Celebrating Main Street — Oyster Bay

The shoals and shoreline of Oyster Bay were the original “downtown” in our corner of the world.

If we define main street as the focal point or centre of commercial and social activity in a community, then the shoals and shoreline of Oyster Bay were the original “downtown” in our corner of the world.

Archaeologists estimate that the warm waters and sheltered harbour provided shelter and sustenance for Chemainus First Nations for the last 4,000 to 6,000 years. The Chemainus people have traditionally lived in winter villages located on three sites in the northernmost part of what is referred to as Hul’qumi’num territory: Kulleet Bay, Sibell Bay and in the Coffin Point area. The bay was not only a protected natural harbour but was also very rich in shellfish. The ancestors of the Stz’uminus used a variety of fishing techniques including netting, harpooning, and trolling to bring in the salmon, herring, ling cod, flounder and halibut catch. Seals and porpoises and the tiny eulachon provided a valuable source of oil for food, trade and medicine. An abundance of wood, mainly cedar, provided materials for housing and canoes, and maple and alder were used for smoking fish.

In the spring, fall and summer months, other Hul’qumi’num speaking Coast Salish would come here to trade, socialize and engage in (mostly) friendly competitions, and they continue to do so today. Indian Reserve Commissioner Gilbert Sproat reported in 1877 that the “Sicameen” (thuqmin or “spearing place”) and Oyster Bay (Hunitstun) people were camped on both sides of the Bay, with at least six permanent long houses established at what is commonly known as Shell Beach. Despite the ravages of the second small pox epidemic in 1863, Sproat estimated the native population in Oyster as “more than 800 souls” and reported the natives as being “most friendly, industrious and anxious to trade.”

However, non-native settlers had already begun to homestead in the area. Although Indian Reserves had been created which recognized traditional land use, these lands were often confiscated and given to white settlers because the lands weren’t being “developed” or “used year round” by the Hul’qumi’num bands. This concept of a “town” or one place to live was a difficult concept for many First Nations to understand. As Cowichan elder Angus Smith once explained, “Where you dropped is where you belong. Particular areas were peculiar to certain groups or families, where our ancestors were dropped on earth.”

In the final quarter of the 19th century, the area around Oyster Bay quickly began to fill with European settlers eager to exploit the riches of the north end of the Cowichan Valley. Many saw the area as excellent for fruit growing, and apple, cherry and pear trees were planted extensively south and north of Oyster Bay. Land was also cleared for growing potatoes and other vegetables, as well as grassland for dairy farms and ranching. Several logging camps were established in the surrounding hills by the Victoria Lumber and Manufacturing Company, and timber was cut and boomed in Oyster Harbour to supply the newly-constructed sawmill at Chemainus. European settlers wasted no time in pursuing the same seafood gathering, fishing and hunting activities already well established by the Chemainus Nation.

The major problem for all of this local commerce, however, was getting the products to market. Wagon roads were slowly being constructed to connect small, growing towns like Cobble Hill, Duncan, Chemainus and Cedar, but travel to and from the larger population centres at Nanaimo and Victoria was almost entirely accomplished by boat. Originally established as Hudson’s Bay Company Forts, these two cities were now becoming respectable ports of trade. However, until 1870, there was only a six-foot-wide trail from Cowichan Bay to Esquimalt. Crossing the Malahat by wagon or stage coach was either difficult or impossible, depending on the weather, so settlers relied on scheduled visits by coastal steamers like the original Princess Louise, the Islander and the Beaver.

The transportation problem was remediated in 1884 when James Dunsmuir agreed to construct the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway. By 1886, the railway was completed between these two communities and then extended to Victoria station in 1888. For the first time in Island history, a journey that by wagon road often took four or five days by could now be completed in less than four hours for less than $4.

Many readers will have heard the oft-told tale of Dunsmuir’s quarrel with the New Vancouver Coal Mining and Land Company over right of way for his coal trains that resulted in the construction of Ladysmith. However, you may not be aware that there were several other factors that influenced the coal baron’s decision not to continue to ship coal out of Departure Bay.

Firstly, the surface rights of the land around the pithead at Extension were owned by a man named Bramley, who refused to sell the property to Dunsmuir for $2,000. Bromley decided to lease individual lots to miners instead. Secondly, both the quality and supply of water at Extension was unreliable and the drainage so poor that in 1896, there was a serious danger of a typhoid fever outbreak. Dunsmuir was appalled at the thought of “an unhealthy slum” at his new mine. Thirdly, Dunsmuir was aware of the plan of Tyee Smelter to ship copper ore by train from a point near their Mt. Sicker mine — probably at Oyster Bay. The government was considering a ferry terminal and deep sea port, which was ideal for shipping not only to Vancouver and Victoria, but down the Pacific Coast and to the Orient as well. Oyster Harbour was clearly an excellent choice.

By 1898, the coal wharf and bunkers at Oyster Harbour were completed, and in the following year, the first shipment of coal left Oyster Bay on the steamship Wellington. By 1899, there were 30 buildings completed or under construction at Oyster Bay. In 1900, the first load of crushed ore was shipped from the new coal wharf to Oregon for refining. On shore, a number of miners’ cottages, hotels and businesses had been dismantled in Extension or Wellington and set up in the new community (now named Ladysmith) by the patriotically inspired James Dunsmuir.

The harbour was a busy and noisy place. As you can see from the map below, Oyster (or Ladysmith) Harbour now included a shingle mill, a smelter, a foundry and improved wharfage for fishing boats. Even more significantly, a rail car transfer wharf had been added in 1902, providing the only point on Vancouver Island to offload rail cars from the Mainland directly on to the E & N line. The use of the tug Czar and the rail barge Transfer provided an opportunity for the E & N to offer passenger ferry service directly from Ladysmith to Vancouver for less than $2!

At this point, the new City of Ladysmith has several potential “Main Streets.” The E & N railway itself could be given the title, as it was the quickest and most reliable route to Victoria or Nanaimo, including all points between. It was also the busiest — logs, cut timber, seafood, fruit and cattle could now be shipped to markets in either direction. Ladysmith residents could also take the train to Victoria or the ferry to Vancouver to watch a soccer game or enjoy an evening at the theatre!

However, at the turn of the century, Esplanade Avenue was really Ladysmith’s Main Street. More than 200 miners disembarked daily off the train from Extension, to be greeted by wives and children waiting near the new railway station. Nearby, city residents picked up their mail from a baggage car that served as a temporary post office. (By 1909, a handsome new building took over that function, right next to the “new” City Hall and Library on the Esplanade.) Crossing this broad but unpaved avenue, single miners — after a quick wash up — would enter one of the newly built/relocated hotels that lined the boardwalk for a drink to wash down the coal dust. Others would head straight to their boarding houses for supper, and then collapse wearily in their room for an exhausted sleep.

Crews from the coal and ore ships and fishing boats currently in port could be seen crossing over Esplanade to shop at Leiser & Hambergers, Gardner’s Grocery, or one of the many new businesses lining the avenue Gatacre Street. As rugged logging crews and foundry workers joined the crowd, Hop Lee’s bakery would do a roaring business.

Then again, First Avenue was rapidly becoming the place to shop in Ladysmith. When the Victoria to Nanaimo Road was relocated from behind present-day Sixth Avenue to First in 1902, this long, sloping, muddy byway had begun to emerge as the core of downtown Ladysmith.

In next week’s paper, as part of our celebration of Heritage Week in B.C. and its theme “Main Street: At the Heart of the Community,” we will raise the question: How has your concept of Main Street changed in Ladysmith in the past 12 decades? In the meantime, I hope you will spend at least a part of Heritage Week taking a second look at our lovely little town. Stop by the Ladysmith Museum or the Ladysmith Archives (below Tim Hortons) — and don’t forget “Mr. Ladysmith” Rob Johnson’s free presentation, “If These Walls Could Talk,” at In The Beantime Café. See you there on Wednesday, Feb 18 at 6:30 p.m.! Call 250-245-0100 to pre-register.

Ed Nicholson, Ladysmith Historical Society (With

special thanks to Harald Cowie and Bridget Watson for their kind assistance)