Beautiful Newcastle Island has long been a favorite destination among boaters who come to enjoy the open fields, forest trails, expansive views, and intriguing beaches. Lovely camp sites offer picnic facilities and covered barbecue group settings. The island is a slice of heaven, yet within easy reach of Nanaimo by dinghy for provisioning and shopping.

 The island’s varied historic past adds to the intrigue and fascination with this beautiful island:

Coast Salish – For thousands of years Saysutshun Island (Newcastle Island) was used by the Coast Salish as a seasonal fishing site, with temporary housing. Two villages were located on the island, Saysetsen and Clotsun. The village on the east side facing nearby Protection Island, provided easy access to herring that spawned in the Gap during late winter and early spring. Hardwood sticks inlaid with sharp whalebone teeth were used to capture the herring.

Beach and expansive view on Newcastle Island

Coal Industry – Native chief Ki’et’sa’kun is said to have told the English in 1849-50 about seeing coal on Saysutshun Island; the chief had witnessed a blacksmith work with coal in Fort Victoria and described the coal he had seen on Saysutshun (Newcastle Island). The British found that the coal on the island was superior to that mined at Fort Rupert and named the island Newcastle after a mining town in England. Coal from Newcastle Island was used to fuel steamships and later railroads. Two mines were opened on the island, the Newcastle mine operated from 1853-1856, and the Fitzwilliam mine operated from 1872-1882. Hundreds of barrels of coal were shipped from Newcastle Island to Victoria. Miners lived in Nanaimo with their families and worked 14-day shifts in camps on the island. Coal was also found in a seam that extended to Protection Island; mine tunnels were constructed beneath the Gap between the two islands.

Sandstone Industry – When the United States Mint in San Francisco was looking for sandstone to build their new building, it was Joseph Emery who found what he was looking for on Newcastle Island. The sandstone was an appealing white-grey color and easy to remove in large blocks. The strong sandstone, made up of unusually numerous quartz grains, held up well against weathering. The first shipment to San Francisco took place in the mid-1870’s and continued for five years, with a grand total of 8,000 tons of sandstone having been removed from Newcastle Island. The island’s sandstone was used for the six columns along the front of the San Francisco Mint building. Today, the building serves as a museum and is a National Historic Landmark. Several companies sought leases on the island to cut sandstone until it ended around 1932. The stone was used in numerous buildings, including the Nanaimo Post Office, Nanaimo Court House, the Bank of Montreal, the British North American Bank of Vancouver, and St. John’s Church in Victoria.

Pulp-stone Quarrying – The immense forestry industry on the West Coast processed timber at numerous mills, some of which produced paper and pulp. Pulp-stones were needed to grind the woodchips into pulp. In 1932, the McDonald Cut-Stone Company was founded, and was a successful business on Newcastle Island until 1932, after which they moved operations to Gabriola Island. Cutting machines that rotated slowly would cut a 40-inch deep cut in a 54-inch diameter stone in just 45 minutes. Small charges of gunpowder were placed in holes drilled at the base of the stone to break it free. A derrick lifted the stone free and then a lathe would complete the smoothing process. The finished product was 18-20 inches high and 48 inches in diameter. Several of these grinding stones can still be seen on the island today.

Photo of Pulp Stones showing drilled holes

Herring Salteries – Salteries off the coast of Nanaimo were well established in the early 20th century due to the influence of Asian immigrants, the majority being Japanese. Major buyers for salted herring and salmon were Japan, Hong Kong, and China. Since herring and salmon were caught at different times of the year, the same facilities on the island could be used to process the fish. In July of 1912, four of the salteries on Newcastle Island burned down and were quickly rebuilt. The cause of the fires was unknown, but arson was suspected.

Nanaimo Shipyards – In 1918, Japanese immigrant Matsuyama and the Ode brothers started the Nanaimo Shipyards Limited located on Newcastle Island to build and repair ships. The company was popular and grew quickly, owning 16 vessels and 4.18 acres of land. At the start of World War II, all of this was taken from them along with salteries owned by Tanaka and Kasho. Japanese-Canadians were sent to the interior of British Columbia to be placed in internment camps.

 Canadian Pacific Railway Resort – Wanting to start a resort destination, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) began seeking property it could develop. The railway was in competition with The Union Steamship Co., which had already bought 1,000 acres of land on Bowen Island. In 1930, the CPR purchased property on Newcastle Island and invested money to build a pavilion, with a soda fountain and a spring-loaded dance floor. Picnic shelters and a bathhouse were also constructed, along with a dock for floating hotels. The pavilion was restored in 1984 and is still in use today. The resort officially opened on July 20, 1931. The Princess Elaine was the first vessel to serve as a floating hotel at the docks, followed by other vessels including the Princess Elizabeth, the Princess Joan, and the Princess Victoria. At the start of World War II, the Princess ships were reassigned for military use and tourists could no longer visit the island.

Photo of historic Pavilion on Newcastle Island

A Provincial Park – When the CPR decided that the Newcastle venture was not making enough money, they sold the island to the City of Nanaimo in 1955 for $150,000. The city had a hard time maintaining the island and fell into debt. Through the encouragement of a people’s referendum, the island was sold to the Provincial Dept. of Recreation and Conservation for development as a Provincial Park. The province took possession on April 1, 1960, and along with the City of Nanaimo, put plans into place to develop and maintain year-round recreation on Newcastle Island. In 2021, the park was renamed as Saysutshun (Newcastle Island Marine Park) to acknowledge its first inhabitants, the Snuneymuxw people.

Photo of picnic shelter on Newcastle Island

Boaters who visit the island today can’t help but marvel over the beautiful marine surroundings and look upon its history with awe and imagery from the past. Boaters can tie-up to one of the many mooring buoys or tie-up at the park docks on a first-come, first-serve basis. Payment is made at the red self-registration payment box at the head of the ramp.