NOTE: A more detailed, documented history of Gabriola's diatomaceous earth mine, "Unearthing the past—the diatomaceous earth mine on Gabriola" by Jenni Gehlbach, has been published in Issue 24 (June, 2010) of SHALE, the journal of Gabriola Historical and Museum Society.

Gabriola's diatomaceous earth mine

Just before World War II a new enterprise started on James Harvey Rowan's land at the north end of Gabriola—it was a diatomaceous earth mine, largely forgotten now even by the Rowan family. A decade earlier, in 1928, Rowan's father (also called James H. Rowan) had accidentally discovered a deposit of diatomaceous earth when he started a small fire in a wet area of his land called Dutchman's Swamp. (This swamp's name is a mystery: Rowan was Scottish and had bought his land from its pre-emptor John White Penburthy, who was English). Rowan Sr. couldn't extinguish the fire and when it had burned itself out he sent the curious pinkish powdery residue off to the Department of Mines for identification. Nothing came of his discovery at the time and he died the following year.

What is diatomaceous earth?

Diatomaceous earth (or diatomite) is the deposit (usually greyish white or cream-coloured) from the silica-based shells of plant life known as diatoms, a type of alga. The largest of these are smaller than a pinhead and the average visible only under a microscope. Diatoms are found both in marine environments and in fresh water. When the diatoms die they sink to the bottom, forming a siliceous ooze that eventually becomes diatomite.

Diatomaceous earth is found all over Canada, but mainly in the Maritimes and BC. The best quality in the 1920s was considered to come from Quesnel, BC. Diatomite deposits can occur in rocky outcroppings (as at Quesnel) or in lakes and swamps (as on Gabriola). Accessible marine deposits tend to be millions of years old, but surface wetland deposits (as at Dutchman's Swamp) tend to be more recent—only thousands of years old. In its natural state, diatomite is a suprisingly light-weight, greyish layer often found in clay-rich or peat-rich soil. When it is baked (calcined) it becomes a pale peachy-pink, fine powder.

What is it used for?

Diatomites’ chemical composition, minute size, hardness, and porosity make them useful in a number of ways. When treated and separated into powders of varying fineness, they are used as an abrasive and polishing agent in metal polishes, soaps, metal powders, and match heads. The purer products are used in the manufacture of siliceous glazes and waterglass or silicate of soda. They are also used in filtration systems for syrups and swimming pools. The large amount of pore space within them prevents the passage of heat through the loosely packed earth or through blocks and bricks made of it. This property, combined with the ability to stand great heat without fusion, makes the earth useful for insulating linings for furnaces, ovens, and safes, as well as in the walls of cold storage receptacles. It has also been used as an absorbent for corrosive liquids, liquid manures, and nitroglycerine.

In 1926, a decade or so before Gabriola’s mine started, diatomite was reported to be used in Canada mostly for filtering syrups (1538 tons) and for insulation (650 tons). Other miscellaneous uses totalled only 72 tons. At that time diatomite imports from USA cost $60 to $200 per car lot depending on the grade. An August 3, 1939 article in the Cowichan Leader about Gabriola’s mine reported that annual consumption of diatomaceous earth in Canada was estimated at 7000 tons, most of which was imported from the United States.

How did the Gabriola mine come about?

In 1936 Wah Sing Chow, an enterprising and well-respected business man from Duncan, BC, had returned to BC with his family after a few years living back in China. He was looking for a good-quality local deposit of diatomaceous earth because he had previously been involved in a business using diatomaceous earth mined in Quesnel, but found its quality unsatisfactory. He must have heard of Rowan's deposit through the Department of Mines and by February 1939, he was analyzing samples of diatomite that Rowan sent him.

Letter from W. S. Chow to James H. Rowan, February 1939

February letter to Rowan from Chow

Letters from Chow to Rowan mention that he had already designed a plant to process the diatomite and the two of them went into production on Gabriola in the summer of 1939. Victoria's newspaper, The Daily Colonist reported that on July 29, 1939, after three months of construction and experimentation, the plant was already producing six tons a day of diatomaceous earth of a quality suitable for insulating materials and filtration. A few days later, on August 3, 1939, an article in The Cowichan Leader about the new plant headlined “Enterprise of Duncan Chinese Brings New Industry to Island” reported that the enterprise had seven employees and that Chow had designed the plant and built a model of it above his store in Duncan. It also reported:

The plant, run by a 22-hp gasoline engine has a capacity of around four tons a day, which could be stepped up to six tons a day. With the supply of marketable material available, it is expected to run for between five and 10 years. Wah Sing Chow is manager of the plant, coming home to Duncan only at weekends.

A little later, on September 11, a memo from the Chief Mining Engineer at the Department of Mines to the Associate Mining Engineer of the Department of Buildings said:

Mr Eardley-Wilmot of the Ottawa Department of Mines called at my office recently and informed me that Mr. W.S. Chow, Box 181, Duncan, who apparently is the Manager of the West Coast Silica Products Company, Gabriola Island, is operating a small plant on what is called the Dutchman’s Swamp, 1-½ miles from the north end of Gabriola Island. Apparently Mr. Chow has a small mill from 1-1/2 to 2 tons capacity of calcined material, but at the present time he has no market.

West Coast Silica Products Limited

Three men signed a Memorandum of Association on August 16, 1939 (filed and registered on August 27, 1939). It declared that their new company’s name was to be West Coast Silica Products Limited and it would be situated on Gabriola Island. The men were:


Wah Sing Chow, James Harvey Rowan, & James Yuen Lim

Chow Rowan Lim

The declared objectives of their Company were: "To remove, process, and manufacture diatomaceous earth and all by-products thereof, and to sell and otherwise deal in the same both wholesale and retail." West Coast Silica Products Limited was officially incorporated on 17th August 1939 before W.L. Llewellyn, Deputy Registrar of Companies, and granted Incorporation Certificate #16843.

The share capital of the Company was declared to be $20,000, divided into 20,000 one-dollar shares. Public share offerings were prohibited and the number of company members limited to 50, exclusive of employees. Rowan and Chow were equal partners in the business, each having 5000 shares. James Yuen Lim was the Treasurer of West Coast Silica Products Ltd., but apparently had no shares. Five hundred more shares were allotted during October and November that year (filed and registered November 22, 1939) to Fred Wong Hunt of Lillooet, BC (200 shares), Wing Eng of Viceroy, Sask. (100 shares), and Shung Lim of Port Alice, BC (200 shares).

It was agreed that “No Director shall be disqualified by his office from contracting with the Company either as a vendor, purchaser, or otherwise.” Providing a Director’s interest in such a contract or engagement was declared at the outset, he would not be liable to account to the Company for any profit realized by it.

James Yuen Lim and Gim Lee Yuen Ltd.

Treasurer James Yuen Lim's Chinese name was Lin Juzhen and he was a prestigious member of Vancouver’s Chinatown. The Lin family owned the pioneer Jinliyuan Company, also written as Gim Lee Yuen Limited. This company occupied a three-story building constructed in 1908 at 75-77 Pender Street East, Vancouver. That building is now gone but the company still exists at 53 Pender Street East. Its 1941 letterhead described the company as "importers & exporters of general merchandise, silks, dry goods, and Chinese medicines". Although we have no precise record of where Gabriola's diatomite was shipped, it is most probable that Rowan and Chow shipped it to Gim Lee Yuen Ltd. in Vancouver for distribution to the end customers.

Demise of the company

Judging by the filed corporate documentation, West Coast Silica Products didn’t last long and had limited activity, though the company did not properly file required reports, so it may have been more active than is apparent from the documentation. In 1941 they were notified that they were in default under the Companies Act Section 163 for not filing their annual reports since 1939. This must have continued because the company's Solicitor Lorne Pyke (at the address of Lim's Company in Vancouver) wrote to the Registrar of Companies on August 12 1943, acknowledging that their annual reports had still not been returned, but taking issue with the official record of share allotments. Pyke's letter also stated: "since the outbreak of war its plant has been lying dormant on Gabriola Island it being impossible to acquire further most necessary machinery." There are no official company records after 1943.

Letter from James Y. Lim to James H. Rowan, 1941

Letter to Rowan from Lim

The actual situation on Gabriola is hard to figure out. Many locals are under the impression the Company operated only before the war, but there is a letter dated October 16, 1941 from James Yuen Lim to James Rowan about the possibility of a future job closer to Vancouver for Rowan's son Bill (William David Rowan). This letter clearly implies that Bill was then still working with his father at the mine on Gabriola. And Wah Sing Chow's son Edward, who was a teenager when the mine was operating and spent time there during his school holidays, believes that the operation continued through the wars years, only folding after the war.

The mining process used on Gabriola

There is no indication that the mine at Dutchman Swamp, which lies just south of present-day Berg Road, required deep digging. Indeed, the Daily Colonist article about Gabriola’s mine recorded that the diatomite was found only "seven inches below a natural surface growth". James Harvey Rowan's granddaughter Marie Cates remembers being told that they had to “dig a long ditch”, which you can trace in aeriel photographs of that time.

Aerial photograph of the area near Dutchman's Swamp taken in 1945
by the Federal Department of Energy, Mines, and Resources

Aerial Map 1945

Note the long straight ditch running the length of
the swamp in the lower part of the photograph

Chow's son Edward remarked that Chow and Rowan did most of the work themselves—they didn't need to hire people because they used machinery for a lot of the processing, but newspaper reports of the mine's start-up in the summer of 1939 said they had seven employees and the Daily Colonist reported that: "it is expected that the crew will be increased to twenty-five in the near future". And Marie wrote to me "I also remember the Chinamen's shacks (as they were called) where the workers from the mill lived".

Edward remembers that they used a horse and plough to loosen and turn the wet earth, and that Rowan's son sometimes helped with the ploughing. He doesn’t remember which son—but we know for sure that the oldest son Bill (Marie’s father) worked there.

James Harvey Rowan & his son Bill (Willian D. Rowan)
working the Rowan land

James and Bill on the tractor

Another son Jimmy C. Rowan said that the wet clods were hauled in a wagon up the gently sloped trail known locally as Swamp Road (which crosses today's Berg Road). Clyde Coats told Margaret Taylor (who now owns land in that area) that the wet mined material was laid out to dry in the sun on the flat sandstone at the top end of Swamp Road. The Daily Colonist reported that men then screened off the finer parts before carrying it to the circular kiln.

Wah Sing Chow and James Harvey Rowan with workers
from Victoria's Daily Colonist, Sunday July 30, 1939

Chow & Rowan with screen

Note the large screen in the middle of the group.

Alas, none of the equipment used at the diatomaceous earth mine and mill has survived. Edward Chow recalls the earth was taken by wagon to a large wooden shed and loaded into a rotary kiln where it was baked to dry it out, and Marie Cates wrote "I remember the mill from when I was a child—it had a large oven/stove in it for processing before shipping out the diatomite". The Daily Colonist reported:

A small fire is then started at the base of the kiln which soon climbs to the top, working its way through the self-burning (calcine) material. The process lasts four days. It is allowed to cool for two days. It is then discharged from the kiln and carried to an air flotation plant for the separation process.

Jimmy Rowan said that the separator in the Gabriola operation consisted of a simple fan mounted at one end of a long brick tunnel. As the diatomite was blown through the tunnel, the heavier particles dropped down first, and the deposited powder became progressively finer along the tunnel. Jimmy said the “best stuff” (i.e., the finest powder) was deposited at the far end. It could be that a proper cyclone was the missing piece of machinery that West Coast Silica Products was trying to obtain during the early war years. Edward Chow told me that the dried diatomite was passed through a grinder to pulverize it and blown through a cyclone to separate and sort the powder by fineness and weight.

The graded diatomite powder was packed into bags for shipping and June Harrison recorded that “a vast amount was removed and taken away by truck for shipping to Vancouver”—presumably to Gim Lee Yuen Limited. In those days such materials were usually shipped in burlap bags and Marie recalls seeing piles of burlap bags in the abandoned mill shed when she was disobediently playing there as a child. Piles of grown-over diatomaceous earth can still be found near the old kiln site on what was Rowan’s property.

A remaining mystery: what did the customers use Gabriola's diatomite for?

Talking to old-timers on Gabriola Island about its industrial past is both rewarding and frustrating. Memories slip, misinformation is unwittingly passed, essential pieces of information are omitted, contradictions emerge, people die untimely, and records are lost or destroyed. The results for a researcher can be confusing and unreliable, but occasional delights of discovery emerge, as well as enduring puzzles. This has been the case with the history of Gabriola's diatomaceous earth mine. Sadly, after James Harvey Rowan died in 1968, his family burned nearly all the paper records of his company except a few letters, and hardly any physical traces of the operation remain today. So when I first started this research, it was all a bit of a mystery. Nobody on Gabriola remembered that a prominent Duncan Chinese businessman had been involved in the ownership and management of the mine, and finding the connection to the Chow family was very valuable because they had memories and records otherwise unavailable to me. However, there remain several contradictions between Rowan and Chow accounts as well as between the official records and family memories. In addition to exactly how long the mine operated and what equipment they used, there are also contradictions and mysteries about who the customers were and what they used the diatomite for.

The Rowan family and other Gabriolans have only ever mentioned its use in the production of cosmetics. For example, Earl Easthom said several years ago that Rowan’s market had been mostly in China and a little in California, and that it was for making cosmetics. Other Gabriola old-timers tell similar stories. Yet the March 1939 letter from Chow to Rowan specifically mentioned that their calcined diatomite sample was sugar-filtration grade. A Ministry of Mines document mentioned that at the begininng they had no established market.

In contrast, Edward Chow told me that he was sure that the company had two major markets, both in Canada; he recalls that the finest powder was used for cosmetics and the coarser product was used in the manufacture of "gunpowder". He believes that this latter use was the major reason for the business being started. Also, in her in memoriam tribute to Wah Sing Chow, his daughter Virginia Lee wrote of his war years in Canada: "His patriotism led him to commute to a Gulf Island where he manufactured special clay into explosives."

Certainly the use of the term "gunpowder" in the context of diatomaceous earth is wrong, but nitroglycerin can be made more stable if absorbed in diatomite. This allows for much safer transport and handling of nitroglycerin than in its raw form. Alfred Nobel patented this mixture as dynamite in 1867. In 1928, V.L. Eardley-Wilmot wrote in the Canada Department of Mines publication Diatomite—Its Occurrence, Preparation, and Uses, that because of the high percentage of non-explosive filler in this type of explosive, “…the use of diatomite has largely been discontinued in this industry”, but added: “However, diatomite is still used to a small extent by some explosive manufacturers in the western part of the American continent and in parts of Europe”. The mystery remains...

Local British and Chinese immigrant experiences

BC, like the rest of Canada, has been fruitful ground for enterprising and energetic immigrants, but it was a testing ground too for those hardy souls who came at the end of the nineteenth century undergoing the hardship of breaking new ground without social services or good roads, mostly leaving worse conditions behind them at home, and then having to endure the depression and wars of the early twentieth century. Pre-emptors of raw land, settlers on farmlands, itinerant rural and urban labourers, and merchants all had their various stories of hard work and privation. Many also endured discrimination.

The Rowan family of Gabriola

James H. Rowan Sr. was born in Scotland in 1862 and first came to North America as a coal miner. According to the 1911 Gabriola census, he immigrated into Canada in 1899. He is listed (without his family) in the 1901 Nanaimo South extension census. His Scottish wife Anna was born in 1866. She followed James to Canada in 1900 with their two sons James Harvey and John. But James Harvey had been born in Streator, Illinois in 1891 and his brother John in Scotland in 1895, so clearly the family had earlier emigrated to USA and had returned to Scotland before emigrating to Canada.

The Rowan family came to live on Gabriola in 1904, the same year the third son David Kemp was born. They bought their quarter section (160 acres) from the Penberthy family and raised their own family in the Penberthy homestead. James H. Rowan Sr. retired from coal mining and farmed his Gabriola land until he died in 1929—a year after he accidentally discovered the diatomaceous earth on his property.

On June 1, 1919, James Harvey Rowan Jr. (who became the diatomite miner) married Gertrude Jolley. She was born in 1887 and her family had come to Gabriola in 1905 from Northamptonshire, UK. He was a carpenter, building houses on Gabriola and also in Nanaimo and Vancouver—even Zeballos—coming home on weekends. His family lived for a while in New Westminster when he worked there. Eventually James Harvey Rowan came back to live on his parents’ Gabriola acreage and he is listed in 1935 in the Wrigley’s Directory as a Gabriola carpenter. He would have been 48 years old when the diatomaceous earth mine started. He died in 1968, 77 years old.

James Harvey & Gertrude Rowan (née Jolley)
in the period when the mine was operating

James and Gertrude Rowan

James Harvey and Gertrude’s five children were born between 1920 and 1930, and their sons Billy, Gerry, and Jimmy operated a sawmill together on Gabriola from 1947 to the 1960s. They also worked periodically at the Gabriola brickyard. All three boys and their older sister Margaret have died, but the middle child Dorothy Foster (née Rowan) is 86 and still lives in Nanaimo at the time of writing this. Rowan descendants still live on Gabriola, in Nanaimo, and elsewhere in BC. Jimmy C’s son Bill has an excavation and trucking business in Nanaimo—another generation of hardworking, entrepreneurial Rowans shifting dirt.

The Chow family of Duncan

In 1873, at 12 years old, Suey Sing Chow borrowed $200 from a neighbour in his village in Hoi Ping county in South China’s Kwangtung Province and shipped out to California, working wherever he could to raise money. Unlike most Chinese immigrant labourers at that time, he was a Presbyterian and he had curly hair (as do several of his descendants). He was very religious and later in Canada was often nicknamed “Jesus Suey”. At 17 he returned to China to marry, but when he later wanted to return to America his re-entry permit had expired, so in 1894 he paid his $50 head tax and came to BC instead, leaving his wife (whose maiden name was Low Ting) behind in China.

When Suey Sing Chow first arrived on Vancouver Island, he worked for Butchart’s Cement Works in Mill Bay , but then he and a fellow villager Duk Lee went together to Lenora Mines at Mt Sicker to open the Suey Lee Company general store, catering to Chinese labourers in the boomtown there. When the Mt Sicker mines closed, many miners moved down to Duncan in the Cowichan Valley and in 1907 Suey Sing Chow moved his store to Station Street in Duncan.

Suey Sing Chow continued to visit back and forth with his wife in China, fathering four sons, and eventually three of them also came to Canada. In 1908, at 10 years old, Suey’s second son Wah Sing Chow left his mother and older brother in China and joined his father in Duncan. He started his education in English and eventually graduated in 1917. He had settled well, doing very well academically as well as earning the Good Citizenship Medal in his final year.

Eventually Wah Sing took over his father’s business, which had become Suey Lee and Sons, and Suey Sing Chow returned to China in 1920. His granddaughter Virginia remembered Suey Sing Chow in later years as a slightly built, mild-mannered and devout man. She says that there were many conversions to Christianity in their family’s village, but that when Suey Sing Chow died back in his home village, the family hired Taoist monks to bury him.

Wah Sing changed the name of the Duncan store again to Chow Brothers Grocery. Virginia wrote that Wah Sing’s younger brother Sing Wing was “short-changed in finishing his English schooling on account of the obligation to tend to the store full-time.” Later the store was passed to Wah Sing’s nephews Wai Dai Chow and Wai Hong Chow (Willie and Hank). Willie Chow told me that Suey Sing’s three sons had run Chow Brothers together before he and Hank took it over.

Chow Brothers Grocery Store in Duncan
(courtesy of Gordon Chow)

Chow's store

Wah Sing became the most prominent of Suey Sing Chow’s sons, also owning a hotel, a restaurant, and a billiard hall in Duncan. In 1923 he married Lai Yee Lowe (Helen) and they became a leading couple in the Duncan community raising four sons and four daughters. Interestingly, although their marriage took place in the Chinese Presbyterian Church both Wah Sing and Lai Yee list their religious denomination as Confucian on their marriage certificate.

Wah Sing Chow & Lai Yee Lowe (Helen)
on their wedding day in 1923

Wah Sing & Helen

His son Edward told me that Wah Sing was very enterprising and interested in many things, and he also had a machine shop where he manufactured apparatus for his various enterprises. His daughter Virginia said he was a great cook and also a curious inventor—he once designed a cork-lined suitcase that could be used as a lifejacket in an emergency at sea. She described him as a polite and soft-spoken man who always wore a suit, tie, and hat unless he was going to the lumberyard or an open market.

In addition to his various business and family interests, Wah Sing was very active in his community, joining the Chinese Freemasons (Chee Kung Tong), the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Society, and the Rotary Club. He worked hard for local Chinese interests and, having studied law for a while under Barrister MacKenna, acted as a court translator for the Chinese community. During the depression racial antagonism increased in Duncan, as elsewhere. Many in the community wanted Chinese competition removed from the job market, expropriation of Asian’s property, and even to forbid intermarriage. Despite these racist attitudes, Wah Sing remained a gracious and generous member of his community. Still, the unpleasant atmosphere caused him and his family to return to China for several years in the 1930s. His daughter Virginia, who now lives in Saratoga, California, wrote:

By 1931, frustrated over the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Great Depression, and his desire for filial piety toward his retired and widowed father, Wah Sing moved the family to China. After a stint as an auto mechanic in the village of Hoi Ping, he moved and opened a dry goods store in Canton. Helen managed the store while Wah Sing built apartments.

Wah Sing Chow’s four oldest children, all born in Canada, were Edward, Virginia, Edmund, and Viola. They went to Chinese school while in China. Another daughter Effie was born in China. The other three children (two sons and a daughter) were born after the family returned to Canada.

Wah Sing returned to BC in 1936 when the racial antagonism was abating somewhat, temporarily leaving his family in China, but they were in danger of being caught up in the Japanese invasion of South China. Helen followed Wah Sing back to Canada in 1937 followed by the five children and their nanny, who arrived back in 1938. Virginia remembers that at first the children didn’t speak much English, so school was a struggle. Despite all this trouble, Wah Sing and Helen Chow remained patriotic Canadians and active, committed community members. Virginia recounted:

The war years kept the couple extremely busy as they mobilized the Chinese communities to raise funds for “China relief” programs. Wah Sing volunteered for air raid patrol and sold war savings bonds.

Eventually, after WWII, several of Duncan’s prominent businessmen and other leaders including MLA C.F. Davie apologized to Chow for their pre-war remarks.

Wah Sing Chow would have been 41 years old when the diatomaceous earth mine started on Gabriola just before the war. He lived the rest of his life in Duncan but died in California in 1962 while visiting his daughter. Many of Suey Sing Chow’s descendants still live in Duncan and elsewhere in BC. The Chow Brothers Grocery Store is no longer there, but Wai Dai’s son Gordon Chow continues his family’s entrepreneurial adventures in Duncan with a skateboarding supplies business called Area 51 on Station Street.

This webpage

Created: July 17, 2010, updated January 4, 2014
by Documents that Work