Bays, Pacific Northwest
Union Bay is part of the traditional territory of the Pentlatch People. A Salish speaking First Nations who inhabited the east coast of Vancouver Island from the Cortes Island to Nanaimo, the Pentlatch people had permanent and seasonal villages that they used for fishing, hunting and food gathering in Union Bay.
But life wasn’t always idyllic. Their villages were often raided by tribes living on north and west Vancouver Island and with the arrival of European settlers that brought smallpox and other diseases, they were suffering.
In 1862 settlers began to arrive in the Comox Valley. Most purchased land near the Comox and the Tsolum River. A decade later coal was discovered and the town of Union was born.
Union Bay, established as Union Wharf in 1887, was a major deep sea shipping port for the coal mined in Cumberland. A railway was laid between the two communities and an 18.5-meter high wharf – large enough to hold a locomotive and train of coal cars and allow several ships to load at once – was constructed out over Union Bay.
Nearby, a four-story washer powered by water from Hart Creek processed up to 600 tons of coal per each 10-hour shift and 200 ovens ran 24/7 converting coal into coke, the high-grade fuel much in demand by West Coast smelters.
A community of around 10,000 grew up around the wharf to support all the industrial activity. Life revolved around the sound of the work whistle.
Union Bay also had a large Chinese community. These hard-working men usually found employment as ship trimmers, a dangerous and unpleasant job that involved making sure coal was loaded evenly in each vessel.
A few remnants of Union Bay’s past remain today. These include a school and tiny goal house, as well as the United Church and post office, which still serve their original purposes.