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Harbour City: Nanaimo in Transition, 1920-1967

By Jan Peterson

Review By Patrick Dunae

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 156-157 Winter-Spring 2007-2008  | p. 193-5

Nanaimo is a perplexing place for a historian. The city’s elected officials and first Nations leaders often disregard and frequently disdain historical structures. Recently, two buildings that had been listed on the city’s heritage register were demolished without any public discussion. City Hall allowed a developer to demolish the former Crace Street school (1873), the second oldest school house in the province. Upon receiving a parcel of land in a transfer agreement from the Nanaimo Port Authority, the Snuneymuxw first Nation speedily demolished Nanaimo’s oldest industrial site, a foundry built in 1881. A spokeswoman for the Snuneymuxw justified the destruction by saying the building had no historical value to Nanaimo’s Aboriginal community, even though many Native men were employed in the foundry in the last century. Readers of this journal can probably offer other examples of historical vandalism in “the Harbour City,” as Nanaimo is now called for promotional purposes. And yet historical books about Nanaimo continue to be written. Books by Jan Peterson are the most popular.

This is the third in a trilogy of books by Peterson on Nanaimo. The first, Black Diamond City: Nanaimo – The Victorian Era, was published in 2002; the second, Hub City: Nanaimo 1886-1920, appeared in 2003. I reviewed the two volumes in BC Studies 144 (Winter 2004/05). While I enjoyed the author’s narrative and applauded her research, I thought the books needed more analysis and suggested that, in the concluding volume, she might consider some historical themes and trends. Specifically, I raised questions about the “tough-guy” character of Nanaimo. Can we attribute the glowering persona of Nanaimo to historical circumstances? Is the city still smarting from capitalists like Robert Dunsmuir, who left slag heaps near Nanaimo and built castles in Victoria? Is Nanaimo’s “hard-man” personality a legacy of the once-militant labour movement? The author is silent on these questions. Still, she has provided lots of new information about Nanaimo in this book.

She begins by evoking the sounds of the city: “The rhythm of the day in Nanaimo was set by mine whistles and by the chimes of ‘Big Frank,’ the Dominion Post Office clock … Ship horns, foghorns, and ferry engines broke the silence of an early morning or late evening” (11). She refers to the sounds of railway locomotives, airplanes, automobiles, and radio transmitters. Nanaimo was one of the first cities in British Columbia to have a commercial radio station. Staying with her theme, she recalls the musical sounds of the bands and orchestras that played in the city’s most popular dance hall, the Pygmy Pavilion. Other sounds, including the cheers of spectators at the Central Sports Ground, are evoked in the opening chapter, entitled “The Roaring Twenties.”

In following chapters, Peterson provides vignettes of politicians such as George S. Pearson, a Liberal mla and cabinet minister who represented Nanaimo for nearly twenty-five years (1928-52); poets, notably Audrey Alexandra Brown, author of A Dryad in Nanaimo (1931); and entrepreneurs like Sam Madill, a blacksmith who invented mobile spars and hydraulic yarders used by logging operations worldwide. The author devotes several pages to the enigmatic cult leader, Brother xii, who established a commune near Nanaimo in the late 1920s.

Some chapters are devoted to themes such as education and health care; others are devoted to eras. The era of the Second World War receives the most extensive treatment, as Peterson notes that nearly eleven thousand soldiers trained at Camp Nanaimo during the war. In some years, the population of the army camp was larger than that of the civilian population. While Peterson’s coverage of the home front is thorough, she neglects to mention that many soldiers stationed in Nanaimo were conscripts from Quebec. These men were vilified as “zombies” by Nanaimo residents whose family members had enlisted voluntarily. When the soldiers marched down Front Street after V-J Day in 1945 they were jeered, not cheered.

The most sparkling chapter is entitled “The Fabulous fifties.” Here Peterson conveys the spirit of prosperity and optimism that characterized Nanaimo in the 1950s. This was the decade when the massive Harmac pulp mill opened, providing employment to nearly one thousand men; when the most glamorous woman in the Commonwealth, HRH the Princess Margaret, visited Nanaimo to help citizens celebrate the 1958 centennial. Her task there was to cut the world’s largest birthday cake. The book concludes in another centennial year, 1967, with a description of the opening of the Nanaimo Centennial Museum. The museum building, located on top of a promontory called Piper’s Park, was strikingly modern at the time. Its octagon design was intended to echo the design of the city’s oldest building, the Hudson’s Bay Company Bastion (1853). The author alludes to that structure in the final sentence of the book, which appears in a two-page epilogue that takes the narrative up to the year 2006: “As the city looks to the future, the old … Bastion still stands on Front Street as a silent reminder of Nanaimo’s humble past” (205).

The concluding line does not do justice to the city’s history or to this book. Nanaimo’s history is sometimes depressing, occasionally exhilarating, but it is not “humble.” Paterson has chronicled the evolution of the city during the twentieth century in a lively and entertaining way. Using material from the Nanaimo Community Archives, she offers new and original perspectives on Nanaimo’s past, though she does not probe very deeply into historical eras or events. Moreover, she exaggerates the importance of Nanaimo’s flamboyant mayor and real estate developer, Frank Ney, and overlooks the more laudable achievements of Rod Glenn. A director of the Nanaimo Credit Union, one of the first such institutions in British Columbia, Glenn was a much respected figure in the international cooperative movement. But Ney, who inaugurated races from Nanaimo to Vancouver in motorized bathtubs and bestowed names like Captain Kidd’s Terrace and Friar Tuck Way on the streets of Nanaimo, certainly deserves a place in this book. And certainly Harbour City deserves a place on the bookshelves of urban historians and heritage enthusiasts, who will be able to see from its many illustrations Nanaimo’s lost landscapes. The Malaspina Hotel, once adorned by murals by the celebrated artist E.J. Hughes, a Nanaimo boy; the Civic Arena, home of the formidable Nanaimo Clippers hockey team; and the Edwardian-era theatres and stores on Commercial Street, depicted in an evocative 1950s photograph (171) – all these building have been demolished in the last five years. At the time of writing, the 1967 Centennial Museum building was also slated for demolition. Thanks to this book, we have a record of what those places looked like and how they served Nanaimo, a city still in transition.