The island is named after the famous mining town of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Northumberland, England when coal was discovered in 1849. Coal was an important commodity in the mid-19th century. The British needed a colony on the west coast of North America to provide good quality coal for their steamships. After a failed mining attempt in Fort Rupert in 1830, Newcastle Island and Nanaimo became honeycombed with mining tunnels.
Nanaimo’s very existence could not have happened without the Native chief Che-wech-i-kan. One day in December 1849, while in Fort Victoria getting his gun repaired, Che-wech-i-kan saw the blacksmith using coal in his fire. He told the blacksmith that he knew of a location where coal was in abundance. This information was quickly passed on to Joseph McKay, a company clerk, who investigated the matter. In exchange for a bottle of rum and to have his gun repaired for free, McKay asked Che-wech-i-kan to bring proof of his claim. After months without seeing Che-wech-i-kan again, McKay and Governor James Douglas gave up on him. In April 1850, approximately fifteen months after his initial appearance in this blacksmith’s shop, Che-wech-i-kan returned with a canoe full of coal. This coal proved to be superior to the coal being mined at the current site at Fort Rupert. Although Newcastle Island coal was better than that found at Fort Rupert, it was another two years before any coal was mined there in hopes that Fort Rupert’s mines would be sufficient. In 1852, a mine was sunk on Newcastle Island and 50 tons of coal was collected in one day. In honour of Che-wech-i-kan’s discovery, he earned the name Coal Tyee, meaning Great Coal Chief and McKay Point was named for Joseph McKay because of all the work he did for the island.
The two mines on Newcastle Island were called the Fitzwilliam and the Newcastle mines. The Newcastle Mine was open from 1853–56 and was along the Newcastle seam. The Fitzwilliam Mine was open from 1872–82 and was located along the Douglas seam. Both seams ran across the island and over to Nanaimo or to the nearby islands, like Protection Island.
In the month of September 1852 alone, 480 barrels of coal collected from surface seams were shipped from Newcastle Island to Victoria to make a yearly total of 200 tons. At the beginning, native Snuneymuxw and the miners from Fort Rupert worked the mines but by 1854, miners were coming from England. Miners would work in 14-day shifts, spending their off days in Nanaimo with their families.
In 1862, the Hudson’s Bay Company sold their coalfields, including Newcastle Island, to the Vancouver Coal Mining and Land Company right before a series of strikes took place over the poor working conditions of the Nanaimo and Newcastle Island mines. There were no routine checks of the mines and the unskilled labour that was hired created an unsafe working atmosphere. Dead rats rather than canaries told those miners when to abandon the mine. The wages provided by the new Vancouver company were likely based on skill set and ability to understand English. The wage per day for a white person ranged from $1.75 – $3.75 when those of the Natives were only $1.25 – $1.50 and the Chinese $1.12.
As in all mines, people have died in the Newcastle Island mines. The most famous incident was the gas explosion in the Fitzwilliam Mine on September 15, 1876, where three men lost their lives. This earned the mine the reputation as the first Nanaimo mine to have people die in an explosion. Another accident involved only one life, that was William Beck who died in a mine collapse on June 10, 1874.
The mine tunnel that went beneath the Gap from Newcastle Island to Protection Island has its own little story. Similar tunnels went from Protection Island under the sea between Protection and Gabriola Island. People say that the miners could tell the time by listening to the rumble of the walls as the steamships went by, because each ship had its own distinct sound.
Source From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia