Robert Dunsmuir, the ?Coal King? of British Columbia

Thursday, March 30th, 2017

To mark Canada?s 150th birthday, we are counting down to Canada Day with profiles of 150 noteworthy British Columbians.

John Mackie
The Province

Robert Dunsmuir was the richest man in British Columbia in the 19th century.

How rich? He once owned two million acres between Esquimalt and Nanaimo — about one-fifth of Vancouver Island.

The giant land grant was his fee from the federal government for completing the national railway by building the Esquimalt to Nanaimo rail line in 1883. (He also got $750,000.)

But building the E&N Railway wasn’t the source of his wealth — coal mining was. When he died in 1889, the Vancouver News-Advertiser’s front page headline was “The Coal King is Dead.”

Born in Scotland, Dunsmuir moved to colonial Vancouver Island in 1851 to work for the Hudson’s Bay Company, which had several mines on the west coast.

In 1853, Dunsmuir discovered two seams of coal near Nanaimo. He went on to work for the Vancouver Coal Mining and Land Company, which bought the HBC claims, then was hired to run the Harewood Coal Company.

In 1869, he discovered coal while fishing at Diver Lake in Wellington, which is now part of Nanaimo. A few months later he found more coal, secured financing and started his own company.

According to historian Daniel T. Gallacher, within a decade Dunsmuir’s collieries “surpassed in size and output the combined value of all other British Columbia coal mines.”

Dunsmuir was a hard-nosed businessman and often fought with labour. Gallacher notes that when miners threatened to strike in 1877, Dunsmuir locked them out. The miners capitulated after four months, and he hired them back at a third of their previous wages.

Dunsmuir was elected to the provincial legislature as a member for Nanaimo in 1882, and built a big mansion, Fairview, in the capital. He was building an even bigger house, Craigdarroch Castle, when he died.

The News-Advertiser estimated Dunsmuir’s income “at $1,000 per day and upwards” when he died, in an era when there was no income tax. Dunsmuir’s empire was worth an estimated $15 million, which is about $400 million today.

His family fought over his fortune for years after his death. In 1908, his widow Joan sued their son James, who at various times was premier and lieutenant-governor of British Columbia.

Her statement of claim in 1908 said that Robert Dunsmuir had left her his entire estate in 1889, but a few years later her sons James and Alexander had bought her out for only $400,000.

Joan claimed her sons had “misrepresented” the value of the business, which amounted to fraud. But she didn’t win the suit.

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