Newcastle Island Marine Provincial Park, Nanaimo, BC, Canada | CruiseBe
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Newcastle Island Marine Provincial Park

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Newcastle Island is a provincial park located on a small island off the coast of Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada.


Newcastle Island has had quite a journey from a seasonal fishing site for the Coast Salish to the beautiful marine park it is today. Each year the Natives would practically pick up their houses and move on, leading the Spanish and Hudson's Bay Company explorers to believe the island was uninhabited. The herring that attracted the Coast Salish were an industry of their own. Several Oriental herring salteries and fisheries were built on the Northwestern coast of the island. A migrating Snuneymuxw pointed out the existence of coal on the island, which produced the industry that would provide work for Nanaimoites for years to come. During the mining for coal, the island's sandstone was found to be exceptional and was sought after for years by different cities, and even different countries. Many different companies from all over fought for leases to cut the Newcastle Island stone. Also wanting the durable stone was an industry entirely different from architecture. It was pulp-stones that were needed up and down the coast to grind up tree fibres into pulp for papermaking and Newcastle sandstone proved to be one of the best. Even with all those different uses of the land, the Canadian Pacific Railway saw the beauty within and bought the island to create their own little island resort. It was then sold, after a decrease in popularity, to the City of Nanaimo who got so far into debt that they sold it to the BC Government, who turned it into a marine park. After years of success as a marine park, we get the lovely, picturesque island that we enjoy today.

Before European discovery

The two Native villages located on Newcastle Island were called Saysetsen and Clotsun. The Snuneymuxw, the Nanaimo branch of the Coast Salish linguistic group, inhabited both. Saysetsen, located on the west side of the island facing nearby Protection Island near Midden Bay, had easy access to the herring that spawned in The Gap during late winter and early spring. To catch the herring, the Snuneymuxw would use a hardwood stick inlaid with sharp whalebone teeth along one side of the stick. By striking this device into the water, they were able to catch ten to twelve fish per try, quickly filling their canoes.

The people of Saysetsen would live on Newcastle from January to April in order to catch the spawning herring before moving on to Gabriola Island where they would stay until early August. Then they would traverse the Strait of Georgia to the mouth of the Fraser River. They would stay there until the end of August to catch the sockeye and humpback salmon before continuing back to Vancouver Island for the chum salmon run. They would then be back on Newcastle Island by January. Not much is known about the other village, Clotsun, except that its name means Protector.

The burial rites of the Snuneymuxw involved the deceased being placed in trees, contrary to popular belief that there were burial chests in the Newcastle caves from this time period. If there were burials in the caves, they are believed to be from the members of other tribes employed in Nanaimo or on Newcastle Island to mine coal.

The discovery of coal

The island is named after the famous mining town of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Northumberland, England when coal was discovered in 1849. Coal was an important commodity in the mid-19th century. The British needed a colony on the west coast of North America to provide good quality coal for their steamships. After a failed mining attempt in Fort Rupert in 1830, Newcastle Island and Nanaimo became honeycombed with mining tunnels.

Nanaimo's very existence could not have happened without the Native chief Che-wech-i-kan. One day in December 1849, while in Fort Victoria getting his gun repaired, Che-wech-i-kan saw the blacksmith using coal in his fire. He told the blacksmith that he knew of a location where coal was in abundance. This information was quickly passed on to Joseph McKay, a company clerk, who investigated the matter. In exchange for a bottle of rum and to have his gun repaired for free, McKay asked Che-wech-i-kan to bring proof of his claim. After months without seeing Che-wech-i-kan again, McKay and Governor James Douglas gave up on him. In April 1850, approximately fifteen months after his initial appearance in this blacksmith's shop, Che-wech-i-kan returned with a canoe full of coal. This coal proved to be superior to the coal being mined at the current site at Fort Rupert. Although Newcastle Island coal was better than that found at Fort Rupert, it was another two years before any coal was mined there in hopes that Fort Rupert's mines would be sufficient. In 1852, a mine was sunk on Newcastle Island and 50 tons of coal was collected in one day. In honour of Che-wech-i-kan's discovery, he earned the name Coal Tyee, meaning Great Coal Chief and McKay Point was named for Joseph McKay because of all the work he did for the island.

The two mines on Newcastle Island were called the Fitzwilliam and the Newcastle mines. The Newcastle Mine was open from 1853–56 and was along the Newcastle seam. The Fitzwilliam Mine was open from 1872–82 and was located along the Douglas seam. Both seams ran across the island and over to Nanaimo or to the nearby islands, like Protection Island.

In the month of September 1852 alone, 480 barrels of coal collected from surface seams were shipped from Newcastle Island to Victoria to make a yearly total of 200 tons. At the beginning, native Snuneymuxw and the miners from Fort Rupert worked the mines but by 1854, miners were coming from England. Miners would work in 14-day shifts, spending their off days in Nanaimo with their families.

In 1862, the Hudson's Bay Company sold their coalfields, including Newcastle Island, to the Vancouver Coal Mining and Land Company right before a series of strikes took place over the poor working conditions of the Nanaimo and Newcastle Island mines. There were no routine checks of the mines and the unskilled labour that was hired created an unsafe working atmosphere. Dead rats rather than canaries told those miners when to abandon the mine. The wages provided by the new Vancouver company were more than a little racist. The wage per day for a white person ranged from $1.75 - $3.75 when those of the Natives were only $1.25 - $1.50 and the Chinese only $1.12. This is a difference of $2.50 between a white person and a person of Chinese descent.

As in all mines, people have died in the Newcastle Island mines. The most famous incident was the gas explosion in the Fitzwilliam Mine on September 15, 1876, where three men lost their lives. This earned the mine the reputation as the first Nanaimo mine to have people die in an explosion. Another accident involved only one life, that was William Beck who died in a mine collapse on June 10, 1874.

The mine tunnel that went beneath the Gap from Newcastle Island to Protection Island has its own little story. Similar tunnels went from Protection Island under the sea between Protection and Gabriola Island. People say that the miners could tell the time by listening to the rumble of the walls as the steamships went by, because each ship had its own distinct sound.

Sandstone and pulp-stone quarrying

Sandstone quarrying began on Newcastle Island in 1869 when Joseph Emery from the United States Mint in San Francisco went looking for good quality sandstone for their new building. Finding the stone on Newcastle to be exactly what he had been looking for, he signed a five-year lease with the Vancouver Coal Mining and Land Company to cut stone for the building. Many Americans were angry that their mint would not be built of American stone and this resulted in the Newcastle Island stone being subjected to a battery of tests, all of which it passed with flying colours. It was an appealing white-grey colour; it was easy to remove large blocks because its joints and fractures were few and far between; and it was strong and held up well against weathering because of its unusually high number of quartz grains. The first shipment to San Francisco occurred in the mid-1870s and continued throughout the five years to make the grand total 8000 tons of sandstone removed from Newcastle Island. This stone made up the six blank columns that were 27 feet 6 inches (8.38 m) long and 3 feet 10 inches (1.17 m) in diameter. The San Francisco Mint has survived two major earthquakes. During one earthquake, surrounding fires got hot enough to melt the windows, but the building's interior stayed intact. The San Francisco Mint is no longer in use and is now a national landmark that can still be seen today.

Originally, there were to be eight columns for the U.S. Mint, but two of them were on the Zephyr on the night that it was shipwrecked. The Zephyr was a three-masted barque that was built in Medford, Massachusetts in 1855. It arrived at Newcastle Island on January 31, 1872, to take two of the eight sandstone pillars to the U.S. Mint in San Francisco. In stormy weather it left from Departure Bay at 10:00 a.m. on February 12, but on that Monday at 3:30 in the morning, it hit bottom at Mayne Island. Captain Hepson and crewmate James Stewart drowned but the rest of the crew made it ashore safely. The Zephyr today is commemorated on Newcastle Island with an exhibit about the ship including one of the pillars that had been rescued from the sunken Zephyr.

After the success of the Mint, many other companies wanted leases to cut stone. It was used until 1932 for places such as the BC Penitentiary, the Nanaimo Post Office, the Nanaimo Court House, the Bank of Montreal, the British North American Bank of Vancouver, the St. John's Church in Victoria, and the Oddfellows Hall in Victoria.

Due to the immense forestry industry on the west coast, there were many mills that were used to produce paper and pulp. The pulp mills needed pulp-stones to grind the woodchips into pulp. That is where the Newcastle Island sandstone comes in. In 1923, the McDonald Cut-Stone Company was created to take advantage of the pulp-stone industry. To cut the stone they would first use plaster of Paris to level the cutting area, then use the cutting machines that would rotate slowly to cut a 40" deep, 54" diameter stone in just 45 minutes. After the circular cut had been made, small charges of gunpowder would be placed in holes drilled at the base of the stone to break it free. A derrick would then lift the free stone before the final cuts were made and a lathe could complete the smoothing process. The finished product would be 18-20" high with a 48" diameter.

This was a successful business until the entire company moved the operations to Gabriola Island in 1932 where it stayed until the industry was taken over by artificial stones. Artificial stones could be made relatively cheaply and would last four to five years in comparison to the sandstone which would only last three to twenty months.

Herring salteries

In the early 20th century, the influence of the Oriental, the majority being Japanese, and their salteries off the coast of Nanaimo was already well established. The major buyers for the salted herring and salmon were from Japan, Hong Kong, and China. Herring season went from December to February every year, but in the 1920s, the season was extended to include September, November, and October. The salmon season began in July and went until mid-August, which worked out well for the saltery owners because they could use the same facilities for both herring and salmon seeing as they could only be caught at different times of the year.

In order to catch the herring, the Japanese had a way of fishing called seining. Seining involved the use of two identical sister ships, one strengthened on the port side and the other on the starboard. They would then surround the school of herring with a net and then close it up.

On July 12, 1912, four of the salteries on Newcastle Island burnt down, totalling over $21,000 worth of damage. The salteries were owned by Mr. Oburi, Mr. Mase, Mr. Shinobu, and Mr. Makino, all of who were issei (first generation Japanese-Canadians). The salteries were quickly rebuilt, but the cause of the fires was unknown and arson was suspected.

In 1918, T. Matsuyama and the Ode brothers got together and started the Nanaimo Shipyards Limited. Nanaimo Shipyards Limited was a shipbuilding and repair shop located on Newcastle Island. The company gained popularity and was growing rapidly. In 1939, the main shed was 24 by 24 ft (0.6 by 0.6 m) and by 1941, the company owned 16 boars and 4.18 acres (17,000 m2) of the island. All this was taken from them in 1941, at the start of World War II, along with Mr. Tanaka's and Mr. Kasho's salteries, when the Japanese-Canadians were sent to the Interior of British Columbia to be placed in internment camps.

Peter Kakua the Kanaka

Kanakas, who were Hawaiian immigrant laborers, worked for the Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company on a term-basis and once their term was completed they were free to go wherever they pleased. Many returned home to Hawaii (then known as the Sandwich Islands), but many also stayed in British Columbia. Peter Kakua was just one of the many who settled down, got married, and had children in B.C.

Peter Kakua started working for the Hudson's Bay Company in 1853 and served in Fort Victoria under Governor James Douglas. After he left his position in the HBC, Peter moved to Nanaimo where he met and married his wife, Que-en, also known as Mary, who was of aboriginal descent. They had a daughter in 1868.

On December 7, 1868, Peter Kakua pleaded guilty to murder. He confessed that Que-en had decided to leave him and take their daughter, so he drowned his sorrow in booze and returned home on the night of December 3 to find her and her family, her mother Sqush-e-lek and her father Shil-at-ti-nord, packing her belongings. He then left the house again and when he returned at two in the morning, he found his father-in-law in bed with Que-en. In a fit of rage, Peter Kakua flailed around the house with an axe, killing everyone including his daughter. Realising what he had done, he went to see his friend Stephany. Peter told Stephany what he had done and said that he should escape to the mainland. Stephany, who was also drunk, did not want to go that far, so they rowed a boat over to what is now Kanaka Bay on Newcastle Island.

There he was found on December 4. He attempted to escape but because of how drunk he was, he tripped and was easily captured. He again tried to escape custody on the boat ride back to Nanaimo when he tried to jump out of the boat and flip it, but he was hit by a paddle and recaptured.

Peter was tried by Joseph Needham, "the hanging judge", on February 10, 1869. The trial concluded on February 10 with the sentence "Peter Kakua we find you guilty as charged of four counts of murder and sentence you to be hanged by the neck until dead". He was hanged on Friday, March 10, 1869, at Gallows Point on Protection Island, right across the Gap from Newcastle. His body was buried in an unmarked grave near Kanaka Bay because the Native people did not want his body in their burial sites and the Europeans did not want it in their cemeteries.

On October 4, 1899, a body was dug up close to Kanaka Bay and it is believed to be Peter Kakua's. Still not having an appropriate place for his interment, they reburied him nearby.

CPR resort

The Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), owned and operated the British Columbia Coast Steamship Service (BCCSS). Their Princess steamships travelled the inland waters and competed with the Union Steamship Company of British Columbia for business. The Union Steamship Co bought 1,000 acres (4.0 km2) of land on Bowen Island for the purpose of a day trip, recreational, fun get-away for the people of Vancouver. It was a great success and the BCCSS followed close in their footsteps. They began looking for possible locations on the islands around Nanaimo, like Taylor Bay on Gabriola Island, but decided on Newcastle Island.

In 1930, the BCCSS bought Newcastle Island from the Western Fuel Corporation of Canada for $30,000. They invested another $100,000 fixing the place up and creating the facilities they wanted. The main attraction was the pavilion. It had a soda fountain and a spring-loaded dance floor. They also built picnic shelters and a bathhouse. They introduced muskrats and beavers to the island for the tourists to watch. By spending $50,000, they built a dock in Mark Bay for their "floating hotels".

The retired steamship, the Charmer, made its 3000th voyage in 1902. It was used as an automobile ferry from Vancouver to Nanaimo until the Princess Elaine took over. It was the first boat used on Newcastle Island as a hotel and the first ship in British Columbia to have electric lights. People would stay there for a week for only $7.50. Other boats, such as the Princess Elizabeth, the Princess Joan, and the Princess Victoria transported people there and back at a cost of $1.35 round trip. The Princess Victoria could make the Vancouver–Nanaimo voyage in 2 hours 19 minutes, which is not much slower than the current BC Ferries' runs. The Princess Victoria was also eventually used as a floating hotel.

The CPR resort on Newcastle Island was a success. It officially opened on Saturday, July 20, 1931, and in just the opening season there were 14,323 visitors to the island, who paid a total of $21,762.35. It was not uncommon to see 1500 picnickers on the island at one time. All this travelling happiness came to an end with the start of World War II because the Princess ships were called into battle and could not be used to transport people to the island.

The Newcastle Island pavilion is the only pavilion of its kind that has survived from the island resort era between the two world wars. It was restored in 1984 and can still be seen and enjoyed on the island today.

Nanaimo Ownership and Selling to the Provincial Government

When the CPR decided that the resort was not making enough money, they asked the City of Nanaimo whether or not they would like to buy the island. The deal went through in 1955 and the island was sold for $150,000. The City of Nanaimo had a hard time maintaining the island and they fell into debt. So on December 17, 1959, the vote "Are you in favour of Newcastle Island being taken over by the Provincial Department of Recreation and Conservation for the dedication and development as a Provincial Park?" occurred and ended with 86.8% 'yes' votes.

The B.C. government agreed to these six conditions:

  1. The island would become a marine park and if it or any part of it stopped being a marine park it shall "revert to the Corporation of the City of Nanaimo".
  2. The government would take possession of the island and its facilities and the responsibilities that go with the possession as of April 1, 1960.
  3. That access by bridge would be provided as soon as possible. Until that time access would be maintained and be equal to or greater than that provided by the City of Nanaimo in 1959.
  4. The government must prepare a master plan for Newcastle Island's development. The City of Nanaimo would get to see this master plan and approve it before it was carried out.
  5. Until the master plan is finished, the facilities must be maintained and operated at a level that is equal to or greater than that provided by the City of Nanaimo.
  6. That the development of Newcastle Island into a marine park would happen as soon as possible and that preliminary development would begin in 1960.

These conditions were agreed upon on October 30, 1959. The park would be sold to the government for $1 plus the mortgage on April 1, 1960.

Development began that year to make Newcastle Island into a class A provincial park. Earle C. Westwood, Minister of Recreation and Conservation, said that Newcastle Island would be the "gem of Vancouver Island" and the "Stanley Park of Vancouver Island". Although the government did try to fulfill all their agreements, correspondence between the Minister of Recreation and Conservation and Nanaimoite Alderman R. A. Brookbank show that the master plan, outlined in both points 4 and 5, had not been created. Later, after the park had been assigned to the Department of Lands, Parks and Housing rather than the Ministry of Recreation and Conservation, Mr. Brookbank still sent letters to the Deputy Minister of that department, Chris Grey, to which he replied that the plan would take a year to complete. This is the same answer Alderman received from Westwood twenty years before. It is unknown whether or not a master plan was ever devised by the BC government.

In May 1983, the City of Nanaimo Ad Hoc Committee made their own plan. Their goals were "to provide the people of BC and particularly the Nanaimo area, a range of year-round recreation, historic, and natural history opportunities" and "to protect and develop the ability of the natural and cultural resources of the park to provide such opportunities in perpetuity." Many of this committee's ideas and suggestions were carried out but some were not. There has never been sport fishing on Mallard Lake and there has never been a designated volleyball area. The committee also addressed the issue of the bridge. They felt that a bridge would not meet the park's objectives and would generally be a bad idea.

Current uses

Currently, no one except park authorities live on Newcastle Island. The original First Nations peoples who inhabited the island left in 1849 when the Hudson's Bay Company started opening up coal mines. The park has become an extremely popular tourist spot that now caters to hikers, campers, bird watchers, and kayakers alike. Cars are prohibited on the island. There is no man-made bridge connecting Newcastle Island to any other land, but in the summer at low tide, you can walk across the narrow straits separating it from Protection Island, barely getting your feet wet.

Walk in campsites are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Mooring buoys are available (no reservations), but many boating visitors simply anchor in the area between Newcastle Island and Protection Island. An exceptionally lucky visitor might find space at the dock to tie up. A fee is charged for camping, mooring to a buoy, and overnight use of the dock.


There are two ways to get onto the island. The most common and convenient is to take a short 10-minute foot-passenger-only ferry from downtown Nanaimo at Maffeo-Sutton Park. This ferry only runs during the summer months. The second way is to take your own boat/kayak/canoe over.

Mallard Lake

Since Newcastle Island was originally a resourced-based commercial island with a population of people living there, they needed a water supply. Mallard Lake, near the centre of the island, is an artificial lake that was created for the purpose of being a reservoir. Today no longer a reservoir, it is now a wildlife sanctuary. Bird watching is one of the most popular activities on the island and Mallard Lake is a great place for that. Cars are prohibited on the island.

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