Author Tags: Local History

Jan Peterson has written extensively about Vancouver Island, including Harbour City: Nanaimo in Transition, 1886—1920. It completes her trilogy that began with Black Diamond City: Nanaimo—The Victorian Era and Hub City: Nanaimo. Black Diamond City chronicles the evolution of Nanaimo from original Native settlements to coal-company town to a diversified Victorian-era community. Peterson used original diaries, journals, letters, logs, and reports to describe incidents within Native, British, and Chinese communities. Hub City Nainamo recalls the creation of the E&N Railway in 1886, the mining disaster of 1887 and the prominence of coal baron James Dunsmuir. The third volume covers the Roaring Twenties and the Depression years when Nanaimo provided employment to hundreds of people by building the South Fork Dam which still supplies water for the city nearly a century afterwards. While overcoming two major fires and the demise of its coal industry, Nanaimo increasingly relied on forestry and transportation.

Kilts on the Coast (2012) reveals how Scottish settlers shaped Vancouver Island. Peterson examines the events and people who sparked settlement and growth in BC's first Crown colony and delves deep into the roots of the Island's Scottish presence. From founding father James Douglas and other HBC men to the stalwart miners from the Orkney Islands who came over to work the coal mines to independent farmers struggling to clear the land, the Scots have left an indelible mark on Vancouver Island and the province as a whole.

Born in Scotland in March 5, 1937, Jan Peterson immigrated to Kingston, Ontario in 1957, moving to Vancouver in 1965 and onto Port Alberni in 1972. As an artist she has had numerous exhibits and founded the Rollin Art Centre. She served on the BC Arts Board (1979-81) and is a lifetime member of the Alberni Valley Community Arts Council. Peterson is the author of Cathedral Grove: MacMillan Park and a series on Alberni and Port Alberni. Formerly a reporter for the Alberni Valley Times and a winner of a Jack Wasserman Award for investigative journalism on social and environmental affairs, Peterson received Certificates of Honour from the B.C. Historical Federation in 1997 and 1999.

Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
Harbour City: Nanaimo in Transition, 1920-1967
Black Diamond City & Hub City
Kilts on the Coast: The Scots Who Built BC
Port Alberni: More Than Just a Mill Town


The Albernis, 1860-1922. Oolichan Books, 1992
Twin Cities: Alberni-Port Alberni. Oolichan Books, 1994
Cathedral Grove: MacMillan Park. Oolichan Books, 1996
Journeys down the Alberni Canal to Barkley Sound. Oolichan Books, 1999.
Black Diamond City: Nanaimo -- The Victorian Era (Heritage House, 2002)
Hub City Nanaimo 1886-1920 (Heritage House, 2003)
Harbour City: Nanaimo in Transition, 1886—1920 (Heritage, 2006). 1-894974-20-4. $19.95
Kilts on the Coast (Heritage 2012)
Port Alberni: More Than Just a Mill Town (Heritage House 2014) $19.95 9781927527689

[BCBW 2014] "Local History"

Nanaimo Hub City
Press Release 2003

This is the second volume in Jan Peterson’s trilogy on the history of Nanaimo. Once again she brings to life the people and the events that have shaped this ever-evolving community by tracing its development from the arrival of the Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway to the end of the First World War. Until the turn of the twentieth century, Nanaimo had been a coal-mining community, but as transportation by sea, rail, and road improved, the city became an important distribution centre and link between other developing parts of Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland. In this volume, Peterson’s subject matter includes:

the city’s new multicultural face;
the beginnings of the labour movement;
the adventurous young men who founded clubs and developed parks;
the establishment of the Pacific Biological Station at Departure Bay;
the sale of the Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway to the Canadian Pacific Railway;
the sale of the Dunsmuir coal interests;
the Spanish influenza epidemic.

1-894384-51-2 5.5 x 8.5 240 pages

-- Heritage House, 2003

Hub City: Nanaimo 1886-1920

After her Black Diamond: Nanaimo—The Victorian Era, Jan Peterson’s second instalment of her trilogy, Hub City: Nanaimo 1886-1920 (Heritage $19.95), covers from the arrival of the E&N Railway to the end of World War I, including the emergence of the labour movement, the Great Strike of 1912-1914, the rise and fall of coal baron James Dunsmuir and the Spanish influenza epidemic. In the aftermath of the 1887 mining disaster, mining inspector Archibald Dick wrote, “Seven persons... were all that got out alive of the 154 that went down to work on the afternoon of the 3rd May… The pumps were kept going for about two weeks before it could be said that the fire was extinguished.” On the lighter side, Peterson recalls Nanaimo’s 1896 bicycle craze led to speed limits of eight miles-per-hour on streets and six in intersections. George Bird was the first person to ride a bicycle across Vancouver Island (in 13.75 hours) and Nanaimo’s William Good was the world’s fastest sprinter in the 400-metre race at the San Francisco World Fair—but was not awarded the medal because he was Native. 1-894384-66-0

[BCBW Summer 2004]

Kilts on the Coast: The Scots Who Built BC (Heritage House, $22.95)
Review (2012)

from Mary Ann Moore

Jan Peterson of Nanaimo finds and remembers stories wherever she goes.

When she looks out her window and sees Gallows Point on Protection Island, she knows Siamasit, the son of a Snuneymuxw chief, and Squeis, son of a powerful chief of a Cowichan tribe, were hung there in 1853 for shooting Peter Brown, a Scottish shepherd.

Scots are the basis for Kilts on the Coast: The Scots Who Built BC (Heritage House, $22.95), her tenth book on Vancouver Island history, in which she describes settlement and growth during six critical years from 1848 to 1854. Entire families arrived in Fort Victoria from Scotland, indentured to the Hudson’s Bay Company for three to five years, to engage in the fur trade and establish coal mining ventures.
In 1849, Snuneymuxw chief Ki-et-sa-kun, known as Coal Tyee, informed the Hudson’s Bay Company of the presence of coal in the Nanaimo area. Kilts on the Coast traces the lives of “founding father” James Douglas and other “company men” as well as the miners who arrived from Orkney and Ayrshire to work in Nanaimo’s mines.

Coal baron Robert Dunsmuir, whose Wellington Colliery became the largest producer of coal on Vancouver Island, built Craigdarroch Castle in Victoria (between 1887 and 1890) for his wife Joan. Hatley Castle, the present-day Royal Roads University, was completed in 1908 for his son James.

In Kilts on the Coast, Peterson calls Dunsmuir an “educated coal miner and an astute businessman.”

Chinese workers got paid half the rate of the white workers. Native men didn’t get paid and instead received tickets they could exchange for goods at the HBC store. Over 600 men were killed over the years at 50 mining sites in the Nanaimo area.

As with all of her books, Peterson spoke to descendants of pioneers and consulted diaries, journals, letters, logs and reports at the British Columbia Archives and the Nanaimo Community Archives. The Hudson’s Bay Company “daybooks” in the community archives were an essential resource as they note the names of the workers and their assignments.

Jan Peterson was twenty years old when she and her family arrived in Canada from Scotland on June 7, 1957. In 1963, Peterson met and married her husband, Ray. They moved to Vancouver, then Ladner, before heading to Port Alberni in 1972 with their three children.
Freelancing on the arts long before she got paid for it, Peterson became a reporter for the Alberni Valley Times. In 1982, Peterson was one of three finalists to receive the Jack Wasserman Award for her first year of investigative journalism on social and environmental affairs. At the awards presentation at the Vancouver Press Club, Peterson was introduced as “the middle-aged housewife from Port Alberni.” She says, “We always get a good laugh about that.”
In early 1987, Peterson collapsed in the offices of the Alberni Valley Times and was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome. She hasn’t stopped writing books since.

First, she plunked herself down at the Port Alberni archives and produced The Albernis, 1860-1922 (Oolichan, 1992), donating all royalties to the Alberni District Historical Society. During her tenure as president of the Alberni Valley Community Arts Council, Peterson oversaw renovation of a heritage building that became the Rollin Art Centre and donated her royalties from Twin Cities: Alberni-Port Alberni (Oolichan, 1994) to the project.

Peterson and her husband “retired” to Nanaimo in 1996 where she continued to write. When she wanted to learn more about Barkley Sound, Peterson went to the docks in Port Alberni with her friend, the late Dorrit MacLeod, and talked to people in the coffee shop. The result of her listening to the stories that emerged was Journeys down the Alberni Canal to Barkley Sound (Oolichan, 1999).

Her trilogy of books on Nanaimo are
Black Diamond City: Nanaimo – The Victorian Era (Heritage, 2002); Hub City: Nanaimo 1886 – 1920 (Heritage, 2003) and Harbour City: Nanaimo in Transition 1920-1967 (Heritage, 2006).

Writing in BC Studies (winter, 2004),
reviewer Patrick A. Dunae noted Peterson “has a keen eye and a good nose for local history” but he did criticize her books for being “long on action but short on analysis.”

“That’s not my purpose,” Peterson responds. “Let the academics do that. I don’t feel like analyzing. I feel like getting the facts out and letting people draw their own conclusions.
“I learned from my mother that you give as much as you take. Community has given to me so I give back to them,” Peterson says.

Jan Peterson has been awarded many honours for historical research including Certificates of Honour from the B.C. Historical Federation.
With two more books in the works, she writes every day—never tiring of Vancouver Island stories.


Mary Ann Moore is a freelance writer
based in Nanaimo.

[BCBW 2012]