Who’d have thought? Murder and mayhem? A world-class hotel? A bustling port shipping coal to the world? Union Bay has had them all over the past century – hard to believe when you arrive in the sleepy village hugging the east coast of the Island.
The tiny community is so miniscule that it is easy to just whiz through it when travelling the Old Island Highway (also known as Highway 19A). Most folks heading north or south along the scenic waterfront route are inclined to think how funky the place looks – and keep going. And that is a real shame.
Located just a few miles south of Courtenay, Union Bay is a treasure trove of interesting history, intriguing businesses and beautiful old buildings. We were fortunate enough to connect with Janette Glover-Geidt, a spry third-generation Union Bay resident and driving force behind the Union Bay Historical Society, when we started wondering about this pretty little spot. She is a walking, talking history book when it comes to times gone-by in the village.
Union Bay’s past stretches back to the late 1800s, when it was developed as a major processing and shipping port to export the coal being mined in nearby Cumberland. The then-bustling community was home to several successful businesses, a small Chinatown, and one very classy hotel. Union Bay was a favourite destination on the CPR steamship circuit, so the presence of a 30-room hotel complete with verandas, white linen dining service and a tennis court, while it may have seemed incongruous in a coal port, was a good fit.
The success of the businesses in Union Bay and its waterfront location, however, also attracted the attention of one Henry Wagner, a former member of Wyoming’s notorious Hole-In-The-Wall gangs. Wagner and a sidekick landed on British Columbia’s Lasqueti Island after avoiding prosecution for their escapades in the USA, and began robbing businesses in waterfront communities along the east coast of the Island. Wagner’s modus operandi was to arrive via his speedy twin-engine boat under cover of storms and make his escape the same way – thus his nickname of The Flying Dutchman. What Wagner didn’t account for, however, was the prospect of dealing with two mounted police officers who were expecting him to show up in Union Bay. The story of Union Bay’s murder and mayhem evolved out of that early spring night 100 years ago; I am not going to recount it here, in hopes that it will encourage you to visit the community and learn about it yourself.
Heritage Row, comprised of the village’s historic schoolhouse, church, post office and gaol (or jail) is another engaging aspect of Union Bay. The post office celebrates its centennial in 2013, and is the only wooden post office erected before WW1 that is still in service in Canada. The church, built in 1906, still has Sunday services and serves as a community meeting place. The school was constructed in 1915 and is now home to the Union Bay Improvement District and the gaol, constructed in 1901, has become the community’s small – but very fascinating – museum. The museum is open for regular hours during July and August between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays, and from 11 a.m. – 1:30 p.m. on Saturdays. Other times for openings for groups can be arranged by contacting Janette at firstname.lastname@example.org
In addition to all of the intriguing history, Union Bay has other endearing qualities, not least of which are the lovely views and the many picturesque private residences and small businesses scattered along the old highway. There are plaques along the waterfront featuring historical notes – they are about all that would indicate what a booming port Union Bay once was. The huge infrastructure that serviced the coal shipping has pretty much disappeared, lost in the mists of time. There is much to like about this lovely little spot – next time you head north or south on the Island, be sure to pause a while at Union Bay, take a stroll along the waterfront, poke around in the buildings of Heritage Row and drink in the history and ambiance of a most amazing little community. There is a new 3,000-home ‘planned community’ in the works, so get there before rampant development destroys the quaint charm of the place.
Union Bay has virtually no internet presence, so I have no information links to offer. The village is located about 15 kilometres (9 miles) south of Courtenay.
GPS co-ordinates are:
N 49 35.012 W 124 53.166