Cumberland has always been the path between – part of a cross-island trading route first developed by ancestors of the K’omoks First Nation.
Once coal started shipping out of Union Bay in the summer of 1889, there was a need to deliver goods and services to the area. At first, there was no formal mail delivery service or post office. The “postmaster” met the mail at the wharf, pulled the mail out of the bag and called out the names of everyone getting mail. If there was a postcard, he’d read it out loud for everyone to enjoy.
When the rail service to Union (now Cumberland) was established, the mail was delivered weekly to colliery paymaster George Wilt Clinton or alternatively to Robert Grant’s sawmill.
Newspapers, packages and letters were all transported by rail across the country. Then, as of now, there were no secrets in rural Canada. Any news – the hatches, matches and dispatches in the district – is picked up either Sunday at church service or the mail train delivery to the local post office.
In the early days, being a postmaster in Cumberland was very much a part-time job. In 1894 the Union post office acquired the right to act as a post office savings bank as there was no chartered bank in the area.
It is hard to appreciate how much slower the pace of life was before 1900. The post office savings bank appealed to the working classes, which made up the bulk of the community – generally depositing $50.00 or less to a maximum amount of about $1000.00. To withdraw funds, you had to apply in writing at the local post office; the written request would be sent to HQ in Ottawa, where a cheque would be issued and sent back to the originating post office. The local postmaster notifies the customer the cheque has arrived and that it is picked up in person. A confirmation receipt is then sent back to Ottawa for central bookkeeping. This whole process can take ten days or more and is probably where the expression “the cheque’s in the mail” originated. On-site withdrawals were not permitted until 1924.
The Chinese miners didn’t trust banks and kept their money in cash. The Canadian post office had international agreements to deliver mail and money orders to many countries in Europe and India, but an agreement with China came later. Before the Royal Bank opened in 1904, which allowed the men to send international money orders, it would have been very difficult for the Chinese miners to send money back to China for their families. Cash was sometimes sent in letters, but whether or not the money was still in the envelope at the destination was a matter of luck.
Until the Federal building opened in 1908, the post office was located at various storefronts around Cumberland. Before 1897, the post office was located on the main floor of the Dunne Block, a two-storey wooden building to the east of the Willard Block.on Dunsmuir. Between 1897 and 1908, the post office was housed in the Willard Block, a three-storey brick building that was later demolished. Rider’s Pizza is on the same site today.
Construction started on the stand alone post office at 2739 Dunsmuir in 1907. Union Bay was deemed less significant in terms of population growth and didn’t get a brick building when infrastructure across B.C. was upgraded. The post office in Cumberland operated at the Federal building from 1908 to 2003.
The new post office boxes available at the Federal building served an interesting purpose during “the Big Strike” of 1912-1914. Joe Naylor and Albert “Ginger” Goodwin exchanged union information through Joe’s PO Box, 415. It was then (as it is now) illegal to tamper with the mail, so any communications between these two men remained secure and away from management prying eyes.
The customs office upstairs (which opened in 1912) handled imported items such as food sauces and ginger. It stopped full-time operations March 10, 1932, but semi-weekly morning visits by the Union Bay customs officer continued until service was discontinued in 1937. The office remained as a time capsule of a bygone era until renovations to the building in the 1980s when the customs counter was removed. It is now on permanent display at the Cumberland Museum.
The telegraph office was also housed upstairs in the Federal building and opened at the same time as the post office in July 1909. Telegraph services were taken over by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1947.
The Federal building closed on June 2, 2003, six years shy of one hundred years of service at the same location, and the post office moved across the street to where it is located today.
Cumberland has grown and changed over the past few years, with first class mail volumes dwindling while mail order has boomed. During the uncertainty of COVID many people ordered everything by mail. Sometimes going to the post office was the only point of contact with another person for weeks on end. Postal workers went above and beyond in stressful conditions, with high volumes of mail continuing for months. It is no surprise that the No.1 trusted business in Canada during the pandemic was the post office, which continues to be the heart of Cumberland.
C030-001: Inside post office in the 1920s: J.W. Cooke, postmaster; Orpha lewis, assistant; Genevieve Mcfadyen, extra help. The customs office and telegraph office were located on the upper storey. Built by the Government of Canada, its design came from Victoria’s Office of Public Works
Postmasters of Cumberland
1889 JD LIttle first official postmaster 1948-1978 Arthur Ramsell
1892-1906 JL Roe 1979-2003 Anita Foulem
1906-1913 Wm “Larry” Nunns 2003-present Bernadette Foulem Lloyd
1913-1915 Frank Parks
1916-1922 John White: Jack” Cooke
1923-1947 John Coates Brown