It was in the late 1700’s, when Captain George Vancouver anchored his vessel, the H.M.S. Discover, at Xwalkw (mouth of the ‘Namgis River). While Captain Vancouver visited the ‘Namgis, the island now known as Cormorant Island, lay just a short distance away. The ‘Namgis First Nation used Cormorant Island as a place to bring their people who had passed on. They also lived on the Island on a seasonal basis.
In 1846, the Island was named for the coastal cruiser, the H.M.S. Cormorant and later, about 1858, the Bay was named after the H.M.S. Alert which was then stationed on the Northwest coast.
The period of 1865-1870, saw the beginning of active settlement on Cormorant Island and the nucleus of the formation of the Village of Alert Bay. Two explorers and entrepreneurs named Spencer and Huson examined the possibilities of resource development at Suquash and Gwa’ni (the ‘Namgis River) before establishing on Cormorant Island. In 1870, they built a small saltery, where local salmon was salted and mildcured before being sent to Victoria. At that time Spencer and Huson leased Cormorant Island from the Government..
As their business grew, Spencer and Huson became aware of the need to establish a permanent work force on the Island. To this end the partners approached the Reverend James Hall, a missionary of the Church Missionary Society, who had just established a mission at Fort Rupert in 1877. They persuaded the Reverend to relocate to Alert Bay and in 1878, a mission house was built to school the first nation boys and girls.
By 1887, the settlement was beginning to show significant signs of progress. In 1881, a store and cannery were built. Reverend Hall supervises the construction of the “Christ Church,” which was to achieve several goals such as: the learning of new trades to the first nations and the provision of construction material. A saw mill was established between 1886-1887. The saw mill eventually produced lumber to be used in the construction of homes and a new school for boys.
Government recognition of the growing community came during the 1890’s, with the relocation of the Indian Agency from Fort Rupert to Alert Bay. That same year saw the arrival of law and order when the first Provincial Police Constable- Philip Woolacott was stationed in the community.
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Education was of prime concern in those early days and in 1894, W.A. Corker was established as Principal of the newly constructed Residential School for boys. The school was situated on approximately 4-5 acres of land and was primarily established to teach the skills of carpentry, furniture making, boat building, animal husbandry, as well as regular academic school work, to first nation boys.
Water transportation has always been an important ingredient of Alert Bay’s history. In 1896, the Union Steamship “Comox”, made its first regular call while en-route to Rivers Inlet lying to the North. Many other ships representing a variety of purposes ranging from the transportation of goods, to the delivery of visitors who have come to our island over the years. In more recent years, when the community was at its peak as the centre of the region, regular access was provided by ferry from Kelsey Bay via Beaver Cove.
Regular ferry service is now provided from Port McNeill with direct runs to Alert Bay, interspersed by trips to neighbouring Malcolm Island.
1902 saw British Columbia Packers Association purchase the cannery from its founders, and in 1909, the first St. George’s Hospital was opened.
A giant step was taken during 1911-1912, when the Dominion Government established the first communications system to link Alert Bay and other now-established communities in the region, also to the Southern centres of Vancouver and Victoria. The system comprised a very crude telegraph service but proved a useful tool to the local industry. In 1912, the Dominion Government built a wireless station in Alert Bay. The station operated principally as an aid to navigation, although was used in other capacities from time to time.
Despite this trend Alert Bay continued to develop and in 1925, a new St. George’s Hospital was opened to replace the original building which suffered fire damage during 1923. That same year a beautiful chapel was built next to the hospital as a memorial to Mrs. Paterson Hall, who, upon her retirement as president of the Women’s Auxiliary of the Church of England in Canada, was given an honorarium, which she in turn gave to the Columbia Coast Mission for the erection of the Memorial Chapel. The furnishings were the gift of Mrs. Georgina M. Pennell, also of the Montreal Diocesan Women’s Auxiliary. The Toronto Women’s Auxiliary, Babies’ Branch, donated the baptismal font. The chapel is now located next to the century old Anglican Church.
During 1929, the St. Michael’s Residential School was constructed to serve, educate and house native children from outlying areas in the region. The school was solidly built of brick and designed to accommodate 200 children aged from seven to fifteen years old. Our Residential School was one of the last ones to close in the early 1970’s. The building is now owned by the ‘Namgis First Nation and many of the surrounding First Nation’s have an office space in this building. Also located in the building are: North Island College, K.T.F.C, and many local businesses.
Years passed and the community continued to diversify its activities to include dairy farming, raising of poultry, growing of vegetables, etc. The Nimpkish Hotel became an established part of the community providing accommodation for the traveler and entertainment for the local people.
In 1946, the Village of Alert Bay became incorporated. At the same time the region was commencing a new era of prosperity which would see profitable growth in the fishing and logging industries. Alert Bay flourished as the supply centre for necessary life-sustaining goods and provided the desired recreation and entertainment to the many people employed in fishing and logging. A community hall was built, electricity came to the community, a taxi service was established, a bus service operated on a limited scale and the volunteer firemen of Alert Bay received a shipment of their new fire engine.
Air transportation now began to serve an important role in the development of the community. By 1948, the first elements of an air transportation service had been established to serve the development of the area’s natural resources,. Until recently only float planes could operate from the island but during 1972, a landing strip of wheeled aircraft was constructed. The runway which was paved during 1979 is approximately 2,900 feet long.
The present countenance of the Alert Bay community reflects much of its past history. Visitors to the area will be fascinated by the mixing and contrasting of the cultures. The native art forms are represented by their carving, paintings weaving and metal crafting. Artifacts and events of the past can be viewed in the community’s U’mista Cultural Centre and the Library-Museum. Above all a casual stroll from one end of the community to the other instills one with an appreciation for the efforts of the early pioneers who carved themselves a place to live, work and created the roots of the village which now exists on Cormorant Island.
Information Courtesy of:
Alert Bay Visitor Centre
116 Fir Street, Bag Service 2800
Alert Bay, BC