If you paddle along the western shore of Newcastle Island, which faces the city of Nanaimo across narrow Newcastle Island Passage, you can see fine examples of those sinuous, wave-sculpted sandstone formations, or galleries, that mark many a coastline in these parts. But there's a difference to Newcastle's sandstone: it's better than anyone else's, apparently. Nineteenth-century geologists found it lighter and more pleasing in colour, more weather-resistant, stronger, and with fewer flaws than anything else they'd surveyed.
In 1869, the U.S. government was looking for a superior sandstone to use for the San Francisco mint. An impressive, impenetrable building in the "classic revival" style, the mint was to be faced with 30-centimetre-thick blocks of sandstone, its massive portico held high by fluted Doric sandstone columns. Despite objections from American quarriers, the builders settled on Newcastle Island stone, and over the next four years, almost 8,000 tonnes were cut and transported by sailing vessel to San Francisco. The finished structure survived the great 1906 earthquake unscathed and today is a historic landmark.
Most of the stone was cut in 5.5-tonne blocks, but the columns were a special job: each rough cylinder was 8.4 metres long, 1.2 metres in diameter, and weighed 33 tonnes. Two cylinders, along with dozens of blocks, were loaded on the Zephyr in February 1872, but the next day the boat sank off Mayne Island in a storm, drowning the captain and a crewman. The stone wasn't salvaged, and replacement columns had to be laboriously quarried and shipped south. More than a century later, in 1976, a floating derrick raised some of the wreck's cargo and returned one cylinder to Newcastle, which had become an early B.C. provincial marine park. It can be seen there today, along with the remains of the quarry.
Newcastle is a wonderful place to shake off urban stress for a few hours. You can paddle right round it in about 90 minutes, watching the island's numerous raccoons forage for shellfish at the water's edge. The shallow channel (known as the Gap) between Newcastle and Protection Island pretty much dries at low tide. We had to line our kayaks through ankle-deep water for several hundred metres, gingerly dodging the sand dollars that line the bottom there in great numbers.
Most people get to Newcastle on the little passenger ferry that runs April 2 to Thanksgiving weekend from Maffeo Sutton Park. (Adult return fare is $7; for a full schedule and other details, phone 1-800-663-7337 or go to www.tour ism.nanaimo.bc.ca/get_outside .php/. The ferry dock is near the statue of former Nanaimo mayor Frank Ney dressed as a pirate. A bit farther south along the waterfront, another small ferry runs to the residential community on Protection Island, which is also fun to explore and has a floating pub.)
It's easy to spend a day roaming Newcastle by foot. A shoreline trail encircles the entire island, and other paths crisscross it, leading to Mallard Lake, various industrial ruins, a lovely campground and a group of old buildings once owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway. A 1998 book by Bill Merilees, Newcastle Island: A Place of Discovery (Heritage), explores the host of historical associations that linger here.
The sandstone quarry, for instance, supplied stone for many buildings other than the mint, including the piers of the original Alexandria suspension bridge across the Fraser River, the B.C. Penitentiary, the Esquimalt Graving Dock, and numerous banks, schools, and churches in Vancouver and Victoria. Near the ferry landing, you can also see where dozens of circular pulp stones, used to grind wood into pulp for the paper-making process, were cut from the island's rocky sediments.
Even more important than Newcastle sandstone were the thick, easily accessible seams of Newcastle coal. The island was named, in fact, after the coal-rich city of Newcastle Upon Tyne in northern England. Large-scale underground mining took place, intermittently, from the 1860s until 1938. In the old days, it would have been possible to walk five kilometres from Newcastle to downtown Nanaimo via subterranean workings. The coal shafts are sealed today, but foundations of many mine buildings can still be seen.
After its industrial phase, the island became a tourist destination. The CPR bought Newcastle in 1930 in order to compete, through its Coastal Steamship subsidiary, with the Union Steamship and Harbour Navigation companies, which were doing a nice business carrying holiday-minded Vancouverites to pleasure havens on Bowen Island and at Selma Park near Sechelt and Belcarra in Indian Arm. The company erected a dance pavilion that remains standing, the last structure of its type left on the B.C. coast. The resort's playing fields, restaurant, bandstand, warden's house, and docks are all intact as well.
In 1955, the far-sighted citizens of Nanaimo voted to purchase Newcastle as a park; city fathers also wisely scotched a plan to build a bridge or tunnel to their new acquisition. Six years later, the province took it over. Now both the island environment and the visiting experience are well-preserved, and Newcastle remains a delightful step out of time.
Andrew Scott's latest book is Secret Coastline II: More Journeys and Discoveries Along BC's Shores (Whitecap). The writer can be contacted through www.andrew-scott.ca/.