Nanaimo's heritage is a living, breathing, occasionally thunderous part of the city's character.
Especially so when the cannon outside the Hudson's Bay Company's mid-19th century fortress, the Bastion, is fired at noon on spring and summer days.
Sidewalk markers, plaques and displays throughout the downtown core open up fascinating chapters back in time. The Nanaimo Museum is an impressive one-stop storehouse of local history. And annual civic festivals such as Empire Days in May continue a tradition that dates back more than 150 years.
Ancient Nanaimo and Area
The Nanaimo area was inhabited for thousands of years by the Snunéhymuxw, a band of Coast Salish Native peoples. The city's name is an anglicized version of snunéymuxw, a word referring to the First Nations villages in the region.
These were located at Nanaimo Harbour, Departure Bay, False Narrows on Gabriola Island and on the Nanaimo River. One must-see: The 1,000 year-old rock carvings at Petroglyph Provincial Park, 10 minutes south of the city along the Trans-Canada Highway.
Coal Mining and the HBC Bastion
Spanish explorers anchored briefly off Gabriola Island in 1792. The city's roots as a working-class industrial town, however, began with the discovery of coal and the arrival of an advance guard of Hudson's Bay Company miners in 1852. The HBC Bastion fortress was erected a year later, and is now used a heritage attraction.
Coal remained Nanaimo's leading source of revenue for nearly a century. Some 50 million tonnes of black gold was excavated from three seams accessible through deep underground shafts reaching hundreds of metres below sea level. Morden Mine, in nearby Cedar, offers a last glimpse at an industry that linked Nanaimo to San Francisco and other world markets.
Get a glimpse of Nanaimo's mining and industrial history at the new downtown Nanaimo Museum, which tells the city's story with colorful displays. It also operates a mini-museum inside the Bastion during the summer.
Growth of Modern Nanaimo
Nanaimo's growth into a modern-city accelerated following the Second World War. Leading citizens of the time included Peter Maffeo, Nanaimo's mayor from 1957-67; the city's favourite waterfront green space, Maffeo Sutton Park, was named in his honour. His successor as mayor, Frank Ney, was a colorful character responsible for launching the Great Nanaimo Bathtub Race in 1967. A whimsical statue of Ney in his favorite pirate outfit now stands downtown at Swy-a-Lana Lagoon.
A wide variety of festivals take place year-round here. The month of July alone features three popular events in the downtown harbour: the Dragon Boat Festival, the Sillyboat Regatta and the renowned Great International World Championship Bathtub Race. The latter features modified bathtub "boats" flying across the waves at high speeds towards the Departure Bay finish line.