History is such a fickle lady, elevating certain stories to levels of yore while others are soon forgotten, lost forever in the ether of time. History can be centered around a tale woven in the fabric of time a millennium ago, or it can share an allegory from recent times. What factors affect those stories remembered versus those lost is just as much an enigma as the heart of these stories themselves.
Today’s post finds us heading back to Newcastle Island, just off the shore of Nanaimo, BC on Vancouver Island. This tiny little island became prominent in recent history in the mid 1800’s with first the discovery of rich coal beds, then followed after by the finding of sandstone deposits. We’re continuing our running photoblog series “Island Hoppin’” by visiting and sharing the story and pictures from the remains of the old sandstone quarry left on the island. Although these events all have occurred within the last 150 or 160 years, they form a rich part of the tapestry of island living, and more specifically a time when colonial settlers were building new communities.
It was a hot summer’s day the day we visited the island, and the gentle breezes coming off the ocean added a touch of coolness to the hot, acrid air. A short wander away from the shore and the bay led to a terrific discovery, that of an old sandstone quarry left here as an exhibit today. The moment you walked away from the bay and the ocean, the air became still, almost motionless. It felt as if we were standing in a blast furnace. The only sounds were those of the crickets, all other animals and beings had long since headed for the cool shade and gentle ocean breezes.
Aboriginal history dates back well over 12,000 years on Vancouver Island. Communities thrived as people had easy access to incredible fish stocks, trees, water and other key natural resources. These lifestyles continued on for thousands and thousands of years until one day a group of European settlers came upon the area. History changed forever.
As Fort Victoria was being founded and formed in the southern part of the island, an appetite for fuel and food became voracious with the new settlers seeking fresh sources of resources. One of the key items that was needed for the machines that were helping to cultivate the land and the steamships that made their way up and down the coast-ways was a healthy supply of rich coal. In 1849 a bed of coal reserves was discovered, which soon led to Newcastle Island becoming a place from which much needed resources and supplies were generated. Soon the island became dotted with tunnels, many of which have collapsed since.
In 1869 the focus turned from coal to sandstone as Joseph Emery from the United States began to search for a suitable sandstone source for the construction of the United States Mint in San Francisco. It was soon discovered, much to the chagrin of local San Francisco residents who put up hurdles due to the fact the sandstone wasn’t originating from the States, that the sandstone found on Newcastle Island was superior to most other veins. Even today, some of the original sandstone architectural details still exist in the Mint, having survived earthquakes, fires and other numerous calamities.
As time progressed and needs changed, the final application of this rich sandstone reserve was focused on the pulp and paper mills that were emerging on the island. And this is where the final chapter for this mining operation came to a close in 1932 as the production operations moved.
As we’ve said countless times before, necessity is the mother of all invention. The complex methods created to extract the mill-stones from the ground required a new machine. Imaginative minds converged with resourcefulness in the design of this piece of machinery that today stands in the park as a connection for visitors to the storied past. Today’s machinery is created with the tightest of tolerances, designed to be efficient and last a long time in a highly volatile environment. In the 1800’s tolerances were a social factor in terms of dealing with friends and neighbors, with no bearing on mechanical engineering at all.
It’s now been well over 100 years since this machine was last used. Today it stands as a testament to early ingenuity and engineering. And it makes for a great site to explore as you try to taste a little of what life was like back then, a hard life full of physical toil and sacrifice. We take much of this for granted these days, and some of the harder edges to these stories are smoothed out until all that really remains is the romantic impression left of the early settlers living a free life while tending to their farms and businesses.
As we walk up the stairs and take one final turn to see the quarry below, the voices and sounds of the workers begin to rise to our ears. It’s a slightly haunting feeling, almost as if we have one foot in today’s world and the other in a time long ago. We feel these connections are important as we try to learn, understand and remember all the events and people that have come before us, forming the communities that we live in today. Communities that we love so much.
Thanks for joining us as we explore another great bit of history here on Vancouver Island. It really means an awful lot to us to have a chance to share this with everyone, we really appreciate you taking the time to visit. We really do love to hear from all our visitors, so please feel free to leave us any comments you may have. Until next time!