Union Bay, British Columbia
|Regional District||Comox Valley|
|Elevation||3 m (10 ft)|
|Postal code||V0R 3B0|
|Area code(s)||250, 778|
Union Bay in British Columbia, Canada is a small community approximately 15 kilometres (9 mi) south of Courtenay, British Columbia, the largest city in the Comox Valley. Union Bay is populated by about 1200 people and is an unincorporated site within the Comox Valley Regional District. The main drag along Highway 19A features a boatlaunch, sports/coffee shop, bistro and market/cafe. Also along the highway are the heritage Gaolhouse museum, Post Office, church, and now closed school that is currently used as the District Improvement Offices. The community has a rich history that is intertwined with that of Cumberland, British Columbia.
Union Bay was first established as "Union Wharf" back in 1887. The community was developed as a port for the thriving coal mines at Union to the Northwest (later reincorporated as Cumberland). Originally the Union Coal Co. had intended to ship coal out from Royston to the north of what is currently Union Bay, but Robert Dunsmuir bought out the company.
Dunsmuir's sons decided that a port at Royston would be too shallow for their needs. The deep water near Hart Creek (in present-day Union Bay) was perfect for the deep sea vessels that would ship the superior quality coal across the globe. A large wharf nearly 600 ft (200 m) long was constructed, along with a rail network connecting the mines to the port in 1887-1888. Many of the masted freighters of the early days were so large that they had to be escorted by tug up Baynes Sound between Denman Island and Vancouver Island. The most famous of these ships was the Pamir.
Several structures were built on the colliery's lands including a shipping wharf, a coal washer, machine shops, and coke ovens. The community of Union Bay developed to support all of this industry and even had a small Chinatown. Workers from India were brought in to build the wharf. They lived in the big boarding house at the head of the bay. Scottish bricklayers arrived with a boatload of bricks from their homeland and assembled the coke ovens which were worked by the Japanese. There were five Japanese families. They had homes on the north side of Washer Creek. Chinese labourers laid the railway between Union Bay and Cumberland and then became trimmers on the coal ships where they would work 12-hour shifts. About 100 Chinese men lived in jerry-built shacks where the community hall is today.
To service and repair the mines and port facilities there were shops to overhaul the locomotives, to fabricate coal cars, and others which housed the foundry, boilermakers and blacksmiths.
Two hotels were built to accommodate travelers, the Nelson and Wilson. They featured beer parlours for loggers and sailors. Fire destroyed both hotels.
Several stores served the town, including Fraser & Bishop's large general store with an extravagant facade. One night in March 1913 the general store was robbed by Henry Wagner, the "Flying Dutchman" as he was called. On this particular night two police officers, Constables Westaway and Ross, walked in on the pirate and his partner. A gunfight ensued during which Westaway was fatally wounded. Ross, however, managed to tackle Wagner and apprehend him after a long and bloody fight. Wagner was quickly hanged in Nanaimo.
Of the original buildings four are left: school (built 1915), church (1906), post office (1913), and gaolhouse (1901). Together they form "Heritage Row". The Union Bay Historical Society restored and now maintains the gaolhouse and the post office. The post office has the distinction of being the only wooden post office erected before WW1 still in service in Canada.
During the two world wars Union Bay was a very active port because ships often coaled up there before crossing the Pacific. The last sailing ship to carry coal was the Pamir, in 1946. Freighters and barges continued to call until the coal industry slowly faded around the 1950s. Many of the structures, including the coal wharf, were torn down by the early 1960s.
An abundance of shellfish farms on Baynes Sound now help to drive the economy of Union Bay. In 1923 Eikechi Kagetsu, a logging entrepreneur started work at Fanny Bay. Baynes Sound beaches reminded Kagetsu of areas in Japan which produced superior mollusks to our smaller native oysters. He brought in oyster seeds from Japan and started to cultivate Pacific oysters, an industry which has blossomed and now includes clams, mussels, scallops, and abalone.
As merchant seamen during the coal mining days were always made welcome here, Union Bay became known as the ‘The Friendly Port’, a name still appropriate today.
Some of Union Bay's history has been preserved in what is called "Heritage Row". This row along Highway 19A includes the Gaolhouse, Post Office, Church, and School. It is preserved and maintained by the Union Bay Historical Society.
The Provincial Gaolhouse was constructed in 1901 and served Union Bay until the 1950s. Today it is the Union Bay museum. The old wooden Post Office was constructed in 1913 and was a twin of another Post Office built in Comox (which was torn down). The Union Bay Post Office is one of only two wooden post offices left in Canada. The Union Bay United Church was constructed in 1905 or 1906 and is still the site of Sunday services. The schoolhouse was built in 1915, but has seen many renovations to retrofit it for the seismically-active west coast.
Contemporary community issues
The community of Union Bay faces many issues because of its limited size and proximity to the larger city of Courtenay. Water and sewage treatment are on-going issues.
Kensington Island Properties received rezoning approval in April 2010 for an envisioned sustainable development. The project is to include approximately 3,000 new homes, land for a fire hall and other community facilities, parks and trails, hotels, a marina, and a 27-hole golf course. The proposal includes capping and redevelopment of the coal hills.