It’s easy to picture Ladysmith historical figure and coal baron James Dunsmuir standing on the bluff above Oyster Bay of the eastern side of Vancouver Island in 1898 plotting how to get his coal shipped out. After his father discovered coal near Nanaimo, British Columbia, he formed a company, built a railway, and began shipping “black gold” from Departure Bay. James was equally ambitious and when he opened the Extension Mine just north of the future Ladysmith, he moved his miners, their families, and their bundled-up houses by train and ox cart to the new site. Ladysmith became a company town of about 2,500. Some of the moved houses still exist, although in updated form.
Ladysmith prides itself for being exactly on the 49th parallel. Today, the town has about 8,500 inhabitants and a convivial atmosphere. As one example, I ran into Isabelle Oulette, who’s lived 81 of her 83 years in Ladysmith. She’d used her walker to creep up the bluff and talked to me while resting a spell.
“I volunteer in the city’s Archives,” she told me. “I love looking up so many events in our community, remembering the people who contributed, finding some of the name changes. The work makes me feel rooted in my hometown.” First Street presents one of the main shopping areas in many quaint 100-year buildings—some painted in pastel colors. Along First Street, Knight’s, a former hardware and stationery store, is remembered by the clock suspended above the sidewalk. The clock was required to keep accurate time before everyone had a reliable timepiece at home and it also served as a meeting and appointment place.
We opted to stay at the Ladysmith Community Marina rather than Ladysmith Fisherman’s Wharf or the Ladysmith Marina located further north in the harbor.
The Community Marina is a destination in and of itself, and offers other features beyond a place to tie up. We liked its amenities, price, and proximity to downtown Ladysmith. Its 330’ visitor dock leads to the floating clubhouse with a comfortable seating area, a small restaurant, washrooms, showers, and laundry.
Outside, a social area with barbeque and picnic tables invites communal food sharing. “Dine On The Dock” takes place every other Friday from May 20-August 26. For $20 Canadian, visiting boaters and residents can taste a dinner prepared by a local chef.
In addition, a marina kiosk provides facts on regional sea life. Two heritage vessels are moored next to the welcome center. The 1938 wooden towboat, Saravan, as well as the beautifully restored ferry C.A. Kirkegaard, participate in community events, festivals and classic boat shows. Along the dock, bright banners painted by local artists or children depict marine-related themes. The Harbour Heritage Centre serves as a small museum displaying an old-fashioned dinghy and some earlier-times marine equipment—Spillsbury radios, life rings, and a selection of outboard motors.
On our last Ladysmith morning, we ate a scrumptious croissant filled with scrambled eggs and eggs bennie at the Marina’s Oyster Bay Cafe. While there, we spied a woman dressed in a lacy white dress sauntering down the gangway, stiletto heels in hand.
Bellingham’s beginnings in the mid-1800s sprung from a lumber mill and a few settlers. After a couple of coal mines, a short-lived gold rush, and the rumor of a Northern Pacific Railroad linking Fairhaven (Bellingham’s southern district) to the rest of the world, the town as we know it started to take shape. While the falsely-promised railroad created our modern-day B-ham, a multitude of smaller institutions make it what it is today with Western Washington University leading the way.
It was Ladysmith native Pamela Anderson, star of Baywatch, who was breakfasting there with her parents. Although it was before 0800 hours, she looked perfect, in full make-up, when we’d only brushed our teeth and thrown on shorts and T-shirts. I suppose when you’re a star, performing that role is a full-time occupation. I snapped her photo. But I can’t guarantee such celebrity sightings when you visit Ladysmith.
The town is conveniently a five-minute drive from the Nanaimo Airport, 20 minutes from the B.C. ferries, and a perfect launchpad to the Gulf Islands. For boaters looking for small town charm in B.C. this summer, Ladysmith is a real treat.