Cumberland – Chinese and Mining History in a Small BC Town

Cumberland is one of the last places I would have ever thought of visiting. I never heard of this little Vancouver Island town until I heard that my wife would be working for a while in Courtenay.  Cumberland is up and away from the east coast of Vancouver Island. It’s a quick drive past the Inland Island Highway from Courtenay to Cumberland.

For me, the little gem in town is the Cumberland Museum and Archives.  However, I discovered a Chinese and Japanese connection in the town.  Cumberland was home to the second largest Chinese settlement in North America after San Fransisco around the turn of the 20th Century.  So the museum is full of Chinese related articles and stories about how those Chinese locals lived.  Many Japanese had also settled in Cumberland at the same time.

There were also some other tidbits about Cumberland in its early days.  There were a collection of different items from the past.  I also loved the list of rules for teachers of the day.  In a modern-day context, the list is totally hilarious, but it’s very indicative of the culture of the day.

In the basement of the museum was the mining section.  That part of the museum wasn’t interesting to me, but there were sure a lot of mines in the area.  The mines were the reason that so many Chinese had come to Cumberland.  The owner of the mining company liked to hire Chinese workers.

The rest of town was centred around the one small commercial street, Dunsmuir Street.  Cumberland is becoming a home for many young families.  The homes are cheaper in Cumberland compared to Courtenay and Comox which are both down on the water.  Cumberland is up into the hills and well inland. Dunsmuir Street may be short, but it does have that small town charm to it.

Just a little ways further out-of-town is the site of Chinatown.  The Chinatown was torn down in the 1960’s.  Many of the buildings had become derelict and unsalvageable. Many of the Chinese who were here had already left town and moved to places like Vancouver.  Today, the site of the Chinatown is a nature park.  The park has trails to walk and is a well-known mountain biking area.  All that remains to remind people of the existence of the Chinatown is a sign and a small gazebo.

So Cumberland and its museum is worth the visit if you are into learning history of small towns.  It’s also a popular place with all the mountain bikers.  You should see the town parking lot in town on the weekend.  There are mountain bikes everywhere.  For me, I enjoyed the Chinese connection that I never realized existed in Cumberland.

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