Many of Gabriola's homes incorporate attractive old bricks, locally produced, in their fireplaces and patios, and the beach at the bottom of Brickyard Hill holds lots of brick fragments scattered amongst its pebbles. If you know where to look nearby on the hillside, you can still see some traces of what once was a busy clay quarry and brick factory.
Although the first company to operate the brickyard there was not incorporated until 1911, there is evidence that the business was already operating during the 1890s. It continued to produce millions of bricks a year until 1952.
There was no electrical power on Gabriola in the early days of course, so the brickyard had to supply its own power using a steam pump and boilers fired with the good, plentiful and cheap coal from the mines in and around Nanaimo. Coal also heated the brick kilns to the required high temperatures.
Blue and brown shales suitable for bricks were dug from the hillside just above Brickyard Beach. A report of the BC Minister of Mines in 1918 stated that geologically the Gabriola shale deposit belonged to the bottom part of the Northumberland formation of the Nanaimo series, and that “the shales…are bluish and brownish in colour, and…show good plasticity”. It also noted that the quarry “…is partly an open-cut and partly an incline pit…about 125 feet long, extending back into a ridge, with the face about 35 feet high at the north-easterly end of the quarry”.
Shales were both dug and blasted out of the hillside, and the quarry’s safety record was good according to both government reports and old timers who worked there.
The first step in the process was to crush, grind and screen the shale to a fine powder in a “dry pan crusher”, rather like a huge rotary kitchen sieve. The crushed shale was mixed with water, and the resultant slurry was screened fine, and delivered through a chute to the press. On Gabriola, they pressed four bricks at a time in a hand-operated hydraulic press.
These “green” bricks must be dried before firing, and in Gabriola’s brick plant, they were stacked onto wooden carts that were hand pushed into the drying kiln through which tracks wound. When they emerged dry after a couple of days they were taken, again by hand-pushed cart, to the firing kiln. When the firing kiln was full the entrance hole was bricked up with dry-stacked bricks. At the back of the kiln were low arched holes into which firewood was fed by hand to get the fires going.
During the firing process, wheelbarrow-loads of coal were rolled up a ramp and across the top of the kiln under the high wooden roof. Plugs were removed from holes in the top of the kiln while the coal was shovelled in to increase the temperature to about 2000°F.
After the bricks cooled for three or four days, men loaded them onto wheelbarrows and took them to the beach. There they threw away the culls—bricks that were broken, deformed, melted, or stuck together—onto Brickyard Beach, and stacked the good bricks to await the scow.
Scows brought the coal from Nanaimo to Brickyard Beach and also carried bricks away to the customers in Vancouver, Westminster and Victoria. The wide, flat beach was ideal for easy loading and unloading.
To stabilize the scow against rising and falling tides during loading they pulled the plug, letting it sink to the bottom on the shallow slope of the beach. Men used tongs to load the bricks, seven at a time (49 pounds per lift), and after the scow was loaded, they installed the plug at low tide to float it free as the tide rose.
Once the “Atrevida” ferry service between Gabriola and Nanaimo was established in 1931, some smaller brick orders were delivered on Vancouver Island by road and ferry. Firewood was hauled overland to the brickyard and Jimmy Rowan recalled the hazard of delivering wood by horse and wagon down the steep hill.
A 1912 business prospectus of the Dominion Shale Brick and Sewer Pipe Company Ltd. stated that their labourers were paid $2.75 per day; the dry pan men and truckers received $3.00 per day, and press operators $3.50. Although we have no other early company records, BC Directories listed local workers' employers and occupations from 1913 through the late 1920s. Also, many locals who recalled working in the quarry and the brick plant during the 1930s and 40s have left us their reminiscences, which are included in the more complete article about the brickyard in Issue 15 of SHALE.
Then as now, islanders flexibly took whatever work was available, at that time logging, fishing, farming, trapping, working at the sawmill, or labouring at the brickyard. When war broke out and older men left the brickyard to enlist, younger men took their places as soon as they left school.
More anonymously, Chinese men did much of the hard labour throughout the brickyard’s history, quarrying the shale and keeping the kiln fires stoked. They were housed in shacks near the brickyard site, had their own cook there, and a manager who could interpret for them.
The 20-acre parcel of land that the factory and quarry eventually occupied was a small part of the tracts of land near False Narrows preempted by the McGuffie family in the mid-1880s. Six months after preemption, the Vancouver Coal Company began drilling for coal on McGuffie’s land but, although the hole reached 1970 feet, no coal was struck and the unsuccessful project was terminated in 1889. As often happened during the search for coal, clays suitable for brickmaking may have been identified in the area at this time. In 1894, McGuffie sold some of his land to Thomas and Annie Morgan of Nanaimo and it is likely that the brickyard had its beginnings during the Morgans’ ownership, for when they in turn sold it there were already buildings and fixtures on it that were of interest to brickmakers.
William Nairn Shaw bought the Morgans' land in 1914 for $6000 and his application for title was subject to the right of the Dominion Shale Brick and Sewer Pipe Company Ltd. (incorporated in 1911) to purchase a small 20-acre parcel of that land from Shaw. A few months later, this parcel was transferred from Shaw to Dominion for $7795. Ownership of all the buildings and fixtures on this land was also transferred to Dominion, but Shaw retained the mining rights, becoming a key figure in the brick business, supplying it with both clay and water for the manufacturing process.
Because of changes to the Trust Companies Act, in 1916 Dominion’s shareholders agreed to wind up their company voluntarily, and in June 1917 a Certificate of Incorporation was issued for a new company called Gabriola Shale Products Ltd., whose aims were to:
“carry on the business of manufacturers and sellers of brick, tiles, pottery, earthenware, china, and terra cotta, drain-pipes, sewer-pipes, and pipes of every kind and description, and all products made of clay and shale.”
Its other stated objectives included cutting stone for building and paving; manufacture or purchase of cement, lime, plaster, tile, and artificial stone; purchase, pre-emption or lease of lands yielding petroleum, peat coal, rock, clay, earth, gravel and sand; working those lands “to turn the same to account”; acquiring timber and timber limits and carrying on the business of lumbermen; construction of the infrastructure needed for their manufacturing and transportation; acquiring water rights and privileges and diverting the water as needed; and (more surprisingly) to carry on:
“the business of a power company or any business within the meaning of ‘The Water Act’…. and enjoy the full benefit of…the Power Companies’ Relief Act…; to construct tramways and …all kinds of vehicles…to carry passengers and merchandise, and goods of all kinds”.
When title of the parcel of land on which the brickworks operated passed to Gabriola Shale Products, Ltd., the list of encumbrances, liens and interests included Wm. Nairn Shaw’s subsurface rights. James Oscar Cameron of Victoria was named as President of the new company in 1918 and within the next five years, the company came under the total control of Cameron Investments and Securities.
This was a time of expansion and prosperity at the brickworks. Adam Jack of Nanaimo contracted to add four chambers to the Gabriola kiln in 1920 and the new company manufactured 3 578 600 bricks that year. The quality of their bricks had a good reputation and George Robinson of Vancouver specified that only red brick from Gabriola be used in the building he had been contracted to build for Mitchell’s Farmers Market due to be opened in September 1922.
Operation was smooth and successful through the 1920s, although during the transfer to the new company, Shaw had increased the price of their water from $6 to $20 per month, which caused escalating problems between him and manager D.W. Campbell, culminating in Campbell suing Shaw for $20,000 damages for “injury to his reputation”.
The company had been prospering to this point, but economic conditions were poor generally, so demand for bricks began to slow down. The 1930 report of the BC Minister of Mines states that Gabriola Shale Products Ltd.’s operation managed by Charles F. DeLong had closed the quarry and plant for several months toward the end of 1930. Similar reports were made throughout the 1930s.
In 1939 Cameron Investment & Securities transferred its holdings in Gabriola Shale Products to the Cameron Lumber Company. In 1940, the manager was named as T.G. McBride, and in 1941 it was reported that: “T.G. McBride & Co. purchased the Brick Yards, Equipment, &c., but are not carrying on the Gabriola Shale Products Limited as a Company. They are simply manufacturing bricks for their own business in Vancouver and treating such manufacture and sale of bricks as a department of T.G. McBride & Co.”
In 1942, Gabriola Shale Products Ltd. agreed to sell the land and the brickmaking business to Evans, Coleman & Evans Ltd. of Victoria “for the sum of $14,000”. This was to include “all buildings, fixtures, commons, ways, profits, privileges, rights, easements and appurtenances”, and all supplies except for the stock of manufactured brick and tile. Output in 1942 was 1,900,000 bricks. The yard did not operate during 1943 and in November Gabriola Shale Products Ltd. was dissolved and ownership of its assets passed to Evans, Coleman & Evans Ltd. F.A. Higgs managed their operation through the 1940s with varying degrees of success depending on the economy and water supply, closing the plant during difficult months. In 1948 the factory had a good year, operating steadily to produce 3,750,000 bricks with a crew averaging 24 men in the brickyard and two in the quarry.
But in 1952 the plant did not operate at all, and this time Gabriola’s brickyard stayed closed forever. Times were changing: the coalmines were nearly all gone, along with their convenient, cheap fuel. The construction and architectural worlds were changing too, as brick was abandoned in favour of concrete. Once thriving brickyards became a thing of the past. Ownership of the Gabriola brick works and its landholdings passed to the Ocean Cement Company, which merged into ever-larger national and international conglomerates who did nothing with the site, and it fell into neglect.
Local entrepreneurs contracted to dismantle the structures and clear the site in the 1960s, and in 1974 the patch of land between the beach and South Road was designated Crown Land. The BC government briefly allowed bricks to be dug out by enterprising residents before ordering it bulldozed flat, making a perfect spot nowadays for Gabriola's Canada Day Potato Cannon Contest. The rest of the brickyard site on the hillside is now in private hands and has returned to bush.
Created: May 2, 2007; updated January 4, 2014
by Documents that Work