Just 90 minutes north of Victoria, nestled between small mountains and the ocean, is the growing city of Nanaimo, British Columbia. As well as being home of the Nanaimo bar, Nanaimo is also known as the “Harbour City” and, more recently, the “Bathtub Racing Capital of the World” after the city took the Guiness World Record for most bathtub racers in the water at once. When Europeans first settled the town, they had grand visions of Nanaimo becoming a hub of shipping and commerce. With only 83,000 people it never quite grew into that, but multiple bars have opened, and many local residents call Nanaimo the “Hub, Pub and Tub City”.
Nanaimo is a beautiful gem of a city. Surrounded by beauty and hosting several large beaches, Nanaimo attracts tourists year-round. Recent years have seen growth boom, as young families flee the unaffordable real-estate prices of Victoria for the still-decent housing market of Nanaimo. Modern suburbs are beginning to inch out from the city, although the Vancouver Island mountain ranges keep sprawl under control.
The first settlers to the area were Spanish explorers, who landed in 1791 and established a trading post. In 1801 the Hudson’s Bay Company purchased the post from Spain and started a brisk trade with the local Snuneymuxw First Nations people. The regional governor treated the local population fairly, and worked hard to build good relations with the original inhabitants of the area, so that in 1849 they showed British surveyors the location of rich veins of coal, right under present-day Nanaimo. The city’s growth began.
Nanaimo has a very temperate climate similar to Victoria’s. Snow is very rare and temperatures regularly hover around +5 in the winter and +25 in the summer. The warm, subtropical climate, its prime location only 55 km west of Vancouver and the rich natural resources all around make Nanaimo one of the luckiest cities in Canada.
Coal mining began in earnest in 1860 and by 1869 rail had been laid and large docks built to transport the coal to faraway markets. Housing grew up around the old HBC fort and all the tertiary businesses of a growing population arrived. By 1870 Nanaimo’s population had grown to 15,000! Throughout the 19th Century Nanaimo was a coal-miner’s haven, but with the development of oil-based technologies and the decline in coal demand throughout the 20th Century, Nanaimo’s coal industry has suffered. There are still sizeable coal deposits around the city, and some of it is still mined, but for the most part this segment of the economy has shrivelled up and died.
During the 1990’s a localized economic slump spurred by a decline in the lumber industry caused a fairly serious recession in Nanaimo. Banks foreclosed on many homes and as businesses shut their doors, many people lost their jobs. A strong underground market grew and the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang opened a chapter in the town. The Angels took over almost all aspects of the local underground economy and even provided illegal policing of businesses that paid “protection”. Some guns and prostitution accompanied the gang, but Nanaimo’s real problems centered around a booming drug trade. During the 90’s there were more murders in Nanaimo than in all of its previous history, most of it drug related.
As the economy improved in the early 21st Century, and a new, less-corrupt city council was elected, shops began to open up again. The RCMP established a task force to take on the drug trade and the Hell’s Angels. City council, local community groups and an effective RCMP campaign eradicated the Angels and cleaned up the city. By 2010 Nanaimo had emerged as a clean, safe and gang-free community.
Today Nanaimo is a hub for the logging industry and has successfully tied its economy to tourism, attracting Alaskan cruise ships, boaters, campers and weekenders throughout the year. The calm waters of the Straights of Georgia, which separate Vancouver Island from the North American continent, are a boaters paradise and the thousands of unique corals, fish and rock formations below the surface attract a steady stream of divers. With great weather, a decent job market, modern conveniences and affordable housing prices, young families continue to flock to Nanaimo in search of the perfect place to settle. The Pub, Hub and Tub City will continue to grow!