They did their best, but unfortunately the efforts of the citizens of Cumberland to preserve an important cultural heritage site were unsuccessful. As a result there is very little left of the community’s historic Chinatown and No.1 Japanese Town.
We discovered the existence of these settlements purely by accident – what is left of them is located more than a mile out of the heart of Cumberland off Comox Lake Road. A large information board and one of the original Chinatown log cabins marks the beginning of a half-mile trail that connects the two communities.
Chinatown was built on wetlands at the site of the #2 mine of the Union Colliery Company. The swamp was drained in 1888 and houses, businesses and market gardens were established to the point where the Cumberland site was one of Canada’s largest Chinese communities by the end of World War 1.
The town site is little more than a memory now, but information placards at building locations tell visitors a little about the structures that occupied those spaces. Churches, bakeries, general stores, social centres, residences and restaurants were scattered throughout the area. One restaurant was capable of seating 100 patrons and served 10-course meals – a sign that the community thrived despite the extreme hardships endured by the railroad and mine workers.
A fire that swept though Chinatown in 1943 destroyed 43 buildings – one third of the community. Work for the Chinese had diminished due to government regulations and the population in Chinatown declined precipitously into the 1960s. In 1963 the Village of Cumberland unsuccessfully applied for funding to restore Chinatown as a tourist attraction. By 1968 collectors had ransacked the town and the decision was made to raze the remaining buildings. The aforementioned log cabin was spared and moved up the hill to the roadside as a marker for the site.
Half a mile west along a pretty, easy trail are the few remains of #1 Japanese Town. This community got its start in 1891, but didn’t really amount to much of anything until after a world-wide Depression in 1892. The Japanese returned to the site in 1893 and constructed 36 homes and businesses, a bathhouse and two general stores. Between 1914 and 1939 the Japanese women had a traditional tea garden at Comox Lake.
Only two or three structures of the original buildings remain standing, with the two houses still occupied. There is no where near as much on-site information about Japanese Town as there is at Chinatown, but a wander through what was once a small thriving community is instructive.
The Japanese community flourished for 49 years, until the advent of World War ll when 31 families from the Cumberland Japanese Town were sent to internment camps in the interior of the province. They never returned, and the community fell in to disrepair when bottle diggers and collectors dug up the former town site.
The 104 acre property encompassing Chinatown and Japanese Town was gifted to the Village of Cumberland by Weldwood Canada in 2002. Initially known as Perseverance Creek, the site was renamed Coal Creek Historic Park in 2008.
The site of Chinatown, in addition to being home to many information placards, also hosts a picnic shelter. Preservation and management of the old site is overseen by the Coal Creek Historic Park Advisory Committee, which takes direction from the Chinatown Picnic Reunion Group, comprised of former residents and descendants who have met yearly since 1972.
Japanese Town commemorative components are also slowly being installed under the auspices of the advisory committee. In 2009 31 flowering cherry trees were planted in the old orchard to commemorate the 31 families forcibly removed from the community in 1942. A bronze plaque honouring the families was unveiled in 2010. The project was made possible by donations from the National Association of Japanese Canadians and by former residents and their families.
We came away from both communities feeling a little melancholy because of the sad histories behind the town sites. But we were pleased, too, to see the acknowledgment of both the Chinese and Japanese contributions, and to have the opportunity to better understand the hardships they endured. It may not have been the prettiest part of Canadian history, but the endeavours of both communities were crucial to the success of a young and growing country.
The site of the old Chinatown cabin and the large commemorative sign board marks the access point to both communities. They can be found on Comox Lake Road, about 1 ½ miles (2.5 km) west of the village of Cumberland.
Further information on both Chinatown and #1 Japanese Town can be found at the excellent Cumberland Museum website at:
GPS co-ordinates for the Comox Lake Road site are:
Lat. 49.617176 Long.-125.048633
N 49 37.031 W 125 02.918