Malaspina Galleries c. 1920

Malaspina Galleries c. 1920

Gabriola Timeline

A taste of life on the island

This overview is a taste of the past – an approximation of life on the island.

Gabriola’s stories motivate us today to be committed keepers of nature and heritage.

Gabriola has an intriguing and inspiring history.  In recognition of this, the Museum honours the First Peoples who lived with and cared for the land from the beginning (from approximately 8000 BCE and who helped the new settlers who came here only 170 years ago.

We also honour the original settlers for their challenging work and hardship, from first habitation to now, for their part in giving us today’s life on our beautiful island.

See the Museum’s books, exhibits and archives for more information and interesting, often comical, personal anecdotes.

Gabriola Timeline

First Inhabitants (Approximately 8000 BCE)

8000 BCE or earlier

Snuneymuxw peoples lived in summer villages on Gabriola (part of their traditional territory).1

Early Explorers (1780s to 1792)


British and Americans started the maritime fur trade in the area, acquiring furs of sea otters, beavers, bears and other animals from Indigenous peoples.


Spanish explorers arrived on the Canadian west coast.


The Spanish sailed up the north side of Gabriola and around Orlebar Point, anchoring in what is now Pilot Bay.

Early Settlers (1850s to 1860s)

Mid 1850s

Settlers discovered coal in the Nanaimo area in 1849, and mainly British arrived to work in the mines and growing town. Some moved to Gabriola and became early settlers.


The Hudson’s Bay Company established a post in Nanaimo as part of the colony of British Columbia


The Snuneymuxw and the British Crown signed the Treaty of 1854, which gave the Crown access to land and coal resources while recognizing and confirming continuance of Snuneymuxw fisheries, hunting, society, culture and economy.


The Snuneymuxw continued to inhabit their traditional villages until 1862 when the Crown moved them to their southern village site, now Reserve 1.


By 1872, 18 families were living on Gabriola. The first school, the South School, was located at “The Maples” near the present Community Hall. There were 15 school-age children.


The Thrasher, a big American barque, loaded with 2600 tons of gold, struck the Gabriola Reef and rescuers could not recover it. Government later placed a lighted beacon there and named it Thrasher Rock.


Magnus Edgar, an early settler, donated land for a community cemetery.


John Silva, a Portuguese sailor, settled on Gabriola with his Lyaksen First Nations wife Louise Hoiowaaat.

The North School (now the Gabriola Arts and Heritage Hall) was opened. This school burned down in 1926 or 1927 and was rebuilt on the same site.

The Next Wave and Early Industry (Late 1880s to late 1950s)


Alexander Shaw signed the contract to establish the first official mail service officially began on Gabriola.


Sandstone quarrying commenced on Gabriola and ceased in 1936.

The first federal voters’ list was compiled for Gabriola. It listed 47 men, 34 of them farmers. (Women couldn’t vote federally until 1917, and indigenous women only if they gave up their status and treaty rights.)


James Gray became Gabriola’s first Postmaster.


Gabriola’s first public wharf, known as the Farmers Landing, was built in Descanso Bay.


The wooden steamer, the Iroquois, started in 1900 with service to Gabriola twice weekly, landing at the Maples Wharf.


A Madrid archive of the first sketch of Gabriola Island’s unique rock formation, the Malaspina Galleries, was found in the archives and became Gabriola’s first tourist attraction!


Commander John Franklin Perry in the survey ship HMS Egeria completed charting the coastline of Gabriola and the swift currents of Gabriola Pass.


A multi-party telephone service was established, with 30 subscribers (and phased out in 1954).


Brick manufacturing began on Gabriola and continued until 1952.


The community built the first community hall at the site of the present hall with free labour and materials on land donated by William Nairn and Euphemia Shaw to be used as a community hall in perpetuity.

The Sunrise Lumber Company began operations in the Silva Bay area but fire destroyed it in 1925.

The East School was built behind the Little Log Church.


The community built the “Little Log Church”, Our Lady of Victory Mission, at Silva Bay on land John Silva transferred to the Diocese of Victoria in 1926.


250 people lived on Gabriola.


The first government vehicle ferry, the Atrevida, began servicing Gabriola. Capacity was 6 cars.


The Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (later the National Democratic Party) established the first CCF camp on Gabriola.

The Gabriola Agricultural Association Cooperative built the first Agi Hall on land donated by Richard Easthom.


Thomas (TP) Taylor, Postmaster, ran the post office from his home and delivered mail by vehicle. Gossip Corner was a well-known stop.


The East School shut down and amalgamated into a school district with primary grades at the North School and other grades at the South School.


The “big fire” burned for more than three weeks, destroying more than 2000 acres of forest.


Chinese Canadians lived on Gabriola and worked in the Brickyard.


School attendance dropped. The North School closed, and students were bussed to the South School.


Les Whithey and Norm Sear started the Silva Bay Shipyard.


The North School reopened in 1947 and all schools officially became part of Nanaimo School District 68.


Gabriola population was 300.


The Crown gave 11.2 acres to build a new one-room school at the Gabriola Elementary School’s present site. The South School closed permanently. The North School took the overflow but eventually the new school added a second room and the North School was closed.

The South School became Saint Paul’s Anglican Church.


Hydroelectric power came to Gabriola.

The first annual Salmon Barbeque was held.

Land Development and Hippies (1960s to 1970s)


Gabriola Sands Provincial Park was established because Frank Ney, Nanaimo’s mayor then, subdivided and donated the land.


Lands were subdivided, creating thousands of lots for sale. The largest subdivision was between Dirksen to Harrison Roads.


The first Agi Hall burnt down. The new metal replacement opened in 1974.


The present-day post office was established.


Drumbeg Provincial Park was established on approximately 50 acres.

Governance and Infrastructure Era (Mid 1970s to Now)


The Province of BC created the Islands Trust.


Gabriola adopted its first Official Community Plan.


The Community Hall burned to the ground, just after being repainted and refurbished.


Gabriola adopted its first zoning bylaw.


The community opened its rebuilt Community Hall, with Jacqueline Sears, one of the last members of the Shaw Estate, and whose father William Shaw, had donated the land.


The first full-time RCMP station opened on the island.


Sandwell Provincial Park was dedicated.


Gabriola resident, Donna Wilford, and a small group of volunteers started the Gabriola Island Recycling Organization (GIRO). Del Horn was one of the original GIRO board members, and his wife, Kathy was a supporter. Donna applied for the startup grant and approached Tom Harris in Nanaimo to donate the first ever truck and its insurance. A depot manager was hired to carry out the recycling operations. Merv and Annette Sweeney donated the land on Tin Can Alley. The centre opened in 1991.


Folklife Village was established.


The new building for the Gabriola Museum opened.


Forestry company Weldwood of Canada, a forestry company, made a final offer to the Gabriola community for “parks in return of development” for its forested 2800 acres in island centre. The agreement failed and the land was subsequently clear-cut by island loggers—a profound realization and new awareness of the lack of public land, trail access and preserved ecosystems on Gabriola Island.


Gabriola’s population was 3479.

People for a Healthy Community became a registered charity.


Petroglyph Park opened on the Museum grounds.


The Gabriola Arts Council was formed.


The Regional District of Nanaimo purchased lands to establish the Cox Community Park and the Descanso Bay Regional Park.


Under the Coastal Ferry Act, BC’s ferries became a private corporation.


Gabriola residents voted 87% against incorporation as a municipality.

The community created the Gabriola Lands and Trails Trust (GaLTT).


The Gabriola Commons was established.


Gabriola’s population was 4050.


The land for the Coats Marsh Regional Park was acquired from the Coats family.

Elder Cedar Nature Reserve was established.


Quamichan First Nation held a potlatch with Degnan descendants.


The Gabriola Museum celebrated its 15th anniversary.

The 707 Community Park was established.


The construction of a new community health clinic began, built entirely by volunteers.

Gabriola’s population was 4045.


Gabriolans voted 57% in favour of constructing a new firehall.


GERTIE (Gabriola’s Environmentally Responsible Trans Island Express) started.

Reconciliation (2015 to now)


Islands Trust Council officially adopted a declaration of Reconciliation.


Gabriola’s population was 4033.


On June 19, 2019 Islands Trust Council unanimously passed the Islands Trust Reconciliation Action Plan 2019-2022


The Snuneymuxw, the main first peoples of Gabriola, renewed its relationship with the provincial government through a land transfer agreement of more than 7410 acres of Crown lands near the City of Nanaimo at Mount Benson and Mount McKay.

1. Burley, David. 1989. Senewelets: Culture History of the Nanaimo Coast Salish and the False Narrows Midden, museum copy available on request

Japanese Canadians on Gabriola Timeline


Eight Japanese lived on Gabriola as loggers and fishers (none continued to live on the island).


Yoshimatsu Schinde built the Sunrise Sawmill on land leased from early John Silva (operated until 1925 when fire destroyed it).


Kanshiro Koyama ran a general store and a floating fish-buying camp on Silva Bay’s southwest shore.


Canadian government forcibly removed all BC people of Japanese origin to internment camps in interior BC because of World War II. The Page brothers bought the property in 1943.