Coal tycoon Robert Dunsmuir came from Scotland to Fort Rupert in 1851.

Coal lured industrialist to North Island

The history of one of the richest and most well-known industrialists in the history of Vancouver Island, Robert Dunsmuir.

North Islanders might not be aware that one of the richest and most well-known industrialists in the history of Vancouver Island was lured to Fort Rupert from Scotland, when he was hired by the Hudsons Bay Company (HBC) to mine coal.

Robert Dunsmuir was born in 1825. His grandfather had success buying up coal mines in Scotland at the time of the advent of the steam engine and for a short while the family prospered, until most of Dunsmuir’s immediate family died in 1832, most likely of cholera. Dunsmuir became a ward of his aunt in his youth, and went to school to train to carry on in the family occupation of coal mining.

In 1850 Dunsmuir was newly married when his uncle, Boyd Gilmour, signed on with the HBC to manage mining operations at Fort Rupert. When a number of the original miners backed out of their contracts following communication from Fort Rupert about the poor working conditions and hostile First Nations, Dunsmuir signed on at the last minute. He took his wife and two young daughters with him on the voyage by ship around Cape Horn (the tip of South America), landing at Fort Rupert in August, 1851. Along the way a son had been born at Fort Vancouver along the Columbia River, who was named James Dunsmuir.

At this time miners were indentured to their employer for the cost of their passage, which meant that they were not free to leave employment with the HBC until their contract was complete. The miners’ contracts were a combination of basic wages, and bonuses based on the amount of coal produced.

A previous group of miners, largely members of John Muir’s extended family, had previously staged a strike at Fort Rupert, deserted, were recaptured, and held in the bastion of the Fort after they complained about their working conditions. They said they were unable to find any viable coal worth mining. When the new Scottish employees arrived, they didn’t find much better prospects.

Aside from the challenges of mining coal, being the first white woman and children in the Fort excited much curiosity. One afternoon Dunsmuir’s wife Joan had put her son James to sleep, and was at the baking oven with her two older children. When she returned, the baby was gone. He was found being gently passed around among a group of interested Kwakiutl women at a campfire. They were fascinated with the baby’s blond hair, and offered to buy him, thinking that he could one day make a great chief. Joan convinced them to return the child, but the story became a part of the Dunsmuir family folklore.

By 1852, the HBC had started mining more lucrative coal deposits in Nanaimo. Gilmour, Dunsmuir and their families moved down Island. Dunsmuir fulfilled his contract with the HBC, and then started working for private coal companies. Eventually he discovered some new seams of coal and, with private investors, started his own coal mining company: Dunsmuir, Diggle, & Co. It eventually became Robert Dunsmuir and Sons.

Dunsmuir was a shrewd businessman, and his empire grew rapidly. He built the Island’s E&N Railway, through which he negotiated a land grant which included the rights to 800,000 hectares: most of Southern Vancouver Island. He fought vigorously against unions, and was accused of operating with unsafe working conditions in his mines. Dunsmuir built Craigdarroch castle in Victoria, and eventually sat as a member of the provincial parliament. His son James sat as Premier of B.C. from 1900 to 1902 and as Lieutenant Governor from 1906 to 1909.

Brenda McCorquodale is a Port Hardy resident and North Island history enthusiast. If you have any stories or local lore you’d like to share, email her at storeysbeach@gmail.com. A collection of her past articles is available on her blog at undiscoveredcoast.blogspot.ca/.