Nanaimo may now be commonly dubbed “The Harbour City,” but the municipality actually owes much of its history to trains.
The E&N Railway (Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway), which linked Nanaimo to Esquimalt in 1886, allowed the city to expand. Renowned coal baron Robert Dunsmuir, known commonly now as the historic owner of Craigdarroch Castle in Victoria, began construction on the railway in 1884 as a way of transporting coal from the plentiful deposits he discovered in 1869, at Wellington, what was then just north of the municipality of Nanaimo. The Nanaimo coal mines were the first large coal deposits to be found on the west coast of the continent, and so business boomed. People from all over the world, including England, Scotland, Croatia, Finland, Italy, and China, flocked to what would become known as “The Harbour City” in hopes of finding employment and securing a better life. While we now often think of Nanaimo in terms of its ports, it was largely thanks to trains, initially, that the city expanded and flourished.
With construction ending in 1886, the railway was deemed complete when the Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, drove a golden spike into the ground with a silver hammer (the final spike), near Shawnigan Lake. Significantly, this symbolic move also was meant to mark the completion of the government’s commitment to providing a cross-continental railway service (which needed to include Vancouver Island), and therefore the transformation of the colony of British Columbia into a province of Canada.
While the E&N railway initially only ran the 115 kilometres between Esquimalt and Nanaimo, in 1888 it expanded further to connect to Victoria, and the year 1914 saw tracks extending as far as Courtenay. The success of Dunsmuir’s coal mining endeavours led Dunsmuir to eventually expand his operations with the use of steam railways. The city of Nanaimo grew considerably with the expansion of the train system, and this, naturally, encouraged the city’s growth. While the emphasis on coal waned in favour of other resources, such as lumber, the train systems brought in with this early boom contributed significantly towards making Nanaimo the city it is today.