I’ve never really claimed to be much of a history buff, and if you contacted my high school or university history teachers and profs, they would certainly confirm that.
But there is something about Nanaimo that makes me want to learn more about it – about the people who lived here, why they were here, and what they did here. I want to know what has brought Nanaimo to how it is today, and to do that, you have to dig a little.
In May, I had the privilege of researching Nanaimo’s No. 1 Esplanade Mine for a story on the tragic explosion that took the lives of 150 men on May 3, 1887.
While the wounds from that tragedy and many others that took an additional 450 lives in Nanaimo’s mines over half a century of coal mining are only slightly below the city’s surface, both literally and figuratively, the stories and the people who were part of that time in Nanaimo are fascinating.
I attended an intimate ceremony held May 3 just before 6 p.m. at the bottom of Milton Street. The South End Community Association held a short vigil for the No. 1 mine’s workers who were killed 125 years earlier. Sad as it was, it was an interesting glimpse into our past.
Perhaps the best insight into Nanaimo’s past, for me at least, was researching the Nanaimo Community Heritage Register as part of a series the News Bulletin published.
I had no idea Nanaimo had a famous opera house that was considered one of the best on the West Coast. It used to be where the Best Western Dorchester is now, and was the city’s social focal point. Its seating could accommodate about 800 people, and it even hosted the world famous New York Metropolitan Opera.
It was torn down in 1941, but an old photograph on the city’s website taken from Front and Chapel streets shows a bustling town centre, anchored by the facade of the opera house.
I was also intrigued by the old Nanaimo post office, with its late 19th century stonework and arches. It was originally built in 1884 and demolished in the 1950s in favour of the more modern building that resides at 60 Front St. now. Thankfully, someone had the foresight to save Big Frank, the post office’s clock, and put it in the spire at St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church.
One of the most personal insights I came across in my research was learning about life on the five-acre farm at 560 Third St.
For more than 60 years, Frank Armishaw owned and worked on that property, raising his family as well as dairy cows and large gardens. Dorrie Roberts, Armishaw’s middle daughter, explained to me in detail her many years on the farm, how the hard work instilled strong work ethic in her and her siblings, and the nostalgia of the simple, honest life.
As she spoke on the phone, I could picture the hay fields and hear the clinking sounds of her father fixing the tractor. I could also hear her sigh audibly when asked what she thought of the property being paved over for a housing development.
“I would have loved to stay on the farm,” she said.
But discovering these historical anecdotes and records made me realize that Nanaimo is indeed a unique and wonderfully historical place. The people who built this city, the events that happened here and the history that was made is something we should all be very proud of, and eager to share with visitors and newcomers.
Until recently, like the miners who worked underground, Nanaimo has kept its history hidden. I hope that changes.
For Nanaimo to forge ahead into the future, it’s important we know where we came from, and it’s heartening to see some of that history finally being brought to light throughout the community.