Before I came to Vancouver Island I had always thought that Canada’s West coast had a bit of a bland history, at least in terms of ‘settler’ history. I was a tour guide around Ontario and the Maritimes for over four years and I would always tell visitors that the East was full of history and the West was full of majestic scenery.
After living here for two and a half years and seeing a lot of the local area, I have realised that this side of the country might be young but has much to offer history wise. Unfortunately, most of it is more or less being forgotten.
The ghost town of Bevan
When we first arrived we walked around Vancouver (including the oldest part, Gas Town), visited Victoria and the Legislative building, Empress Hotel, Chinatown and the docks.
The obvious history was all there but by chance, we also ended up in a small hostel just outside of Courtenay (around three hours north of Victoria). Here we began our tour of the forgotten history of Vancouver Island.
Lake Trail Guesthouse is located where the coal mining village of Bevan once thrived; there was a hotel, school and a small Chinatown. Now, there are just two properties and three permanent residents.
Later in our trip, we ended up finding the remains of the old Forbidden Plateau ski resort. Remains of the old lodge and a ski lift is all that’s left of what was at one time a busy ski hill.
Not far away is Cumberland, now a friendly, small town with an alternative side. It was once the home of the second largest Chinatown on the West coast of north America, after San Francisco.
Only a few cemeteries, an old wooden house (lived in until the 1960s) and a great museum are left to remind us of the large and diverse mining community who once lived and worked here.
One of the most amazing pieces of forgotten history for me was probably the remains of the train trestles. We would be canoeing on a lake somewhere around Vancouver Island and in the middle of nowhere we would notice left over railway tracks. Vancouver Island was once covered in railway lines transporting logs and ore.
Luckily for history and anyone who wants to experience this, the Kinsol Trestle, maybe one of the most amazing ones around, was restored by the Provincial government and is now part of the Trans Canada Trail.
Newcastle Island, just off the coast of Nanaimo, was first mined for sandstone before becoming a Canadian Pacific Railway resort in 1931. It had a pavilion (with dance floor), soda foundation, bathhouse and picnic shelters. You can still visit today and enjoy the trails and camping.
History can even be found in the most remote places on Vancouver Island. At the northern tip, Cape Scott Provincial Park also has its own share of history.
Famous for its muddy hikes through the rainforest it’s easy to forget that the trail was first created by two groups of courageous settlers who attempted work the fertile but harsh land around 1890 and 1920.
Foundations of the settler’s houses can be found as well as cooking and building equipment. Near the Lighthouse, the trail follows wooden plank roads, built by the military to reach their secret radar station that was located on the Cape.
The Royston ships
I will finish this tour away from the land, and into the ocean. Looking at a map you will easily find at a glance ship wrecks on most coasts of Vancouver Island.
One of the easiest ways to see some of those wrecks is in Royston, just outside of Courtenay. Several ships were deliberately sunk to build a break water – no tragic story but still interesting to see.
Further north, Ripple Rock was an underwater mountain in an area with strong tidal currents. Being only 2.7 metres below the water at low tide, the rock claimed many lives and boats until it was decided it would be better to blow it up.
The explosion was the biggest non-nuclear explosion ever made. And all that from a place I thought had little history!
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