There’s more to tiny Union Bay than meets the eye

Union Bay's historic gaol

The historic gaol at Union Bay now houses the community museum, and is fronted by the Harry Westaway Memorial Garden, planted to honour the victim of a murder

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.

Union Bay's Nelson Hotel

The Nelson Hotel was built in 1893 and offered the finest of amenities to those travelling on the CPR steamship circuit. It burned down in 1956. The road fronting the hotel is the Old Island Highway

            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.

Post box, Union Bay

Burnished with the patina of time and 100 years of use, the individual mail boxes at the historic post office are still in use

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.

Boat Launch, Union Bay
It’s hard to believe that this now-serene setting was once a bustling deep-sea port

            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

Heritage Row at Union Bay

Heritage Row at Union Bay, viewed from the location of the old wharf

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 art studio

Pretty private residences and small businesses like this garden studio are scattered along the old highway.

            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:

           Lat.: 49.58353377510173

            Long. -124.88609790802002

            N 49 35.012  W 124 53.166


About Shirley

More years ago than I like to remember, I completed the Journalism program at Vancouver Community College and launched straight into a career as a newspaper reporter (thanks to my journalism professor Nick Russell and an opening at the venerable daily Alberni Valley Times.) My work as a news reporter/feature writer/columnist and ultimately, newspaper and magazine editor, took me to many interesting places and introduced me to hundreds of interesting characters over the years. I loved every minute of it, but burnout caught up with me while I was trying to juggle the simultaneous editing of five trade magazines, and for 27 years I abandoned my keyboard (on a professional basis, at least) and followed my heart in a variety of other careers.
In 2010 I returned to the journalistic fold, thanks to the encouragement (nay – nagging!) of my husband. I feel no regret – only great joy to be back at the keyboard, and to be spending time interviewing interesting folks and discovering great places.

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