HISTORY: Coal brought riches and pioneers to Island

Coal mining attracted hundreds of European miners to Vancouver Island. Many went on to become local pioneers. (Contributed - Sooke Region Museum)

Coal mining attracted hundreds of European miners to Vancouver Island. Many went on to become local pioneers. (Contributed - Sooke Region Museum)

Elida Peers | Contributed

We have noted the extensive deliberations regarding climate change in the last couple of weeks in Glasgow, Scotland. The discussions have included a focus on the use of fossil fuels, and we are drawn to remind ourselves that it was in 1848 that the Hudson’s Bay Company was advertising in the Ayrshire region around Glasgow for coal miners who might be attracted to the new world to mine for coal on Vancouver Island.

It was, in fact, coal, which had lured the John and Ann Muir family of Ayrshire, to journey on the Hudson’s Bay Company vessel Harpooner around Cape Horn and up the coast to Vancouver Island, where they disembarked in Victoria on June 1, 1849.

When the vessel Mary Dare was available to journey further up our coast to Fort Rupert, it carried with them John and Ann and their four sons, all indentured to the Hudson’s Bay Company searching for coal to power the ships and trains which carried the world’s commerce.

As things turned out, the situation at Fort Rupert was difficult, and the Muir family did not enjoy good relations with the HBC. By 1851, John Muir, Sr., had begun taking up land at Sooke and established Woodside, the farm with the distinguished history on West Coast Road.

The Muirs established the lumber industry in the new colony, built their seagoing vessels, and became established as both an industrial and social centre, working alongside the T’Sou-ke Nation.

While the Muir family’s time in the B. C. coal industry was short-lived, a Scots family that soon followed them to B. C. was more intense in the search.

Robert Dunsmuir was driven in his quest for coal and a fortune, and in time Dunsmuir, with his wife Joan, built a coal empire.

While Dunsmuir became the richest man in B. C., much has been written about the contentious labour history of the Island’s coal mining. We are left with the legacies of Craigdarroch Castle, built by Robert, and of Hatley Castle (Royal Roads) built by his eldest son James. The Dunsmuirs built ships as well as did the Sooke Muir family.

It seems ironic that the climate change concerns that we all share, which leaders are now trying to deal with, have this historic industrial connection between the Glasgow area, a centre of the early coal industry, and our Vancouver Island community.


Elida Peers is the historian of the Sooke Region Museum. Email historian@sookeregionmuseum.com.


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