While today a peaceful and sought-after residential area conveniently located just south of Nanaimo, Extension was in its time a crucial part of the industrial development that helped to open up the Central Vancouver Island region.
Reached via the appropriately named Extension Road, the community is located just past the Cinnabar Valley area, about 15 minutes south of the city’s downtown core. Quiet and green, Extension is located in proximity to the Nanaimo River, a number of extensive walking trails a well as popular parks such as Morden Colliery Park, a four hectare Provincial Park that was created to commemorate the region’s coal mining history.
It is to that quite literally ground-breaking industry that Extension owes its existence. Like Nanaimo itself, coal was the lure that first brought Europeans into the area. James Dunsmuir, son of the legendary coal baron Robert Dunsmuir, was an early industrialist and entrepreneur much like his father. Prior to serving as Premier of British Columbia (from 1900 to 1902) he was actively involved in the coal mining industry on Vancouver Island.
In 1895, following extensive exploration of the area, he opened three large coal mines in what is now the Extension area. These properties were in turn sold to Canadian Collieries (Dunsmuir) Ltd., who oversaw the daily operation of the mines. Canadian Collieries were a large industrial concern that operated coal mines and other related facilities all across Vancouver Island including in Comox, Cumberland, the Wellington area and Extension.
There’s something of an air of mystery about Dunsmuir and his timely acquisition of the Extension property. The land in question had been in the possession of a black settler named Louis Stark who had adamantly refused to sell, despite having received advances from more than one interested purchaser. Dunsmuir was able to scoop up the land from Stark’s estate after he had mysteriously died from a fall – a death that to this day remains unexplained.
Regardless of how it was acquired, the industrial development of the Extension area continued for more than three decades before Canadian Collieries shuttered the operations for good in 1932. As an interesting historic side-note the final Canadian Collieries mine on Vancouver Island was Cumberland’s No. 8 Mine which moved its last loads of coal in 1953.
At its height the Extension operations involved a number of functioning mines, operations that employed hundreds of people (more than 900 by some accounts), as well as a colliery that featured an electric railroad that ran underground for more than two miles, connecting the three primary Extension mines. Traditional above ground railroads were used to transport the anthracite to waiting ships that in turn transported this local form of black gold to eager markets around the world.
But the global need for coal diminished as the 20th Century wore on and gradually all mining operations on Vancouver Island ceased by the middle of the century. Interestingly enough one of the Extension area mines (referred to as No. 8) was one of the last. The mine had been opened and then operated by Dunsmuir Collieries until 1928 before being temporarily closed. In 1945 it reopened and operated under a number of different owners before being shut down for good in 1966.
Today Extension is a quiet and appealing satellite community of Nanaimo, but in its early days it was anything but quiet or attractive as it formed the center of the largest industrial development the region has ever known. It is today a reflection of the societal evolution that is a hallmark of much of Vancouver Island.