In 1889 Robert Dunsmuir’s Union Colliery Co. opened a railway link from the Cumberland coal deposits to Union Bay’s deep-water bay. The coal was converted to high quality coke in two rows of fifty beehive airless coke ovens. The 490-metre (1,600 ft) principal wharf could load four colliers simultaneously. A second wharf handled general freight. Bunker coal was highly sought after all the way to Japan and China. It’s main customers were ships that used it as fuel for the passage to Southeast Asia. They also supplied the British and Canadian navies and government coastal patrol boats. Russian, American and Canadian sealing and whaling ships often stopped in Union Bay. During the two world wars Union Bay made a significant contribution in supplying fuel for allied freighters. The ovens closed down in 1922. The long abandoned wharf was demolished in 1966.
Across from the town and along the sea shore is a hiking path that will take you into the past. After strolling along the remains of the old dock you come to the coal hills. This is the place where coal from the mines in Cumberland was “washed” using water from Washer Creek. The waste material formed the coal hills. This area is considered to be one of the top toxic sites in British Columbia because of the high Sulphur content from the process of leaching the coal. It looks like a disaster area in places with barren black hills and scrubby pines trying to exist in the toxic soil. But as you look out past Tree Island you can see the beautiful snow topped Coastal Mountains of the mainland.
Through the decades, the people of Union Bay have been known for their hospitality. Today the town is home to about 1200 people. The Union Bay Historical Society, formed in 1989, bought, restored, and now operates the post office and the former gaol house. The Union Bay United Church is still used for Sunday services. If you are camping or you just don’t feel like cooking tonight try the take-home shepherd’s pie or lasagna at the Union Bay Market.
One of the darker stories associated with Cumberland and Union Bay was the role of the Chinese and Japanese laborers brought over to work the coal mines. Even though this is often viewed as a tragic moment in the history of this area it has to be looked at in historical context. The Chinese empire was falling apart after the Opium Wars and Boxer Rebellion. There were civil wars and people who were driven off the land came to the cities looking for work. In Japan a massive industrial revolution was underway driving people off the land and into the cities. There was no such thing as a safety net in those days anywhere in the world. Social programs did not exist. Many of these people were starving or basically working as slaves to provide food for their families. They were brought to Canada to work the mines at half the pay given white workers. Yes, they were being taken advantage of but to these men and their families this was a life saving opportunity. It must also be remembered that life wasn’t great for the common laborer either as the companies and the government stacked the deck against workers and unions. One of the tasks given to the Japanese and Chinese workers was something no white man would do – stoke the Beehive ovens.
Ode to Progress
Human lives spent, lungs corroded, breath hard to breathe
the yellow fumes from the ovens stealing yellow breath
from just a foreigner, a yellow man with a yellow face
forced to a life filled with pain ending in an untimely death,
a foreign body planted in the hard cold ground without a trace.
Those were the ways of the days faced by working men.
The coal miner, a white young man with a coal black face,
an exhausted logger sweat pouring from a troubled brow
knowing that his heart has to beat with a two-fast pace
to put bread on the table in the only way he knew how.
The men of the sea going out on stormy days
filling furnaces with coal to heat boilers with steam
that make the wheels turn and the propellers rotate
so that the rich and mighty can live their dream
to bring into reality what their minds could create.
Those were just the day, the days of yesterday,
when things were just the way they were,
and life just went on just the way it had to be
so that backs could break and hearts could stir
and a new nation of hope could become a reality.
So they lived, worked, prayed, laughed and had their being
offering their heart and soul for Canada’s new dominion
battling the unknown enemy with his friends by his side
sacrificing his body to create a home for wife and children
a better tomorrow where his sons and daughters could abide.