The village of Cumberland's history is one of the most compelling in BC.
Human history began with the K'omox First Nation, which occupied the Comox Valley for thousands of years.
The first European settlers arrived in 1862. They were excited to find an excellent natural harbour, abundant fish, extraordinarily fertile land, fresh water, endless forest, and coal. The settlement was founded in 1888 by coal baron Robert Dunsmuir. In 1898, it was named Cumberland to honour miners from the English coal-mining district of Cumbria.
Coal Mining Community
From 1888 to 1966, it was an active coal mining community, complete with tragic fires and mine explosions, labour disputes and an international force of coal miners that included one of the largest Chinese populations in the province. As the coal industry dwindled in time, the mines closed, the settlements collapsed and Cumberland seemed destined to be written off as a ghost town.
Along the way, it ceased to be a city and became the smaller community it is today.
This dismal fate, happily, is being avoided as newcomers discover beauty, history and character in Cumberland. Today the village is undergoing a spirited revival, as the community grows and young families move in. Heritage buildings are being preserved, old homes are under renovation, galleries, boutiques, cafes and restaurants have opened and tourists are arriving to enjoy its many attractions.
Cumberland's downtown culture continues to evolve. Visit Magnolia Gallery & Garden for lovely perennial flowers and foliage, then shift into the gallery for paintings, sculpture, jewellery, pottery and glass. Then step into Dark Side Chocolates for hand-made truffles and a chunk o' chocolate.
The history of settlement in the area is vividly captured at the Cumberland Museum. The time trip begins with sassafras candy sticks in the lobby. The teller's cage that greets visitors came from the old Customs House, where clerks dealt with miners' parcels from all over the world. It leads to a walk-through replica of a coal mine.
A slideshow of historic images tells the story of the Chinese community in fascinating detail. Storytelling artifacts vary from a saloon's player piano to silk slippers for the bound feet of Chinese wives and daughters. Visitors with a personal history linked to Cumberland jump at the computerized data base of local family history.
Self-Guided Walking Tour
Visitors can also walk Cumberland's history with the mapped and detailed Comox Valley Heritage Experience; information is available available at the Comox Valley Visitor Centre. Of four self-guided walking tours, the Main Street downtown tour lasts about one hour and readily adapts to pauses for cappuccino or a pint o' suds. Interpretive plaques provide detailed historic background info at every stop.
Miners Memorial Day
Nowadays, Cumberland is resolutely forward-looking, but with powerful rear-view mirrors: Miners Memorial Day in late June commemorates the lives of nearly 300 miners who died in the mines. Ceremonies take place at the gravesite of labour and anti-war activist Ginger Goodwin, who was slain by a Mountie's bullet in 1918.
Cumberland's Empire Days celebration every May comes with pedigree: It began in 1891, one of the oldest continuous festivals in BC. Scheduled highlights include the May Queen's public dinner and dance, pipe bands from the Pacific Northwest, street sales, pancake breakfasts, Highlands dancing, fashion shows and firefighting contests. Admission is free and everybody's welcome.
Big Time Out
Being the sort of place it is, Cumberland is a natural bastion of artists and musicians. Signalling the revival of Cumberland culture most ebulliently is the mid-Aug Big Time Out, a one-day music fest at Cumberland Park. Eclectic, award-winning talents from Canada, the US and abroad rock non-stop noon to midnight. Plus dancers, acrobats and circus performers.