It was coal – and lots of it – that first brought Europeans to the valley, then populated by the Comox Indian Band. This ‘black stone’, mined mainly in the Cumberland are at the southern boundary of the Comox Valley, soon saw the creation of an industry that brought thousands to the beautiful valley. Robert Dunsmuir, the coal baron who already had booming mines in the Nanaimo area, bought up the claims and the townsite was laid out in the early 1890s. Named for a county in England, Cumberland, incorporated in 1889, was originally known as Union. The coal was shipped to Union Bay, a port Dunsmuir built eight miles south of the mines. There, ships from around the world loaded up on the excellent coal.
CUMBERLAND was a bustling town, including a Chinatown that had a population of nearly 3,000. There was also a smaller Japanese population. The coal seams were eventually played out in the mid-1960s and the town, a few miles inland from the Island Highway, settled into a role as a quiet, little community around which coal stories continue to be told. A great place to relive that history is at the Cumberland Museum. In May, visitors can share in Empire Days, a weekend of family fun. In October, Cumberland holds a rousing Octoberfest.
COURTENAY thrived due to the coal mining at Cumberland. The demand for food by the thousands of miners was satisfied by the farmers working the fertile flatland closer to the ocean. Used as hunting grounds by the Coast Salish Indians, Courtenay was first visited by an agent of the Hudson’s Bay Company in the early 1850s. It would be another 40 years before the area, then a vast forest, was first settled by Europeans. They cleared the land and made the area into one of Vancouver Island’s most productive agricultural areas.
Logging the vast forests also employed hundreds, and the necessary sawmills brought another influx of people. By 1914, the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway reached Courtenay – its northern terminus – providing an economical link to southern Vancouver Island.
Named for George Courtenay, captain of the warship Constance, the city sits along the banks of the Courtenay River. The river is a favorite playground, and tubing down its length – look for the seals! – is one pastime enjoyed by both residents and visitors.
Courtenay is also the jumping off point for Mt. Washington and Forbidden Plateau ski areas and the southern access into the variety of trials in Strathcona Provincial Park, British Columbia’s oldest park.
A haven for artists, (over 600 at last count), makes Courtenay a great place to browse for everything from Native carvings and paintings to some of the best pottery anywhere. Courtenay also boasts a lively entertainment scene, with theatre, concerts and dance.
COMOX, due east of Courtenay against the shores of Georgia Strait, was also the home for the Coast Salish people. In the early 1790s, Spanish explorers sailed in the harbor, but it was British surveyors aboard the Plumper who first saw the agricultural promise of the vast flatlands. Comox continued as a farming community until the early 1940s, when the federal government decided it was the perfect place for an air force base. Today, the base is the economic backbone of the community and surrounding area. Every two years, CFB Comox stages one of Canada’s best air shows with planes from around the world on display.
Comox also boasts a bustling waterfront, where fishing charters are easily arranged. The ocean location is also the theme for Nautical Days, a nautical heritage celebration held in early August.
By far, the most famous of Comox’s events is the annual Filberg Festival, a gathering of artists from around British Columbia. Held on the grounds of Filberg Lodge and Park, a sprawling estate deeded to the town, the festival is four days of immersion in the best of B.C. arts, crafts and music.
In addition to the Filberg, the Comox Valley hosts a number of other festivals. Among them are the Trumpeter Swan Festival in early February, an event celebrating the thousands of the huge white swans that over-winter in the valley. In August, there’s the Comox Valley Youth Music Centre’s Festivals, while September hosts the annual Harvest Festival.
One of the most popular events of the summer is the Vancouver Island MusicFest. Over 1,100 volunteers help put on this weekend production that sees over 200 performers using six different stages. The festival’s popularity has grown in recent years, in part due to its ability to attract high calibre and popular performers like David Crosby, Bela Fleck, The Wailers and many other top-notch musicians. Onsite camping is available. Tickets go fast, so reserve yours today!
For the outdoor enthusiast, the splendor of Forbidden Plateau, Mt. Washington ski hill and Strathcona Provincial Park are easily accessible.
Mt. Washington Ski Resort is the largest on Vancouver Island. The new Strathcona Parkway takes visitors to to the hill and its 42 alpine runs, one quad lift, two triple chairs, two doubles, one poma, a handletow, tubing park, a snowboard park and 40 kilometers of set cross country ski track. The hill boasts a great lodge, lots of condominiums and a new hotel. The ski hill is quickly becoming a year-round resort with summer activities including outdoor concerts, art courses, hiking excursions and mountain biking down the runs. Mt. Washington is also the jumping off point for access into the kilometers of hiking trails of Strathcona Provincial Park.
The Forbidden Plateau has backcountry skiing opportunities that are surprisingly accessible.
The Comox Valley can rightly boast of being the center where you can do just about everything – from golf to skiing – all in the same day.
If You Go To The Comox Valley…
BY ROAD: Travelers from the south can take either the Island Highway (Hwy. 19), the scenic but slow ocean route from Nanaimo. The 100-kilometer trip takes about 1 1/2 hours. An alternate route is the new Inland Island Highway. From Nanaimo, the trip takes about one hour. If you’re coming from the north, take the Island Highway south. From Port Hardy, the 282-kilometer trip takes about 3 1/2 hours.
BY AIR: Scheduled airline connections are out of Vancouver, direct to Comox Valley Airport.