Photo courtesy of the Cumberland Museum & Archives24 07 2007
From as early as 1888 Cumberland mines employed a substantial community of Chinese immigrants. When "Union", as Cumberland was originally called, was constructed, segregation was still a normal part of everyday life. An area outside of town, the swampy Southwest fringe, was set aside for the Chinese community. In this less than desirable location the Cumberland Chinese managed to build a thriving community. To assure a sturdy foundation for buildings in Chinatown the structures were built on soil mounds the same level as the streets. Gutters lined the streets for drainage. Wooden boardwalks and bridges crossed these small drainage lanes. At first glance, Cumberland's Chinatown may have looked like a collection of haphazardly constructed shacks linked by a maze of boardwalks and narrow streets. It was actually an organised and self-contained business centre which could supply all of its own resident's needs.
Further along the wetlands, in the direction of Comox Lake, number one Japtown housed Cumberland's Japanese miners and their families. This particular community was small and consisted of approximately twenty buildings. The first Japanese arrived in this area in the early 1890s and also contributed significantly to the economic boom of the Cumberland mines. To this day, when you walk along the old railway beds linking Cumberland with Comox Lake in the springtime you can still see and smell the blooming fruit trees which mark the spot where the Japanese community once stood, a living testament to the Japanese families who called this beautiful wetlands their home.
When Union was first built in 1888, the recreation facility for its inhabitants was mainly the great outdoors, just as it is for many modern residents. The area was covered in majestic forests broken up by streams, swamps and lakes. Fishermen, hunters and other outdoorsmen relied on Comox Lake (marked as Cumberland Lake, or Puntledge Lake on early maps) and surrounding rivers and wetland for birds, fish and game. The area was so abundant with wildlife and the sport of catching it so popular with the residents of Cumberland that the gun club was established in 1899. The bird and wildlife population of the area is reported to have contributed to human survival during the great depression.
The exodus from Cumberland's Chinatown began in the early years of the depression. A fire that started in a chop suey house decimated much of Chinatown in 1936. Rather than rebuild, many that lost property relocated. Many shacks were abandoned as the depression deepened and these neglected shelters were later deemed a fire hazard and intentionally burned down. By the 1960's only a few people remained in the once thriving community. In 1942 the Canadian government ordered the internment of all Japanese people living on the coast of British Columbia. Cumberland and surrounding areas had a Japanese community which consisted of some 400 souls. All of these people, men women and children, were sent to the interior of British Columbia and their property was taken away from them. Number one Japtown was abandoned. Only one family returned to the area after the war. By the 1960's the mines had taken their toll on the health of the rivers and wetlands. The Trent River which is connected to Comox Lake via wetlands had been contaminated and no longer sustained fish and fowl.
The last buildings of Cumberland's Chinatown were demolished in the early 1970's and the area is now returned to a wild state, the once extensive human activity marked only by untended fruit trees and an old railway grade. The citizens of Cumberland still walk here, minutes from their doorsteps, in fair weather and foul.
Photograph of Chinatown courtesy of the Cumberland Museum and Archives. For more information on Cumberland's Historic Chinatown, visit the http://cumberland.museum.bc.ca/.