Nanaimo’s History

The city’s name is derived from the Coast Salish who first called it home. They called themselves the “Snuneymuxw”, which means ‘great and mighty people.’ When European settlers arrived, they mispronounced the word as Nanaimo.  The First Nations peoples of Nanaimo and their rich history and culture are integral to Nanaimo’s future.

In the early 1800’s the Hudson’s Bay Company discovered rich coal deposits in the area, and you may recognise the names of former coal seams – Newcastle, Wakesiah, Wellington and Northfield – as you tour the city. The Company needed workers to mine the rich deposits.  They placed notices in British newspapers in the spring of 1854. Twenty-four English and Scottish families answered the summons, and travelled to Nanaimo by steamship.

The tiny community safeguarded itself against attack by building the Bastion Fort in Nanaimo’s boat basin. Completed in 1853 it served as defense arsenal storage and clerk’s office for running the township, with cannons at the ready. It never had the onerous task of defending itself, and its cannons were fired less than a handful of times. The fort has since been renovated and transformed into a museum, and it gives great insight into the way of life a century ago.

No mention of Nanaimo’s history is complete without mention of its Asian residents and the contribution of their toiling labor in the mines and rail construction.  In 1911 Japanese immigrants established a settlement on Newcastle Island that included a successful ship building factory, three herring salteries and a cannery. The salted herring was packed in large pine boxes and shipped to the Orient.

A large number of Chinese migrants created their own community in the heart of the city at the turn of the century. A terrible and controversial fire destroyed the settlement in 1960.

By 1938 mining was replaced by logging as the major industry in the region, and a pulp and paper mill was constructed near Duke Point. In modern times Nanaimo’s economy has become greatly diversified.

No longer dependent on one large employer, the city is proud of its world-class fisheries research facilities, leading edge technology industries and a thriving university that produces some of the best young talent in the country.

History buffs will delight in exploring Nanaimo’s rich and colourful past. Begin with the heritage walking tour that takes you to the buildings and places that have shaped who we are today. Markers, plaques and wall mountings give detailed descriptions of the historic value of the stops along the way. Explore grand nineteenth century architecture, railroad and coal connections and much more.

For a journey back in time visit the Nanaimo District Museum. You’ll see First Nations artifacts, tour through old-time Nanaimo and Chinatown and a “one room schoolhouse”.  You can also enjoy noon-hour cannon firings at the Bastion Fort. Check out the red pagoda memorial to Nanaimo’s Chinese pioneers near Departure Bay ferry terminal as well as the Vancouver Island Military Museum on the hill next to Port Place.