While the rest of the world seems to be getting busier and busier, Newcastle Island is much quieter today than it once was. This might be a surprising notion––the island, sitting just in the Nanaimo harbour and an easy half-hour crossing from the city, is still a popular place to picnic, hike, camp, and even to host special events like wedding receptions. In the early 20th century, however, it was even more of a bustling tourist hub than it is today. While currently the ferry shuttle transports a maximum of 40 passengers at a time, in the earlier part of the 20th century, ships coming all the way from Vancouver would bring up to 1,500 people per trip for Sunday outings, picnics, and general leisure-time enjoyment.
The extreme popularity of the island began in the 1930s, when the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company bought Newcastle in order to open an island resort. The company parked a large old steamship in Mark Bay and turned it into a floating hotel. People came from far and wide to enjoy this quaint little island paradise.
It was with the coming of the Second World War that the island’s booming tourism declined. During this time, many ships were otherwise engaged with wartime jobs, and so there were not enough of them to ferry people to the island in such great numbers. And so Newcastle’s rampant Sunday picnic culture diminished considerably.
The island, of course, was a human destination long before the 1930s. Known as Saysutshun, or “training for running” in the Hul’q’umi’num language, the island was an important place to Coast Salish peoples, specifically the Snuneymuxw people or mustimuxw, prior to European settlement. As the name suggests, the island was a place where Snuneymuxw runners, paddlers, or warriors would train before entering a race or to prepare for war. The island was an important place for gathering food: the Snuneymuxw people lived here during the late winter and early spring for the yearly herring run. The island is also an important spiritual location, as it has abundant traditional medicines that the Snuneymuxw associate with both physical and spiritual healing. Snuneymuxw people would travel here after the death of a loved one in order to mourn and mend their hearts.
Newcastle, or Saysutshun, has changed a lot since the times of these Coast Salish inhabitants and the later hoards of steamship tourists, but it does retain some marks of its previous incarnations. Two middens stand witness to the Salish peoples who lived here long ago. The dance pavilion erected as part of the resort still stands, and it can be rented for events. As of 1961, the island is a provincial park, and it offers spectacular hiking, camping, and general nature enjoyment just a stone’s throw from Nanaimo.