Robert Dunsmuir was born in Hurlford, Scotland to James and Elizabeth Dunsmuir in 1825. At the time of his birth, Robert’s family was engaged in the coal business in Scotland. Dunsmuir’s grandfather, Robert, had numerous coal properties that were producing high-quality coal that was sold for top dollars. In 1832, in the midst of this prosperity, Robert’s mother, father, grandmother, and two of his three sisters died within days of each other in a cholera epidemic. Three years later, grandfather Robert died a wealthy man, leaving a third of his estate in trust for his orphaned grandchildren. Dunsmuir went to work in the family’s coal mines for his uncle Boyd Gilmour.
At the end of 1850, Dunsmuir’s uncle Boyd Gilmour had signed on with the Hudson’s Bay Company to work a coal finding on Vancouver Island at Fort Rupert, called the Suquash Mine. Some of the men who had agreed to go backed out upon hearing news of the conditions there, Roberts Uncle Gilmour signed him up for the journey, he was to be paid 5 dollars a week.
On July 18, 1851, they set sail for Fort Rupert from the port of Vancouver and when they arrived on August 9, they began their 3-year contract with the Hudson’s Bay Company. Gilmour struggled unsuccessfully to develop a producing coal operation at Fort Rupert until August 24, 1852, when Hudson Bay Company instructed them to move on to Nanaimo where a coal seam had been discovered. Work was slow and the living conditions were difficult. In 1854 at the end of their contract Gilmour left to return to Scotland. Dunsmuir stayed on.
The lease from the crown that gave the HBC the rights to all of the coal found on Vancouver Island ran out in 1859, Robert continued to work for various coal companies as superintendent for the next 10 years. Then In October 1869, Dunsmuir was fishing for trout at Diver Lake, a few miles north and west of Nanaimo, when he found a coal outcrop. He staked a claim to 1,600 acres in a band 1,000 yards wide and 6 km long including the north half of Diver Lake and running right to Departure Bay in the area known as Wellington.
He needed investors and Wadham Diggle, commander of the naval vessel Boxer, one of the first to use Dunsmuir’s coal, invested $8,000 in the venture. Rear-Admiral Arthur Farquhar, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet invested a further $12,000. The two investors left the operation of the company to Dunsmuir. By 1873 the Wellington colliery was producing 16,000 of the 40,000 tons of coal produced on Vancouver Island. By the end of 1875, Dunsmuir was producing 50,000 tons per year. Its two principal markets were San Francisco and the Royal Navy. The company bought out Farquhar in 1879 and in 1883 Diggle was paid $600,000 for his half share of the business, then producing a profit of $500,000 per year. Over the next few years, less and less coal was being mined, Robert was well aware of the fact that the mine was going to close. So in the early ’90s, Robert moved into the town of Union and began mining there. In 1898 the Wellington Mine closed.
In 1891, the township of Union that was growing around the mine site was renamed Cumberland. By 1897 the mine was producing 700-1000 tons per day and employed more than 700 men and supported a town of 3000 with an additional 200 Chinese workers that lived in China town that was located about a km from Cumberland.
thirty-eight years after arriving at the colony of Vancouver Island as an indentured $5 a week miner for the Hudson Bay Company, Robert died the richest man in BC, he was in sole control of an empire worth 15 million.