While the first nations groups of the area had been aware of what they described as the ‘stones that burned’ for a significant length of time, the early arrivals who began European settlement along the Pacific Northwest Coast would not become aware of the presence of this energy source until the midpoint of the 1800s. The earliest mining of this fossil fuel at the Northeastern end of Vancouver Island by Europeans could have begun as early as 1835 where Fort Rupert would later be established but it wasn’t until 1849 that we have definitive historical evidence of this activity.
Prior to this point, timber had supplied an abundant amount of fuel for many activities of industry, however, blacksmiths required what was known as ‘smithy coal’ for their work which was import from England at a very high level of expense. An additional demand for a more effective source of energy was also created by the introduction of steam powered boats which replaced the previously used sail method.
Luckily for the European arrivals they were directed to a nearer source of energy by the chief of a Vancouver Island first nations group. The historical account states that:
“One day in December, 1849, the Snuneymuxw chief Chewichikan was watching an Hbc blacksmith at Fort Victoria repair his gun when he noticed the man toss coal on the fire. When the native asked the blacksmith where he obtained his coal, he was told it was shipped from England. The elderly chief was amused and commented it was silly to bring black stones from so far away when there was plenty where he lived. Company authorities offered Chewichikan free repair of his gun and a bottle of rum if he brought samples of the “stones that burned”. The following spring, Chewichikan returned in a canoe brimming with quality coal. The chief received his reward as well as a new nickname: “Coal Tyee” or “The Coal Chief”.”
This information came at a fortunate moment for the British as it corresponded with the decline of HBC operation on Vancouver Island. This downward trend was created by a number of factors including the company’s inability to fulfill its colonial obligations, failures at earlier mining efforts, and the increasing threat of American expansion but a successful coal mining endevor would be an effective reversal of the economic fortunes. Therefore, James Douglas immediately ordered Joseph McKay to take a prospecting party and follow up on these claims. They arrived in the area known as Wentuhysen Inlet which was located on the shore of the Nanaimo harbour where three coal outcroppings were found and which would end up producing millions of tons of coal over the following 28 years.