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BC Archives image of Coal Harbour Docks

Coal Harbour hilltop
Coal Harbour downtown
Coal Harbour downtown
Coal Harbour looking North
Coal Harbour
North Western Vancouver Island

Coal Harbour, located on the north end of Vancouver Island in Quatsino Sound, is one of the island’s oldest colonized settlements. Coal was discovered there in 1883 and in 1884, Norwegian settlers built up a small community, naming it Scandia (later renamed Quatsino). A coal mine was established, but only ran for a few years, as it was unproductive. The town grew as travel from Port Hardy became more possible and from 1948 to 1967, BC’s largest whaling station operated out of the town. Once the whales were gone, the town had a brief copper boom, and today it remains as a fishing, logging and tourist community of about 175 (2006).


Coordinates: 50°36’N 127°35’W

Spotted by Europeans first in 1868 by the Royal Navy Gunship the HMS Scout, the location of the First Nations Village of Quatsino was one of the first markings on the charts of Vancouver Island. Overland visits of Norwegian settlers from the Port Hardy area occurred sporadically between 1870 and 1882, and in 1883, the discovery of coal seams near Quatsino prompted the set up of a settlement in Coal Harbour. A mine was built to attempt to extract the coal, but proved unsuccessful, and it was soon abandoned. The town emptied, leaving behind the company caretaker, who was subsequently murdered in 1907. The settlement was crucial to the development of the west coast, as Coal Harbour was the closest point in Quatsino Sound to Port Hardy, and the village was maintained. In 1920, a trail was built and regular mail service, considered crucial to the long term survival of any town, was commenced.

Middle History

The town of Coal Harbour, once established, became an important gateway to the west coast of Vancouver Island. In 1927 the first gravel road to Port Hardy was completed, finally linking Coal Harbour to the rest of the island. From then until the start of the Second World War, Coal Harbour was a transportation hub and fishing village, and in 1940, the site was established as an RCAF seabase and reconnaissance station. It was an active station, with over 700 stationed personnel, and daily reconnaissance trips departed to survey any potential threats to the BC coast. The only “attack” of WWII on the Coal Harbour area came when a Japanese incendiary balloon, designed to start forest fires along the North American coast, fell near Holberg and failed to do any damage.
After the war ended, many men stayed on in Coal Harbour, and established Vancouver Island’s biggest whaling station to take advantage of the high density of whales in the area. Over 4000 whales were slaughtered between 1948 and 1967, though the venture ultimately never turned a profit, and the decline of the Pacific Ocean whale stocks forced the station to shut down.

In 1970, mining was resurrected in Coal Harbour, though this time the workers were seeking copper. The Island Copper Mine brought even more men to the community, and mining, in what would eventually be the deepest open pit mine in the world, continued until 1996. The opening of the mine resulted in the paving of the road from Port Hardy and the expansion of the town to its present day state.

Present Day

Though the mines and whaling station no longer exist, Coal Harbour remains a small, sustaining community of about 175 people. Some logging still supports the community, and there are ample opportunities for outdoor recreation including fishing charters, scenic flights, kayak trips, and general sightseeing. Coal Harbour is accessible by car by taking the Coal Harbour road out of Port Hardy, and traveling for about 15km, or by chartering a floatplane from Hardy Bay or Vancouver.


Web site ©: The Institute for Coastal and Oceans Research (ICOR) at the University of Victoria, British Columbia Canada.