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Nanaimo Coal Boom

A cache by Kiwibirdman, Adopted by ceebeecee Send Message to Owner Message this owner
Hidden : 5/5/2009
In British Columbia, Canada
1 out of 5
2.5 out of 5

Size: Size: not chosen (not chosen)

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Geocache Description:

The main focus of the Earthcache is the large fissure at the above co-ordinates, although there is more this big crack than meets the eye... This Earthcache will require you to visit two locations for educational purposes.


Although this crack, named "The Abyss," is called an earthquake fissure, it is more likely a result of a collapsed mine tunnel possibly triggered by an earthquake. The Harewood Mines, one of dozens of mines in the area, has tunnels snaking everywhere underneath Extension Ridge including the above area. In fact, Nanaimo has networks of abandoned tunnels running everywhere although most have collapsed or filled with water. There are rumours of cave-ins in the Diver Lake area, the Verte Place subdivision, and the Extension area. As the maps shows, the tunnels were widespread; even going underneath Nanaimo Harbour to Protection and Newcastle Islands!

The Geological History Of Nanaimo

Much of the low lying coast of mid Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands is composed of alternating soft layers of sedimentary rock approximately six kilometres thick. These layers include sandstone, mudstone and conglomerate. These fine sediments were deposited during the cretaceous period approximately 85-65 million years ago. Thanks to these alternating layers, organic remnants such as coal and fossils can be found. This porous material as forms the aquifer for many of the 85% of the mid-island population living near the coast.

In between these alternating layers, three main seams of coal can be found. This is the result of millions of years of deposits of sediments and organic swamp material being laid down and compressed by the weight of subsequent layers. The pressure eventually turns these layers into stone.

Eighty-five million years ago, Nanaimo was a far different place with average temperatures being much warmer than today. As a result, the poles of the Earth had very little if no ice caps. As a result, the sea level was much higher. Water which flowed out of the rivers and into the deltas deposited sediments on the ocean floor, which now forms the city of Nanaimo. The plants living on the fingers of these deltas eventually died and accumulated, forming coal, which I will go into detail below.

What Is Coal?

Coal in brief, is compressed carbon, which also contains trace amounts of sulfur, oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen. When a plant or animal dies and the remains are protected by water or mud, they are unable to rot or oxidize. As a result, the carbon is trapped, which then gets compressed under heat and pressure over millions of years. As a result, coal is a non-renewable energy source. Coal is currently the largest source of electricity generation in the world. Unfortunately, coal powered generation has far more downsides than upsides, most notably climate change and acid rain, but I will not cover them here.

History Of Nanaimo

Nanaimo is the second largest city on Vancouver Island with a population of 79,000 and is located 110 km northwest of Victoria. Although most people might not know it, the reason Nanaimo came to be was because of the vast coal reserves in the area.

Nanaimo was first visited by Spanish explorers in 1791 where they named the area Bocas de Winthuysen where the existing First nation's people, the Snuneymuxw (Snuh-NAY-moo) were already living. The Spanish were initially met with mistrust and their vessel was surrounded by their canoes in a standoff for a time. 

First Nation midden sites in the area date back 4,000 years but petroglyph carvings date back 10,000 years to possibly and even earlier civilization. These can be found in nearby Petroglyph Provincial Park and also in the power line right of way around N 49° 07.845 W 123° 57.832. Unfortunately the power line location ones are being eroded by ATVs and advanced weathering.

Following the discovery of abundant coal deposits in 1849, Nanaimo was later established as a Hudson's Bay Company trading post in 1853. The bastion from the fort still exists to this day. The area was renamed Colville Town after the HBC Governor where at this time, the population was 125. In 1860, the name was finally changed to Nanaimo, a rough adaptation of the original First Nation's name. The population grew as the industry expanded with the population at 650 in 1869 and 1,000 in 1874.

Robert Dunsmuir, a coal baron, was the first man in the area to start mines which were then built in what is now downtown Nanaimo, Wellington, and Northfield. With the success of these mines, others were quick to follow. As a result of the mining boom, Robert Dunsmuir constructed the E&N railway to transport his coal, and gain access to more coal reserves through the Dunsmuir Land Grants.

The Harewood Mine

Nanaimo has three coals seams running through it which are the Wellington, Newcastle and Douglas seams. The Harewood Mine, which was located in the Douglas seam, is the focus of this Earthcache which I will cover here.

This area was named "The Land of Wakesiah," by the first nations people already living here. Shortly after the discovery of coal, settlers roamed the hills looking for sites to make claims. Within ten years, coal had been discovered many places in the Harewood Ridges.

The first mine was founded in 1874 and began production in 1876. At this time, the land was far too rugged and it would be too expensive to build a road. Instead, planners decided to build a three-mile-long aerial tramway to carry to coal to the docks at Cameron Island (where to obnoxiously tall condo tower is now). It comprised of a four-legged tower 15 to 90 feet in height depending on terrain with a ten foot timber crossbar with bevelled wheels on each end which carried the cable. A 20Hp steam engine powered the cable and its 200 iron buckets around the circuit at 10mph. Each bucket could carry 200lbs and the system could transport 10 tons/hour. These could have very well been the precursors to ski lifts used on the mountains today! A telegraph line was strung on top and this was the first telegraph line to come to Nanaimo. The design ultimately failed due to vandals pulling the buckets off but also having them  fall off on their own due to the weight and the sagging cable. Since the buckets were so heavy, they remained where the fell. The $50 reward was offered for capture of the vandals. Due to the failure of the tramway and the mine's financial problems, it closed in 1878 and was followed by numerous re-openings and closings.

Harewood Mines Founded 1874  
Harewood Mines in operation 1876-1878 11,850 tons extracted
Further Exploration by VCC 1891-1893 Poor quality coal found
Further exploration by VCC 1899 Poor quality coal found
Vancouver Coal Company Opens Mine 1901-1904
Pithead with elevator cage constructed.  Also built 3.5 mi of underground track
to haul coal. Mine closed when fault was encountered and stopped production.
Western Fuel Company Opens Mine 1917-1923 762,000 tons extracted
Mine Abandoned for good 1923 774,361 tons extracted over mine's life

Map of Nanaimo Mine Sites

Coal Mine Dangers and Working Conditions

Although it seems like a really fun adventure to exploring in old mines, it should be noted that coal mines are especially dangerous. Besides the less obvious cave-in danger, coal beds also produce high levels of methane and carbon monoxide. As a result, you could suffocate or worse, blow up if you are carrying any sources of ignition.

Nanaimo's mining history if fraught with tragedy. In between the 1860's to 1950's, over 600 workers died as a result of mining accidents. Most notable is the 1887 Nanaimo mine explosion in which 150 workers lost their lives when improperly placed explosives were detonated. Much of the blame falls on the 53 Chinese miners, who are believed to have not been able to read signs and instructions. Only seven of the workers made it out with their lives.

At the Protection Island Mine, the cable lowering an elevator filled with 16 workers snapped and sent them falling 555ft to their deaths.

The working conditions, to put it mildly, were inhumane by today's standards. The job was high risk with very little if any safety equipment in place besides frequent testing for methane leaks. Workers would make $2.50-$5 a day while natives and Chinese workers, although eager to work in the mines, would make less than half of that. In 1877, the provincial government passed the Coal Mines Act which required workers to have better working conditions. Although this seemed like a step forward, tragedies still occurred for years with smaller, yet devastating explosions and cave-ins, and further loss of life. The miners formed a union in 1891 and they utilized their rights to go on strike many times. The militia and police were even called in at one time and made arrests.

Following the Allies' victory in World War II, the celebration set the mining structures on fire and as a result, the mines were ignited as well and smoke billowed out of the shafts for years.

Probably the most recent casualty of the mines where two boys who lost their lives in 1969. Evidently they had come across a mine tunnel near the fissure and decided that it would be fun place to have a sleepover. Their bodies, still in sleeping bags, were not found until the 1980's when four exploring boys came across them. The bodies had been remarkably preserved due to the frigid temperatures of the mine and it is believed that they died in their sleep due to methane exposure. After an RCMP investigation, the entrance was demolished so nobody would be victim to these mines again.

The End Of An Era

Although the coal deposits in the area created Nanaimo and its prosperity, it eventually had to end. Nanaimo had seen its way through many ups and downs in the economy. During World War I, Nanaimo had a booming success, but the Depression which followed a few years later devastated the town. When World War II came along, the demand for coal had changed to oil and gas. This was the beginning of the end and the last of the mines, White Rapids, closed in 1950.

Other Notable Mine Sites

Morden Colliery -N 49° 05.676 W 123° 52.373

Smaller Fissure -N 49° 11.255 W 124° 00.202

Harewood Mines Resevoir- N 49° 08.056 W 123° 57.816

Petroglyph Provincial Park - N 49° 08.410 W 123° 55.556

To Log This Earthcache

The Fissure

1.) Measure the length and width of the fissure and E-mail me your answer.

2.) Optional:Take a picture of you (or your group) and your GPS at the site and post on

3.) E-mail a copy of the photo to me at labeling the hanging wall and the footwall using paint or some other photo editing software. Do not post the copy on the site and spoil it for others!

The Coal Seam

4.) Find a coal seam in Nanaimo (Victoria Crescent @ Cavan Street parking lot) and take a picture of you (or your group) and your GPS at the site. Post with your log.

5.) Measure the length and width and calculate the volume of the coal with the assumption that the specimen area is one meter deep. E-mail me the answer.


6.) See if you can determine how deep the fissure is. Nobody really knows although falling to your death is quite unlikely as you will see. You can post with your log if you'd like.

7.) Post photos or logs of any other neat Nanaimo mining sites you know of to share with others!

Additional Hints (Decrypt)

Fgntr 1- Sbe Crgr'f fnxr! Lbh pna frr vg sebz Tbbtyr Rnegu!
Fgntr 2- Cnexvat Ybg

Decryption Key


(letter above equals below, and vice versa)



89 Logged Visits

Found it 76     Didn't find it 2     Write note 10     Publish Listing 1     

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Current Time:
Last Updated: on 10/8/2017 7:27:55 PM Pacific Daylight Time (2:27 AM GMT)
Rendered From:Unknown
Coordinates are in the WGS84 datum

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