This page was last reviewed on August 9, 2022.
Bounded by the mountain peaks of the Beaufort Range, forests, rivers, creeks, wetlands and lakes, the Cumberland area of the Comox Valley is geographically stunning and rich in natural resources.
Since Time Immemorial, the ancestors of the people called K’ómoks have been the caretakers of this land. The diverse peoples now known as K’ómoks First Nation originally referred to themselves as Sahtloot, Sasitla, leeksun, and Puntledge. They lived in Salmon River, Quinsam and Campbell Rivers, Quadra Island, Kye Bay, Comox Harbour and estuary, Baynes Sound, and many other locations throughout the territory. The Comox Valley served as a travelling, trading, and hunting corridor for the K’ómoks First Nations, crossing Vancouver Island from the Salish Sea to the Pacific Ocean through the Alberni Valley. The area was called “K’ómoks” in Salish, which translates to “abundance” or “land of plenty” and this area provided for its people for thousands of years.
The Coal Mining Era
Then, beginning in 1852 with the discovery of rich coal deposits near Comox Lake, the area witnessed a huge cultural shift with the arrival of prospectors and later settlers. Drawn by the Provincial Government’s offer of 100 acres of coal land for every $1000 invested in coal development, a group of prospectors organized the Union Company, from which the early settlement took its first name – Union.
The mines were developed in the 1860s and 1870s but once funds ran low, the investors sold their rights to the infamous Dunsmuir family who formed the Union Colliery Company of British Columbia. By the turn of century, the Dunsmuir’s had built a rail line from Union to the east coast of Vancouver Island (Union Bay) where coal could be shipped around the world.
The success of the coal mines was reliant upon a steady workforce of able-bodied men. Workers were brought to Vancouver Island from far flung countries, drawn by the offer of steady wages and the promise of a new life on Vancouver Island. Dunsmuir greatly expanded the existing settlement of Union to accommodate his plans for mine expansion; under his direction, eight different mines were created in the Cumberland area.
Settlers also discovered the abundance of forests that could be harvested to provide the lumber for homes, businesses, railways and infrastructure. A prosperous logging industry developed alongside mining.
Vancouver Island’s “Coal Baron” Robert Dunsmuir was known for a lack of safety procedures and non-union labour practices. Mining was back-breaking and dangerous work – even more so than coal mining in England – and many workers were killed due to poor working conditions and explosions. Reflecting these conditions, Cumberland played a large role in the labour history movement in Canada in later years, including the formation of the Coal Miners Union in 1912, and historically significant strikes. Labour activists Joe Naylor and Ginger Goodwin helped shape the culture of the community.
The Community Grows
Early accommodation was rudimentary, but soon simple company housing was built and the area called Union/Camp Road developed quickly. Workers and families from Britain, Scotland, Italy, Eastern Europe, Sweden, Ireland, Belgium, Norway, Australia, Chile, the United States and others created a hierarchy of workers and pockets of cultural diversity within the settlement.
Parallel to this development was the creation of communities for ethnic minorities starting in the late 1880s – built initially as mining camps, Chinatown and No. 1 Japanese Town Site were villages with cultural activities, schools, services, and recreation. The geographical separation of ethnic minority groups, including the Black community with a small settlement, from the European-centric Union Camp (Camp Road) illustrates the racial segregation of living and working in BC at that time.
The continued development of mining facilities and subsequent population growth necessitated a larger town. The current town site was surveyed and built further east in the 1890’s and named for the county of Cumberland in England, known for its coal mining and beautiful lake country. Many residents of Union moved into Cumberland, leaving Union primarily to ethnic communities.
Housing, services and businesses were required for these ever-increasing populations and a commercial centre developed along Dunsmuir Avenue between First Street and Fifth Street. The construction of multiple churches of different denominations provided gathering places and sense of permanence. As typical with prosperous resource driven towns, a mix of businesses, institutions, and residences evolved to support a rapidly growing population.
The Japanese and Chinese town sites also continued to grow. As with most early settlements in B.C., Cumberland was a diverse community. Schools, community centres and ethnic institutions provided the community with meeting places, were a foundation for a shared culture, and remain a touchstone to the community’s identity today. Cumberland’s Chinatown was the largest in Canada towards the end of World War I, and its Japanese community was the largest on Vancouver Island until Internment in 1942 when its residents were forcibly removed.
The Final Years of Mining
The dangers of mining and frontier living continued to impact Cumberland – two explosions at the No. 4 mine delivered a tragic blow to the community and later fires ravaged parts of the historic downtown and Chinatown. Cumberland remained an active coal-mining town until 1966 despite enduring devastating mine explosions, destructive fires, two world wars and bitter labour disputes.
When local mines closed in the 1950s and 1960s, most homes in Chinatown and the No. 1 Japanese town site were demolished, dismantled, or relocated. In 1966, Union merged with Cumberland. While the economy was founded on the mining and shipping of coal, the harvesting of forested lands contributed to sustaining the economy of the Village.
Even during economic depressions, the Village boasted significant cultural, institutional, and business amenities. The result was – and continues to be – a high level of civic pride and a strong sense of place.
Cumberland, although touted for many years as a near ghost town, has seen yet another change in fortune, witnessing growth and prosperity. It is now known as one of the most desirable communities on Vancouver Island.
The natural environment is of great importance to Cumberland, first as a source of sustenance for First Nations in the Comox Valley, then as a coal and forest-rich resource to support the development of a British colony and the wider province. More recently, Cumberland’s natural qualities have made the area a recreational playground, with access to hiking and mountain biking trails, the mountains and skiing, rivers and lakes, and the nearby ocean.
An important part of the Village’s history is its adaptation to its changing fortunes, its relationship with First Nations, its connection to the surrounding environment, and its ethnic diversity. The diverse cultural groups that initially made-up Cumberland also greatly contributed to its growth and character.
The enduring historic scale and character of Cumberland remains a draw for businesses, visitors, and residents alike. A strong commercial main street filled with heritage buildings and streetscapes, over 400 heritage character homes that have been identified as being important to the identity of Cumberland, historic cultural influences, and physical remnants of Cumberland’s mining history shape both the near and long term economic and cultural well-being of the Village.
For more information on Cumberland’s rich history, please visit the award-winning Cumberland Museum & Archives.
For more information about the K’ómoks First Nation, the ancestral caretakers of the land, please visit https://komoks.ca/Search again