The Nanaimo Bastion


Nanaimo Bastion, 2007

Over 150 years after a native chief first spilled the secret about his “black burning stones”, Nanaimo’s original three-storey bastion is celebrated as the city’s most famous landmark and the oldest free-standing HBC fort in North America.


The discovery of coal at Nanaimo coincided with a decline in HBC’s operations on Vancouver Island, a trend marked by the Company’s inability to fulfill its colonial obligations, the failure of earlier mining attempts at Fort Rupert, and the threat of American expansion. The success of coal mining at Nanaimo would reverse HBC’s economic fortunes.

Coal had been mined as early as 1835 at the island’s northeastern end where HBC later established Fort Rupert. While timber provided an abundant supply of fuel, blacksmiths required smithery coal, a highly expensive import from England. The replacement of sail by steam as well as the California boom created new demand and markets for coal.

One day in December, 1849, the Snuneymuxw chief Chewichikan was watching an HBC blacksmith at Fort Victoria repair his gun when he noticed the man toss coal on the fire. When the native asked the blacksmith where he obtained his coal, he was told it was shipped from England. The elderly chief was amused and commented it was silly to bring black stones from so far away when there was plenty where he lived. Company authorities offered Chewichikan free repair of his gun and a bottle of rum if he brought samples of the “stones that burned”. The following spring, Chewichikan returned in a canoe brimming with quality coal. The chief received his reward as well as a new nickname: “Coal Tyee” or “The Coal Chief”.

James Douglas, Chief Factor at Fort Victoria, immediately ordered clerk Joseph W. McKay to follow up. In early May, McKay led a prospecting party with Coal Tyee to an area known as Wentuhuysen Inlet on the shores of Nanaimo Harbour. There McKay discovered the Douglas Vein: three coal outcroppings at Nanaimo Harbour, Newcastle Island and Commercial Inlet. The strike would yield millions of tons of quality coal over the next 28 years.


But during the summer of 1850, Nanaimo was temporarily forgotten in the face of troubles at Fort Rupert. HBC had recruited expert miners and their families on three-year contracts from the Orkney Islands and the county of Ayrshire in Scotland. Among the first miners was John Muir, 49, hired as mine manager. When the miners arrived to find no working mine, inferior coal, food shortages, and danger from warring native tribes, their unhappiness escalated into a strike. Fort Rupert’s mines were eventually abandoned after many miners breached their contracts and fled to the California gold fields. Those few that remained moved to Fort Victoria.

In 1852 Douglas visited Nanaimo to explore McKay’s coal discovery. He was exhilarated when he returned and ordered McKay to “proceed with all possible diligence to Wentuhuysen Inlet” to claim possession of the coal beds for HBC.


Nanaimo, the Coaling Station at Vancouver Island, 1859

Edward Panter-Downes, Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1997-15-1

A small contingent left Fort Victoria aboard the Cadboro. Aboard was Muir, who was again appointed manager when the brig arrived September 6th. Meanwhile, McKay supervised the construction of seven log huts roofed with bark for the families on the Nanaimo waterfront while HBC opened a trading store and built loading docks. Only 4 days later, on September 10, 1852, the first 480 tons of Nanaimo coal was loaded on the Cadboro and shipped to Victoria. Most of the coal was stripped from surface seams and loaded by the Snuneymuxw who were paid a two and a half point blanket and other goods for twenty barrels of coal.


The peaceful Snuneymuxw were eager to help HBC, but the newcomers were unnerved by raiding parties of enemy tribes, especially the Haida to the north. Douglas instructed McKay to build a bastion as a refuge for the workers. Construction began February 3, 1853. The builders, aided by a group of Snuneymuxw, hand cut logs, using axes and adzes to hew the 16-foot timbers. The timbers of the octagonal, 36-foot-high bastion were secured with wooden pegs using a method honed by French Canadians called “poteau-sur-sole”.

The roof was made of clay reinforced with cedar bark and painted with lime concocted from clamshells. Later it was refurbished with handmade cedar shingles. The bastion's eight openings were covered by heavy shutters made of two-inch planking. Long-barreled rifles could be fired through slits above the openings. A single entrance on the main floor was covered by a massive plank door on heavy hinges. A bell hung above the main entrance.


HBC used the first floor as an office and store; later it would serve for a short time as Nanaimo's jailhouse. The second floor was the defense arsenal. It stored grapeshot and canister while trap doors on the building’s sides concealed two six-pound cannon. The guns were used primarily for firing salutes or to announce the arrival of Governor Douglas. Occasionally the cannon were fired into the forest across the harbour to intimidate the First Nations or, in emergencies, to prevent fighting between warring tribes. The largest level on the third floor sheltered settlers and offered a vantage point to fire down upon foes. The bastion was finished in 1854.


Nanaimo, 1876

Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1993-346-4

That November another 27 mining families from England arrived aboard the Princess Royal. The community that mushroomed around the bastion was known as Colville until 1860 when it was renamed Nanaimo, which means “gathering place” in the local native dialect. By 1874, the town had 1,000 residents. HBC operated the mines for nine years as the Nanaimo Coal Company, finally selling the operations in 1862 to a British firm, Vancouver Coal Mining and Land Company, for $40,000. By that time 55,000 tons of coal had been mined, an amount doubled by 1866.


In 1891, the Bastion was moved across the street and in 1974 it was relocated to its present location. The first move was at the request of the owner who bought the land; the second was when Front Street was widened. With a true pioneering spirit, Nanaimo residents banded together to move the Bastion when it was threatened with demolition. Designated a Municipal Heritage Building December 2, 1985, the Bastion is the oldest building in Nanaimo and the oldest surviving HBC building of its type in North America. The Nanaimo Museum now manages this unique museum.