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BC Archives image of Cumberland's downtown

Cumberland Downtown
Cumberland Chinatown
Cumberland Mill
Cumberland Post Office
Cumberland mail train bus stop
Cumberland construction

Cumberland (Union) and Bevan Mines
Eastern Vancouver Island near Comox

Cumberland, Bevan, and the surrounding areas were once the site of one of BC’s biggest coal mining operations. Comprised of 8 different mineshafts, employing a huge number of Chinese workers, and experiencing the most mining deaths on Vancouver Island, the Cumberland Coal mines, which operated (on and off) until 1966, were some of the most storied and longest running coal mines in Canada. Founded as the town of Union in 1888, after the initial seam exploration in 1874, Cumberland is now a town of about 2,700 people and is part of the tri-city area of the Comox Valley along with the nearby cities of Comox and Courtenay.


Settlement

Coordinates: 49°37’N 125°02’W

Though coal was initially documented as existing in the area as early as 1852, it wasn’t until 1869 that the area was truly explored by a man named Sam Cliffe and ten of his friends looking to stake a claim to new coal territory. They set up the Union Coal Mining Company, which performed the initial underground exploration in 1874 and built a railway from Cumberland to the nearest port in Royston. They soon ran out of money, and sold to Vancouver Island’s coal baron, Robert Dunsmuir, who had found his success in the Nanaimo coal basin. In 1888, he ordered the town of Union greatly expanded in order to accommodate his plans for mine expansion, and under his direction, 8 different mines were dug in the area.


Cumberland's Heyday

As the mines were being built, the town was growing exponentially. For the first time in BC, a significant number of Chinese mine workers were brought in to labour in the mines, and an area of the town that became dedicated to their housing was renamed Chinatown, only the second in BC at the time. From 1890 to 1897 the workforce grew to over 700 men, supporting a town of over 3000 people, and extracting over 1000 tons of coal per day. By 1910 Dunsmuir had sold the mines to Canadian Collieries Ltd.

The Cumberland mines were extremely profitable, but also notoriously gassy, filling with methane gas many times a year. Various small fires and explosions occurred, with the Chinese workers often scapegoated for the incidents, though their true cause was likely due to improper safety training and the rush to extract the coal. In total, 295 men lost their lives in the Cumberland coal mines between 1874 and 1966, with 105 of those deaths occurring solely in mine 4. The largest single loss of life was in 1901, when an explosion in mine 6 due to improperly laid charges resulted in a cave-in, killing 64 miners.

The mines continued operation on and off, most closing gradually as the coal ran out or labour problems ran up extraction costs. Ginger Goodwin, a local labour organizer, was involved with two major union battles, one in 1912-1914 and one in 1917, attempting to mandate an 8 hour workday, and in the latter of which he was a leading figure. During the First World War, he and other union members, hoping to avoid conscription, hid in the hills behind Comox Lake, where they were found by Dominion Police. Goodwin was shot in what the police claimed was self defense, but what the community believed to be the convenient killing of a local labour organizer that had been a thorn in the mining company for many years. His funeral, the largest to ever occur in Cumberland, prompted a 24 hour general strike in Vancouver to protest the actions of the company and the police. By 1950, the only mine left operating was No. 8, and in 1953, it closed, bringing Cumberland’s long and storied history as a mining boomtown to an end.

Present Day

Cumberland has reverted back to village status with a population of just 2,700. Though it descended into what some would call a semi ghost town status, with derelict buildings, public facilities in disrepair, and many houses needing maintenance, the village of Cumberland is steadily making a comeback. The recently passed clean-up laws, along with significant investment in community infrastructure, have helped revitalize the town, and at the same time it is beginning to get looked at as a less expensive alternative to living right in Courtenay or Comox. The community is very tight-knit with many events and activities year round, and there is no doubt that Cumberland will now continue to grow. It can be accessed easily by road off of highway 19. Once there, much evidence of its mining past remains, including a large Chinese graveyard, old miner’s houses, and relics at some of the pitheads.

 

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