Newcastle has a unique story and a bright future

Wed. Apr. 29/15

Newcastle Island has been drawing people to its shores for thousands of years, and the attraction hasn't lessened to this day.

Along with its spectacular natural beauty, the 336-hectare marine park located in the Nanaimo harbour boasts a rich history for both First Nations and Europeans.

Hidden middens offer mute evidence of the long relationship the Snuneymuxw First Nation had with the island, which was a spiritual place that also offered many types of traditional medicines in its many plants and trees that the native people used for healing.

After coal was discovered in this area in 1849, Newcastle Island also hosted many commercial enterprises, including a fish-salting operation, a shipyard, coal mining and a sandstone quarry that was in operation for more than 60 years. Plans are currently underway to develop a business plan for Newcastle island - co-managed by the SFN, the City of Nanaimo and the province - that is expected to roll out in three phases over seven years.

Celestine Aleck is an interpreter for the SFN on the island who has been offering tours of Newcastle during the summer months for the past nine years.

She said she learned much of the native history of the island from her great-grandmother.

"Before Europeans arrived, there were a series of longhouses built from Departure Bay to where Port Place Mall exists today," Aleck said.

"When family members would die, the rest of the family would come to the island so they could mourn in a quiet, spiritual place and fix their minds and bodies. There was only one family allowed to live on the island at a time to keep the beaches clear and prevent over harvesting of the medicinal plants."

Among the many stories Aleck has of Newcastle is the legend that a box of gold and other valuables is buried somewhere on the island.

She said the story is that in the years after coal was first discovered in the Nanaimo area, two Snuneymuxw men were returning to Nanaimo from Vancouver in a war canoe when a number of white men, who carried a small wooden chest that they closely guarded, asked for a lift.

Aleck said the men soon began fighting among themselves which ended up with all of them overboard and drowned.

The Snuneymuxw men returned to Nanaimo and opened the box to see what the fight was all about and found it loaded with gold and valuables.

Aleck said they were afraid they would be blamed for the deaths of the white men and also feared the incident meant the box was bad luck, so they decided to bury it on Newcastle Island, according to the legend.

The peaceful and spiritual nature of the island that was maintained by the First Nation for millennia quickly ended with the arrival of the Europeans, who saw the value of the island's many resources.

Coal was plentiful in Nanaimo as well as Newcastle island and the inevitable mines were dug and excavated for the valuable material.

The island's sandstone quarries were also quickly utilized and the sandstone mined there was used to build such landmark buildings as Christ Church Cathedral in Victoria, the U.S. Mint in San Francisco and the B.C. Penitentiary in New Westminster.

Sandstone cutters were also used to create pulp stones on the island that were shipped and used in paper mills across North America. In 1931, the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company purchased the island and operated it as a pleasure resort, building a dance pavilion - now the visitor center - a teahouse, picnic areas, change houses, a soccer field and a wading pool.

An old ship was also tied to the dock at Mark Bay and served as a floating hotel. Newcastle Island became very popular for company picnics and Sunday outings, with ships from Vancouver bringing as many as 1,500 people at a time until the Second World War saw a dramatic decrease in visitors to the island.

In 1955, Nanaimoites voted more than 60 per cent in favour of purchasing the island for a park and in 1959, by a vote of more than 85 per cent, it was sold to the province for $1 on the condition that it become a provincial park. The establishment of the three-party management team to run the day-to-day affairs of the island in 2007 was the first of its kind in B.C., and now the partners are seeking public input into what people want to see in the park in coming years. Among options that were recently presented at an open house for the first phases of the business plan is the construction of a cultural interpretive centre, more sporting events on the island, more interpretative walks, historical presentations and more food vendors. More public consultations will be held as the business plan progresses.