A carved, gilded, wooden beaver, teeth bared in a vicious grimace, is posed with a small ship’s bell and the glass cover from a ship’s navigation light in one of Nanaimo Museum’s exhibit cases.
The fierce-looking “beaver,” explains Aimee Greenaway, museum curator, dates back to 1891. It’s from the wheelhouse of the steam tug, Estelle, owned by Andrew Haslam, and towed supplies to logging camps on the coast until February 1894 when it sank off Cape Mudge near Campbell River. All eight crew aboard died, but the ‘beaver’ – its tail, which could put to rest the notion it’s not really an otter, is missing – is just one among dozens of artifacts with bizarre tales still clinging to them in the museum’s Nanaimo Mysteries exhibit.
The exhibit’s items come laced with local lore, from Brother XII’s Underwood adding machine to American criminal Harry Wagner’s – also known as the Flying Dutchman – .38-calibre Smith and Wesson revolver and holster, lying alongside a section of the rope he was hanged with after he shot and killed Const. Henry Westaway during a robbery attempt in Union Bay in 1913.
“He was the last public hanging in Nanaimo…” Greenway said, adding that the piece of heavy hemp rope was a souvenir from the hanging. “You could buy them from the hangman.”
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Greenaway explained there are a few layers to the exhibit from displays concerning murders and other crimes – some of which remain unsolved after decades – to artifacts representing unexplained phenomena, tales of the supernatural and things that no one can tell for sure where they came from or why and how they came to be where they were found, such as the Japanese samurai sword discovered in the ground during a construction project in downtown Nanaimo in the late 1800s.
“When they dug up the area that was going to become a street they found a samurai sword and that’s the story that this sword came into the collection with, that it’s this strange sword buried under the ground, so that’s a mystery,” Greenaway said.
Most of the displays are interactive and labelled with both the “artifiction” and “artifacts” that can be verified about about the items, such as the samurai sword.
“Some of [the artifacts] have crazy stories in their own right and their stories actually look like they’re going to be the artifiction, but they’re real,” she said.
For those who want to sleuth out more details about crime cases, the museum has even set up a police chief’s desk complete with case files and other tools of the trade.
“So if you’re the person who really wants to know more about what’s going on with whatever topic, you can flip through and actually look at photocopies of archival documents that will give you more background,” Greenaway said.
The exhibit is an opportunity for visitors to view items that have never before been put on display, including a whaler’s try pot used to render the oil from whale blubber at a whaling station that once operated at Pipers Lagoon.
“It was a really big operation,” Greenaway said. “A mystery about it is the people that do know about it always ask why did it operate for such a short amount of time. It only operated for a year or two.”
The museum has also set aside a special place for visitors who have ghostly tales of their own to jot down and leave on display.
“I’m excited because there’s so many different layers to [the exhibit] and I hope that really works for people,” Greenaway said.
Nanaimo Mysteries opens Saturday, Feb. 16, and runs until Labour Day, Sept. 2., during regular museum hours.
To learn more, visit http://nanaimomuseum.ca.