The village of Cumberland on east Vancouver Island is one of those tiny communities that, on the surface, might be easy to bypass. But over the course of many visits there we have discovered a treasure trove of great reasons to return.
Founded in 1888, Cumberland thrived as a booming coal mining community until 1966. The black treasure was so bountiful, in fact, that much of the town is built atop the excavated coal seams that stretched for miles and employed people from all over the world. There were significant Japanese and Chinese communities in addition to many European, Canadian and American workers.
When the world-wide demand for coal decreased Cumberland went into a state of semi-hibernation for many years. The active working community abandoned the community to pursue jobs in logging, fishing and other industries. The past couple of decades, however, have seen a revival in population (now about 4,000) and a rejuvenated business core that offers a charmingly eclectic mix of history and small business.
The true beauty of Cumberland’s recent re-awakening though, is the fact that there is such great respect for times past and the miners who originally made the place what it is. Many of the original residences and businesses in the village remain standing and in use to this day, honouring what can only have been a hard-scrabble life in what, in those days, was a very isolated location.
On our first visit to Cumberland we started out at the very unique Cumberland Museum, crammed full of artifacts from the past. Much of the basement area is dedicated to the coal industry and miners, and includes an iron lung made of plywood and a walk-through replica of a coal-mine, complete with coal dust on the floor. The museum is staffed by enthusiastic and knowledgeable volunteers who certainly gave us a great overview of the village, then and now. The rest of that first day was spent wandering along the village’s main street, taking in the many appealing businesses, the historical plaques and chatting with friendly residents and shop keepers.
Our return visits have included the self-guided heritage walking tour (brochures available at the museum) that document the history of many of the beautifully-restored homes and businesses in the village, complete with information placards in front of each stop. We have also visited the intriguing and serene Japanese and Chinese cemeteries (about a kilometer out of town because of the racism in those early days), and we have enjoyed excellent meals in a number of historic buildings and hotels that have been converted to restaurants.
Every time we visit we discover more engrossing history, often related to us by the local residents. The reverence for the village’s history and the miners (many of whom lost their lives in mine explosions) is obvious and permanent as evidenced by the annual Workers Day Bean Supper every May 1 and the Miners Memorial Weekend, now in to its 29th year.
For those who may not have much interest in history there is plenty else going on in this vibrant little settlement. Mountain biking and hiking are two favoured activities in the area and the close proximity to Mt.Washington makes it a popular layover for skiers. There is plenty of live entertainment year-round in the pubs and restaurants and the Empire Days celebration on the May long weekend is a great draw for families. A huge motorcycle roundup takes over the downtown core for a weekend each August. No matter what your passion, taking that jog off the Island Highway and into Cumberland will be a worthwhile detour.
Historic & Heritage sites in Cumberland, BC