Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Robert Dunsmuir's North Island Connection

The item appeared in the North Island Gazette on September 26, 2013.
North Islanders might not be aware that one of the richest and most well-known industrialists in the history of Vancouver Island was lured to Fort Rupert from Scotland, when he was hired by the Hudsons Bay Company (HBC) to mine coal.
Robert Dunsmuir was born in 1825.  His grandfather had success buying up coal mines in Scotland at the time of the advent of the steam engine and for a short while the family prospered, until most of Dunsmuir’s immediate family died in 1832, most likely of cholera.  Dunsmuir became a ward of his aunt in his youth, and went to school to train to carry on in the family occupation of coal mining.
In 1850 Dunsmuir was newly married, when his uncle, Boyd Gilmour, signed on with the HBC to manage mining operations at Fort Rupert.  When a number of the original miners backed out of their contracts following communication from Fort Rupert about the poor working conditions and hostile First Nations, Dunsmuir signed on at the last minute.  He took his wife and two young daughters with him on the voyage by ship around Cape Horn (the tip of South America), landing at Fort Rupert in August 1851.  Along the way a son had been born at Fort Vancouver along the Columbia River, who was named James Dunsmuir.
At this time miners were indentured to their employer for the cost of their passage, which meant that they were not free to leave employment with the HBC until their contract was complete.  The miners contracts were a combination of basic wages, and bonuses based on the amount of coal produced.
A previous group of miners, largely members of John Muir’s extended family, had previously staged a strike at Fort Rupert, deserted, were recaptured, and held in the bastion of the Fort after they complained about their working conditions.  They said they were unable to find any viable coal worth mining.  When the new Scottish employees arrived, they didn’t find much better prospects.
Aside from the challenges of mining coal, being the first white woman and children in the Fort excited much curiosity.  One afternoon Dunsmuir’s wife Joan had put her son James to sleep, and was at the baking oven with her two older children.  When she returned, the baby was gone.  He was found being gently passed around a group of interested Kwakiutl women at a campfire.  They were fascinated with the baby’s blond hair, and offered to buy him, thinking that he could one day make a great chief.  Joan convinced them to return the child, but the story became a part of the Dunsmuir family folklore.
By 1852, the HBC had started mining more lucrative coal deposits in Nanaimo.  Gilmour, Dunsmuir and their families moved down island.  Dunsmuir fulfilled his contract with the HBC, and then started working for private coal companies.  Eventually he discovered some new seams of coal and, with private investors, started his own coal mining company: Dunsmuir, Diggle, & Co.  It eventually became Robert Dunsmuir and Sons. 
Robert Dunsmuir
Dunsmuir was a shrewd businessman, and his empire grew rapidly.  He built the island’s E&N Railway, through which he negotiated a land grant which included the rights to 800,000 hectares: most of Southern Vancouver Island.  He fought vigorously against unions, and was accused of operating with unsafe working conditions in his mines.    Dunsmuir built Craigdarroch castle in Victoria, and eventually sat as a member of the provincial parliament.  His son James sat as Premier of BC from 1900 to 1902 and Lieutenant Governor from 1906 to 1909.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Ronning Garden - A Labour of Love to Reclaim Heritage Plants

This article originally appeared in the North Island Gazette August 29, 2013.

In 1910 Bernt Ronning, a young immigrant from Norway, established a homestead on the wagon road between Holberg and Cape Scott.
Bernt Ronning - 1944 - Photo from Dennis Newnham 
Ronning cleared his five acres of forest.  An avid gardener, he obtained many plants and trees through mail order catalogues.  He became known around Northern Vancouver Island for his spectacular garden with botanical specimens from around the world. He promoted an agricultural fair in the San Josef area for many years.
 Ronning enjoyed socializing with his neighbours, and would hike out to Cape Scott to visit the military base there during the 1940s. The 10 minute walk from the parking area to Ronning’s Garden follows a restored section of the old Cape Scott wagon trail.
 The central location of his property on the Holberg- San Josef road made it a natural meeting place.  He had a pump organ and had a building with a hand-hewn floor that served as a dance hall.  As was the custom at the time, people would travel great distances, from Cape Scott to the areas around Quatsino Sound, to attend the dances at Ronning’s property.
 Ronning ran a trapline at Raft Cove.  At one time a shipwrecked crew stayed in his shack until they were rescued.
 Working as a fisherman, trapper, and camp cook, Ronning lived on his homestead until the 1960s, passing away in Vancouver in 1963.  When he left the rainforest began to encroach and take over the garden.
 One of the main features of the garden is an impressive monkey puzzle tree. Originally there were a breeding pair of mature trees (one male and one female), which marked the gate to Ronning’s property. Sadly, the female tree died about ten years ago. 
The offspring of these two trees were shipped around the world and can be found in many North Island gardens.  Between 1981-2003 over 15,000 seeds and trees were sold or given to visitors and shipped to nurseries and buyers around the world. There now are 17 younger trees, offspring from this pair, who are growing now in the garden. 
One of the truly incredible features of the garden is the mature specimen trees, some of which are almost a hundred years old, growing amidst the wilds of the Pacific Rainforest.   Incredibly, a number of smaller plants did survive for decades and have been revived through the vigilance of a dedicated group of local volunteers who wage a constant struggle to keep the natural environment from recapturing this landscape.
Though much of the original beauty of the garden has been lost, including many shrubs and flowering plants the garden is still one of the incredible gems of the North Island. The road to Ronning Garden is marked on forestry road maps and with road signs.  The garden is open year round, and many of the plants are labeled to help visitors appreciate the garden.