Downtown Nanaimo: Living Links To Commercial History

Born of a pioneering spirit and fueled by the rich resources of the area, the first Europeans to settle in the Nanaimo area carved a community out of the towering forested stands. But it was the development of a thriving business centre that turned a camp, into the city that exists today.

It was the discovery of coal in the mid-1800’s that brought the first Europeans to the area. The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) began mining coal in Fort Rupert, near present day Port Hardy in 1849. The development of the mine proved problematic, so after a time it was decided to discontinue mining operations at the site and to relocate activities closer to the HBC headquarters in what was then Fort Victoria.

At about the same time as Fort Rupert was being developed substantial coal deposits were discovered in Nanaimo. This more southerly location made the discovery a far better site to develop a mining community. After some exploratory work in the area the Fort Rupert miners were moved to Nanaimo in 1852.

The campsite was originally known as Colviletown after Andrew Colvile, a successful London sugar-broker and a person of some influence with the Hudson Bay Company. By its very nature Colviletown was a rough and very temporary settlement. It consisted primarily of a cluster of log cabins and a few rough-hewn bunkhouses to provide shelter for its small and mainly male population. What buildings there were had been constructed close to the mine workings and along the waterfront area. Soon after the company built a saw mill on the nearby Millstone River to provide locally sourced lumber for the growing community.

With the arrival of 24 mining families from England in 1854 the settlement took its first real steps toward becoming a city. Sheltered originally in small timber cottages built along present day Front Street, these pioneer settlers later moved to permanent housing sited further inland from the mine workings. Many descendents of this original group of settlers continue to live in and around the Central Vancouver Island area.


Great National Land Building

In the decade that followed an expanding web of rough roads fanned out from the waterfront area, roads that morphed over time into the downtown area’s main thoroughfares, including Church, Commercial, Wharf, and Bastion Streets. It was along these muddy roadways the nucleus of the present business community took hold. A trip down the main arteries of Old Nanaimo is much like riding a time machine – as many of these original business structures continue to exist and flourish – updated and refreshed for the 21st Century.

Nanaimo’s downtown core is especially blessed with a collection of elegant commercial structures from another era. A short walking trip around Church, Bastion and Commercial Streets alone will introduce travelers to some of the area’s proudest, functioning commercial buildings. One of Nanaimo’s most famous classic buildings is the Bank of Commerce Building on Church Street. Often called the Great National Land Building, after a later owner, this structure with is columned façade was built in 1914, and is the brainchild of the banks’ chief architect Victor Horsburgh.

Other notable monuments to the city’s original commercial sector include the Caldwell, Hall, Rogers, Parkin and Hirst Blocks – five separate but closely associated commercial buildings that line Commercial Street. Constructed between 1908 and 1925, this quintet of multi story structures have housed everything over the decades from law offices to shoe stores and continue to function as active parts of the downtown business community today.

Also on Commercial Street is the Ashlar Lodge Masonic Temple which was constructed in 1923. This towering brown brick edifice was built on the site of Nanaimo’s first Masonic Hall, which dates to 1873. The Temple is located directly across the street from the distinctive Gusola Block, a three story building sited on a corner, giving the structure a unique wedge shape. Built in 1937 to take advantage of its intersection location, the building replaced an earlier version that dated to the late 1800’s – a structure that had burned to the ground in 1936.

This is just a sample of the historic richness that makes Nanaimo such a unique community. A little online research or a trip to the city’s excellent downtown museum will turn up even more facts and information about Nanaimo and its thriving commercial core. From camp to city, Nanaimo has grown and evolved over the decades and looks forward to a bright and continually changing future.