Robert Dunsmuir (1825-1889)Though not directly connected to Victoria’s harbour, Robert Dunsmuir’s  coal enterprise fueled Victoria’s early steamboat era and so deserves mention in Victoria’s Harbour History.

Robert Dunsmuir (1825-1889), his wife Joan, their first child (who had been born on the voyage around Cape Horn), and his mentor Boyd Gilmour arrived at Fort Rupert on August 9 1851. Boyd had a three-year term on the contract Hudson’s Bay Company and struggled unsuccessfully to develop a producing coal operation at Fort Rupert. In 1852 Governor Douglas instructed them to move to Nanaimo where a coal seam had been discovered. In 1854 when the term of their Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) contracts came up Governor Douglas refused to increase their pay rates. Gilmour returned to Scotland while Dunsmuir stayed on.

The Crown lease that gave the HBC the rights to all of the coal found on Vancouver Island expired in 1859 and it became possible for claims to be staked by others. In October 1869 Dunsmuir was fishing for trout at Diver Lake, a few miles north and west of Nanaimo, when he found a coal outcrop. He staked a claim to 1,600 acres (6 km2) in a band 1,000 yards (1,000 m) wide and 4 miles (6 km) long that included the north half of Diver Lake and ran to Departure Bay in the area known as Wellington. In order to stake a claim of this size, he was required to form a company, to be known as Dunsmuir, Diggle & Company. Once the legal requirement of partners in the venture had been met most signed off, leaving the claim to Dunsmuir, and his two remaining partners. Farquahar and Diggle. By 1873 the Wellington Colliery was producing 16,000 of the 40,000 tons produced on Vancouver Island. By the end of 1875 the company was producing 50,000 tons per year for its two principal markets, San Francisco and the Royal Navy. Dunsmuir bought out Farquhar in 1879 and Diggle in 1883.

The Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railroad

Dunsmuir was one of the founders of the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway Company which built the rail line from Esquimalt to Nanaimo, later extended to Wellington, Victoria and Courtenay. His company received a grant of land comprising 20% of Vancouver Island as an incentive to build and equip the railway line to be owned and operated by the company. The Dunsmuir railway station was named after him.


Dunsmuir was elected to the BC Legislature representing Nanaimo in the 1882 election while away on a European holiday, and was re-elected in 1886. Shortly after election to the legislature, he entered the cabinet. Dunsmuir died at Victoria, British Columbia while still in office.


Robert’s death in 1889 caused conflict within Dunsmuir’s large family. Robert had promised his business to his sons, James and Alexander, who had worked in the business for many years. However, Robert’s will stipulated the business and his estate be left to his wife. The disagreement was brought to court, which reflected poorly on Dunsmuir’s son James, who had become a British Columbia Premier. The family argument continued with silence between mother and son until Joan’s death in 1908 when James, with much indecision, attended his mother’s funeral where he wept.