Distinctive, historic and only minutes away, the Town of Ladysmith is a unique part of the central Vancouver Island region. With a population today of more than 8,500 Ladysmith is located within the Cowichan Valley Regional District (CVRD) and is one of the main service and shopping centers of the area.
While permanent European settlement of the community began late in the 19th Century, the area (originally known as Oyster Harbour) has been home to the people of the Stz’uminus First Nation for thousands of years. Archeological evidence shows that the First Nations peoples recognized the bountiful resources of present day Ladysmith harbor as a rich source of shellfish (hence its original name), and other marine species.
Native peoples established several fishing camps in and around the harbor area where they used traditional food-gathering methods. Losing much of their traditional territory upon the arrival of the Europeans, the Stz’uminus people presently reside in four separate reserves in the region – two of which border the community’s harbor.
The Town of Ladysmith as we know it today came into being thanks to the Victorian era’s insatiable demand for coal. In 1884 the legendary coal Baron James Dunsmuir, who at the time was the owner of the Wellington Colliery Company, was given authority by the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway Grant to privatize much of the Stz’uminus First Nation lands and resources within the region.
The owner / operator of numerous coal mines and other facilities throughout the central Vancouver Island area, Dunsmuir founded (in 1904) a small company town on the shores of Oyster Harbour to provide a home base for miners working at his nearby Extension colliery operation.
As a historic coincidence the Boer War was raging at that same time in South Africa, with the celebrated ‘Siege of Ladysmith’ dominating international news. As a patriotic gesture Dunsmuir elected to honor the defenders of that far away town by christening his fledgling community Ladysmith.
Thanks to the strong demand for coal to help fuel the thriving British Empire the community grew quickly and by 1911 the town had a population of more than 3,000. In the early decades of the 20th Century coal was truly king, but as technology and markets changed the allure of the black mineral began to diminish. Labor disruptions, catastrophic mining disasters (such as the Extension mine explosion that killed 32 miners in 1909) and decreasing profitability saw the last of the region’s coal mines permanently shuttered in 1931, at the height of the Great Depression.
Down but by no means out, the Town of Ladysmith slowly reinvented itself over the decades – first with an economy driven by the forest industry to today’s multi-tiered economy powered by everything from tourism and hospitality to government services, banking and an expansive service sector.
Constructed on a series of rolling hills that provide views of the busy harbor that inspired its founding, today’s Town of Ladysmith with its iconic main street (which was named the best street in Canada by the Canadian Institute of Planners in 2017), is a unique and vibrant part of the central Island area. If you haven’t already visited it, why not discover the community for yourself?