Living within a rainforest, we sometimes forget how quickly it can erase all evidence of human activity when left to its own devices.
The coastlines of the islands and inlets are dotted with alder groves and fruit trees, the only remnants of settlements that were thriving less than 100 years ago. The evidence of even hundreds and thousands of years of Indigenous settlement can be even harder to see by the untrained eye.
Rock Bay, today a seasonal camping and fishing spot and year long home to only a very few, was once a bustling community much larger than Campbell River, with a hospital that served the entire region. You might not believe this was true to visit there today without first seeing the large collection of historic photographs that illustrate the truth of that history.
At a time when locomotives were steaming through our forests hauling wood to the beach, Hastings Mill Company set up their headquarters in Rock Bay, an area with a well-protected little shore, a stream that ran through with fresh water, and level ground on which to build a camp. Railway lines headed out in all directions, the remnants of which can still be seen today.
In its heyday, Rock Bay was a camp serving 1,500 loggers and their families, with a hospital, a store, a school, a boarding house, a hotel, a saloon and a post office. It was a central hub where fishermen could sell their catch and settlers could row in and pick up groceries and other supplies. Women would come from remote areas to deliver their babies at the hospital, and the saloon was hopping with men spending their paycheques.
Logging was dangerous work, and injuries were frequent. Prior to 1905 the nearest hospital was in Comox, so men were dying with relatively minor injuries because they couldn’t get medical attention fast enough. The Mission (Queen’s) Hospital was opened in July 1905. The need was such that “patients were begging for admittance before the paint was dry on the walls” (as described by Reverend John Antle in his memoirs).
An unfortunate fire burnt down the hospital in 1910, but with fundraising help from the Columbia Coast Mission, the new St. Micheal’s Hospital was erected within a year. The new building was impressive, with 25 beds, a chapel, bathrooms and central heating, a kitchen, laundry and an operating room with a skylight to help the doctor see what he was doing. Three nurses were on staff to attend to patients. Things were hopping until the start of World War I when many men went off to war and the camp population began to dwindle. After that there was no longer a doctor in residence full time, and the staff was reduced to two nurses.
The community suffered another blow when the Depression hit. Camps were closed down and residents spread out, in many cases trying to make a living from ranching, prospecting, hunting and fishing. Logging resumed in 1931 but the methods had shifted to hauling logs by truck, and as a result, activities shifted inland.
In 1945, the jewel of the community – the hospital – was sold to be a fishing lodge. Not long after, the community lost its school for lack of resident children. And then in 1974, the hospital burnt down. The community became a ghost town.
Despite these changes, Rock Bay still holds a special place in the hearts of many families, as over the last several decades there has been a campsite with a tight-knit community of seasonal residents. Fishing derbies, pot lucks and other social happenings have kept this a treasured community in the wilderness.
If you would like to explore these waterways and hear stories of the past, the Museum at Campbell River offers boat tours with a museum guide in partnership with Campbell River Whale Watching and Adventure Tours. For more information go to www.crmuseum.ca/boat-tours