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Ladysmith’s identity as a charming west coast town is steeped in its intriguing history and the history of the original inhabitants of the area, the people of the Stz’uminus First Nation. The community’s strong sense of pride for its past is evident in its well-maintained architecture and streetscapes. Residents place a very high value on preserving Ladysmith’s heritage, and the Town is taking measures to ensure those values are enshrined in all development related plans, policies and guidelines.
The first inhabitants of what is now known as the Town of Ladysmith were the people of the Stz’uminus First Nation. For thousands of years, the Stz’uminus people used Ladysmith Harbour and its environs as a rich source of fish and shellfish. The Stz’uminus established numerous fishing camps around the harbour, where they practised traditional food gathering techniques. The historic lifestyle of the Stz’uminus was threatened by the arrival of Europeans who usurped much of their territory. They now reside within four reserves, two of which border Ladysmith Harbour. The two other reserves are located south of Chemainus. Although the Harbour is no longer the rich source of marine life it once was, the Stz’uminus people continue to practice many aspects of their traditional lifestyle and are working with the Town of Ladysmith to restore the Harbour to its original condition. Today, the Stz’uminus are a progressive people who are moving towards building an independent nation via economic development, education and partnerships.
In 1884, the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway Grant to James Dunsmuir (owner of the Wellington Colliery Company) privatized many of the Stz’uminus First Nation lands and resources. Two decades later, in 1904, James Dunsmuir founded a company town at Oyster Harbour for miners at his recently opened Extension colliery, twelve miles to the north. Dunsmuir named the new town Ladysmith, in honour of the end of the siege of Ladysmith, South Africa during the Boer War. The new community, fuelled by the strong demand for coal, grew quickly. By 1911 its population stood at about 3,300 people.
Coal mining was the most important industry in Ladysmith in the early decades of the twentieth century. The Extension colliery was the largest employer in the region and many different businesses and services sprang up in Ladysmith to support the industry and the mining families. But coal mining, although profitable for the owners, was never a stable and secure industry for the workers. Labour unrest and shutdowns were common, and the Vancouver Island mines were among the most dangerous in the industrialized world. Explosions of methane gas caused most fatalities.
On 5 October 1909, catastrophe struck Ladysmith when a violent explosion at Extension killed 32 men. In addition, coal faced serious competition from oil. After the Great Strike of 1912-14, production at Extension began to decline. Not even the demand for munitions during the First World War could reverse this trend, and the post-war world was a bleak one for Ladysmith's miners. Although a few new, smaller mines opened in the district, employment levels and demand for coal sank. By the late 1920s the future of the Island's coal-mining operations was in doubt. In April 1931, during the height of the Great Depression, the company closed the mines at Extension for good.
The closure of the mines in 1931 -- and the global economic depression -- hit Ladysmith hard. Businesses closed and the population dropped by more than half. In 1935, however, the Comox Logging and Railway Company purchased a tract of Douglas Fir forests to the west of Ladysmith from the Rockefeller family. When logging began the following year, Ladysmith began the slow process of economic recovery. By the late 1940s, Ladysmith was the centre of major logging operations that extended as far as the Nanaimo Lakes region and employed as many as 700 people.
Since then, logging and lumber milling have continued to play an important role in the town’s economic development. Even with the ups and downs of its industrial base, the community has continued to grow and diversify. Over the last half century, the Town’s population has doubled and the strong community spirit is still here, as witnessed by the many and diverse activities of service clubs and community groups. Projects such as downtown revitalization, the installation of heritage artifact displays and, more recently, the Town’s emphasis on sustainability, have enhanced Ladysmith’s reputation as a thriving, progressive community.
The Town of Ladysmith has also been forward-looking in developing relationships with the Stz’uminus First Nation and the Hul’qumi’num Treaty Group. This cooperation will bring even more opportunities to ensure the continued prosperity and well-being of all people living in this region.
Protecting and preserving Ladysmith’s long and rich heritage is a priority for the Town. A number of projects and partnerships have helped Council to ensure our community’s history is kept alive for future generations.
Stz’uminus First Nation
John R. Hinde. When Coal Was King: Ladysmith and the Coal-Mining Industry on Vancouver Island.
Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2003.
Brian D. Thom. Coast Salish Senses of Place. Montreal: Doctoral Dissertation, McGill University, 2005.
Ladysmith: 100 Years, 1904-2004. Ladysmith: Take 5 Centennial Committee