The earliest settlers in the Departure Bay, Vancouver Island area was a first nations group known as the Snuneymuxw and it has been shown that for at least 2000 years the bay has been inhabited by them. The area was first explored by the Spanish from 1770 to about 1790. The area was known as “Stil’ilup”. After it was settled. The first known settlers were William Joseph Hughes, Samuel Harris, and John and Barbara Christie. They all arrived in 1860.
In the late 1860s, coal was discovered in the Wellington area, and the bay became the shipping port for this coal. In the 1870s, coal was discovered close to the bay itself, and the Vancouver Coal Company set up further operations in the area.
It was a very busy place, did you know the first telephone to operate in British Columbia was set up connecting the coal wharf in the Bay with the mine operations at Wellington. During the development of Departure Bay, many mining companies were active in the area, including The Departure Bay Mining Company, The Harewood Coal Company, and the Vancouver Coal Company.
The Hamilton Powder Company had an explosives manufacturing plant in the Bay. The production of black powder was relatively dangerous, and in 1903, there were two massive explosions at the Departure Bay works, 12 men died in this disaster. It also ended the production of powder on the bay shore.
The earliest ferries to use the port were local ships, traveling short routes between locations in the area, including Nanaimo, Departure Bay, and Newcastle Island. The first major ferry operation in the area was that of the C. P. N. Company, which maintained a route between Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland, it was the sole service until the 1950s when Premier Bennett started a governmental ferry service, it became the BC Ferry Corporation and it still operates today.
On the shore of Departure Bay, you will find the Pacific Biological Station. It is the oldest fisheries research center on our coast. The Station is home to scientists, technicians, support staff and ships’ crews whose common interests are the coastal waters of British Columbia and the Northeast Pacific Ocean.
It was established in 1908 and is the principal center for fisheries research on the West Coast. There are 22 structures on the site including a four-story office/wet lab building, specialty storage structures for hazardous chemicals and saltwater pumping facilities. There are a number of workshops for research support. There is a large wharf used by many research vessels, along with a small boat dock for inshore research boats. There are a library and meeting facilities. This is a great place to visit, around the back is a small shed, built of rocks and timbers, very old, the staff uses it as a bike storage shed. It really shows just how old this research center is.