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History of Cumberland

This page was last reviewed on January 2, 2014.

Over 100 years ago, in 1852 to be exact, J. W. Mackay slashed his way through dense underbrush along rugged hillsides to discover coal near the locale of a town site which today is rapidly regaining its title as one of Vancouver Island’s communities with a future.

Coal had been discovered a short time before in the Nanaimo area, and Mackay felt more seams might exist further up island. His theory proved correct and he was able to report every indication of excellent deposits in the vicinity of Comox Lake.

A few years later a small group of prospectors, drawn by the Provincial Government’s offer of 100 acres of coal land for every $1,000 invested in coal development, followed in Mackay’s footsteps and verified his discoveries. They organized the Union Company, from which the early settlement took its first name – Union.

The first venture was very successful from a prospecting standpoint, but lack of working capital hampered commercial development and little progress was made. It was not until entry of the famed Dunsmuir family into Cumberland, and formation of the Union Colliery Company of British Columbia, that the district began to forge ahead.

By 1891 considerable shipments of high grade steam and domestic coal were coming up from the pits, with shipment to the east island coast at a point which came to be known as Union Bay. One of the young Union Colliery’s early managers was George W. Clinton, an Engineer, who later became a pioneer district businessman in his own right, and is well remembered as the organizer and builder of power plants for both Cumberland and later Courtenay. He became the first President of Cumberland Electric Lighting Company.

Homes began to be constructed by 1888 when Rev. W.W. Baer of the Methodist Church arrived in the settlement and held missionary services amongst the miners. Other religious denominations were soon represented and several churches began construction. Three years passed and discussion took place on the merits of laying town site. Surveys were filed with the Provincial Government and Union was renamed Cumberland – a brand new name after the English County – and incorporated as a city January 1, 1898.

Two years later the population rose to 521 residents most of whom were dependent on revenue from ‘King Coal’. Familiar County places such as Maryport, Windermere, Penrith, Derwent and Keswick became street names, but one avenue was selected to bear the honoured name Dunsmuir – the community’s founder. A hospital was built during these years and the select Cumberland Volunteer Fire Department came into existence. This organization has fought many fires to reflect credit on members down through the years and continues to this day to be one of the city’s honoured institutions.

About half a mile west of Cumberland there was once a mining settlement called Chinatown. At one time there were 2,000 residents in this community. Many settled here between 1895 and 1924 when there were two explosions in the No.4 mine. Many residents moved back to China during the depression or went to work in Duncan or Nanaimo in the forests. In 1935, a fire wiped out half of the town and then after the Second World War many buildings were dismantled and the materials sold due to the scarcity of materials in the post war years.

The early architects of Cumberland took pride in their work, for today’s well ordered little Village of comfortable homes, flowers and hospitable people is nestled at the foot of towering mountains part of a snow-capped island backbone.

A short distance away lies 10 miles of crystal clear fresh water, Comox Lake. In this 700 foot deep scenic gem are trout to make any tourist shout in joyous anticipation. Out of the lake flows the Puntledge, a swiftly flowing river which plays an important function in Vancouver Island’s electrical power production under B.C. Power Commission guidance. This river links Tsolum, which in turn joins the Courtenay River and flows through the Comox Valley to tidal waters.

Cumberland Today

With the decline in coal fortunes in the mid-century, Cumberland has taken new stock of her position. At the request of the City Council, the Province reissued the letters patent to incorporate the municipality as the Corporation of the Village of Cumberland as of January 1, 1958. Homes for a while went vacant are now filled up largely due to the shortage of housing in Courtenay and Comox.

The rapidly expanding Comox airport contributed to this steady slow growth. The Comox Valley Economic Development Society is attempting to attract business and light industry to the Valley. One branch of the effort is devoted to encouraging diversified industry to the district. Abundant electrical energy, adequate water, and affordable taxes combine to provide a good drawing card. Principal energies. however, are being exerted to open a road between Cumberland and Port Alberni. Such a loop connection would travel the shores of Comox Lake, passing through an area rich in natural resources to enter Port Alberni via Beaver Creek. Apart from the immense attractions of such a road to tourists, fresh agricultural produce such as milk, butter, eggs and vegetables could then flow very quickly to the Alberni Valley’s consumers.

Since the closing of the coal mines and subsequent change in policy in regards to land use, Cumberland has shown a trend to move steadily forward.

New clean-up bylaws and pride of ownership are having a great effect on dwellings throughout the municipality. Complete landscaping and re-grassing of Village Park consisting of a soft-ball diamond, soccer and Canadian football field, baseball diamond, change rooms, tennis courts, horseshoe pitches, and a play area for children. The Cumberland Lake Park Municipal Campsite and picnic park has water supply throughout, trailer and tent camp areas (50 sites). Diving floats, safe swimming, boat ramp and covered cook-out kitchen.

The Village Recreation Centre offers a universal gym and a climbing wall.

You can see that the Village Council has put great emphasis on providing facilities for people with increasingly more leisure time.

Very few communities can offer skiing, golfing, etc within a 10 mile radius of their community. Cumberland seeks some secondary value added industry which would provide jobs and increase the assessment base of their rich and proud community.

With the support of its people and local service clubs, Chamber of Commerce, Kinsmen, Masonic Lodge, and the proposed Road to Recreation (Cumberland-Alberni Road) Cumberland, although touted for many years as a ghost town, will never die, its people will ensure that Cumberland continues to prosper and grow at a steady well planned pace.

Cumberland offers an interesting investment in the Island’s future, at her back door are winter vacation and recreational treasures galore – fishing, hunting, skiing within a short drive to the fabulous Mount Washington. Ahead are a host of undeveloped wonders.

A Museum was opened in July 1981 and represents the community’s history with particular emphasis on the coal mining. Every visitor would be missing a great experience if they failed to visit the Cumberland Museum. Cumberland celebrated its 100th Anniversary in 1998.

Please come visit us, you will not be disappointed!

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