the table. A third dish is on the way.