First Nations peoples have resided on Vancouver Island for at least 8,000 years.
The Coast Salish K'omoks (Comox) First Nation lived off the land and sea in the Discovery Passage/Campbell River area for millennia.
The First Nations gallery at the Museum at Campbell River captures the history, art and mythology of the region's first inhabitants. Highlights: Potlatch regalia, coppers, house poles and a remarkable hinged sun mask created by the town's leader carver, Bill Henderson.
English and Spanish sailors first explored the island's eastern coastline and the scatter of islands in the Discovery Passage and Sutil Channel region in 1792.
The First Nations power balance shifted in the 19th century in the wake of warfare and intermarriage. The Kwakwaka'waka nation's southern bands (known as the Laich-kwil-tach) moved into the region from Fort Rupert. The Wei Wai Kum peoples settled on the mainland while the Wei Wai Kai (Cape Mudge Band) established roots on Quadra Island. Smallpox epidemics killed many thousands in the 1860s.
Campbell River is believed to have been named after Dr. Samuel Campbell, an Irish medical man stationed on the British survey vessel HMS Plumper in 1860. Fifteen years later a Seymour Narrows navigational hazard known as Ripple Rock generated international news when the US civil war steamer USS Saranac ran aground and sank.
Settlers were drawn to more fertile areas of Vancouver Island first, so it wasn't until 1887 that the first non-aboriginal residents established homesteads near the Campbell River. Fishermen chasing big catches were lured here when the American economist Richard Musgrave rhapsodized about local salmon in an 1890 edition of Field & Stream magazine.
20th Century Progress
The logging and fishing industries brought in a transient population of workers, but the village of Campbell River itself didn't begin taking shape until the Willows Hotel and Saloon was built in 1904 (on the site of today's Tidemark Theatre). The International Timber Company (later known as Elk River Timber) was a leading employer circa World War One. Just 250 people lived in Campbell River at the start of the Great Depression.
Sports fishing sparked a travel boom in the 1930s as visitors hired guides, fished the tyee pools at the mouth of the Campbell River and booked rooms at Ned and June Painter's cabins and lodge north of town. Guests included the Marx Brothers, Bob Hope, and the King of Siam. Yet the name spoken in most circles was that of Roderick Haig Brown. This English civil servant relocated to the west coast as a logger before settling in a rustic home on the Campbell River and penning two dozen celebrated books about fly-fishing and conservation.
Campbell River's economic fortunes boomed following World War II. Hydroelectric dams were built, the pulp-and-paper industry created jobs and there were good profits from lead, coal and copper mining. Ripple Rock, still a potentially deadly maritime hazard, was destroyed in 1958 in what was called the world's largest non-nuclear explosion.
Ecotourism has become a leading growth industry in the region. And the Wei Wai Kum First Nation continues to play a significant role in reshaping the city through such initiatives as the Discovery Centre Mall and the town's cruise ship terminal.