LOCATION - History
The beautiful bay, forested hillside and the bounty of fish, seafood, forest creatures and plants both offer is all part of the traditional territory of the Pentlatch People. A Salish-speaking First Nations who inhabited the east coast of Vancouver Island from the Kye Bay area on the Comox Peninsula to around Parksville, the Pentlatch had permanent and seasonal villages that they used for fishing, hunting and food gathering.
But life wasn’t always idyllic. Pentlatch villages were often raided by ferocious tribes living on north and west Vancouver Island and the arrival of European settlers brought small pox and other diseases. Decimated by warfare and illness, the small group of remaining Pentlatch joined their neighbours, the Comox (K’omoks) People. Although the last full-blooded Pentlatch, Chief Nim Nim, died in 1940, the tribes’ name lives on in the Puntledge River, the Puntledge Indian Reserve and several K’omoks Band businesses.
It wasn’t until 1862 that the first major group of settlers moved to the Comox Valley. Most pre-empted land near Comox and the Tsolum River at what was called the “Prairies.” But a decade later coal was discovered and the town of Union (Cumberland) was born.
Union Bay, established as Union Wharf in 1887, owes its prominence in B.C. history to its role as a major deep-sea shipping port for the coal mined in Cumberland. A railway was laid between the two communities and an 18.5 metre high wharf – large enough to hold a locomotive and train of coal cars and allow several ships to load at once – was constructed out over Union Bay.
Nearby, a four-storey washer powered by water from Washer (Hart) Creek processed up to 600 tons of coal in a 10-hour shift and 200 ovens ran 24-hours a day converting coal into coke, the high-grade fuel much in demand by West Coast smelters.
A community of around 10,000 grew up around the wharf to support all the industrial activity. Life revolved around the sound of the work whistle and visits to the post office, hotel and Fraser and Bishop Store. Easy access from the water and large amounts of cash on hand made the store a frequent target for robbers. When caught in the act, Henry Wagner, a notorious felon known as the Flying Dutchman, murdered a policeman and was later hanged.
At that time Union Bay also had a large Chinese community. These hard working men usually found employment as ship trimmers, a dangerous and unpleasant job that involved making sure coal was loaded evenly in each vessel. Most of the men lived in bunkhouses where the main floor often served as an opium and gambling den. Gardening was a favourite pastime and a way to earn some extra money.
In its heyday, some claimed Union Bay was the best loading port in the world. The wharf remained extremely busy throughout both World Wars as many ships made Union Bay their port of call to fill their bunkers with coal before crossing the Pacific. But following the Second World War, when oil became the fuel of choice, the Union Bay coal facilities were closed and eventually dismantled.
A few remnants of Union Bay’s past remain today. These include a school and tiny goal house, as well as the United Church and post office, which still serve their original purposes.