Cathedral Grove, MacMillan Prov Park, Photo Destination BC Graeme Owsianski

Travel Spotlight

Port Alberni

Port Alberni lies between the east and west coasts of Vancouver Island. It is known as the Salmon Capital of the World as anglers come here for both river and ocean fishing but in particular for salmon and halibut. Port Alberni is also the gateway for kayaking trips into Barkley Sound. If you love the water, Sproat Lake is one of BC’s finest freshwater lakes for waterskiing, tubing, canoeing, kayaking, swimming, and windsurfing. A variety of short access trails lead visitors around this park, including a trail to the eastern end of Sproat Lake, which is home to one of the finest panels of prehistoric petroglyphs in British Columbia.

To explore some of the area’s heritage, visit the Alberni Valley Museum and at McLean Mill National Historic Site you will see a steam-operated sawmill in action and be entertained by the “Tin Pants Theatre”. Ride the Alberni Pacific Railway, a restored 1929 Baldwin ex-logging locomotive that winds through the City of Alberni and surrounding forests. The Maritime Discovery Centre is a unique maritime museum, situated on the waterfront. It’s constructed from an actual coastal lighthouse, and is both educational and a fun, hands-on experience for all ages. Take a day trip on the M.V. Frances Barkley, a working freighter. Bring your binoculars and camera and watch the wildlife and share experiences with the ship’s crew. For more outdoor adventures there’s hiking, mountain  biking, golfing, windsurfing and diving.

A water front view from the harbour quay near the Esta Villa Motel in Port Alberni.

Location

Port Alberni is located 85 km (53 mi) northeast of Nanaimo via the Island Highway 19 north and Highway 4 east. Tofino and Ucluelet lie 126 km (78 mi) and 101 km (62 mi) respectively to the west of Port Alberni.

A fountain at the harbour quay near the Esta Villa Motel in Port Alberni.

A Step Back in Time

Port Alberni was named for Captain Don Pedro de Alberni, a Spanish officer who commanded the fort at Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island’s west coast from 1790 to 1792.

Before Europeans came, Alberni and the West Coast of Vancouver Island was the traditional territory of the Tseshaht and Hupacasath First Nations of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth Tribal Council.

In 1787, Captain Charles William Barkley of the Imperial Eagle explored the Sound that now bears his name. Barkley traveled with his 17-year-old bride, Frances, the first European woman to visit British Columbia. Frances Barkley is today the name of a vessel that plies the waters of Alberni Inlet between Port Alberni, Bamfield and Ucluelet.

In 1856, Adam Horne, a Scottish fur trader employed by the Hudson’s Bay Company, was directed to locate a land route across Vancouver Island. There were stories that the natives used a trail starting at Qualicum. Adam Horne found this trail leading to the Alberni Valley and it became known as the Horne Lake Trail.

In 1860, the Anderson company from London, England set up a sawmill operation. Gilbert Sproat and Edward Stamp transported men and machinery to Alberni. They received land grants from Governor James Douglas and started running the Anderson sawmill at the mouth of the Somass River in August of 1861. The first mill in BC was built to export lumber. The original mill failed, but several others were established in the 1880s. Sproat Lake was named after Gilbert Sproat and Stamp Falls and Stamp River were named after Edward Stamp.

In 1862, small-scale placer gold mining took place on China Creek. It developed along the Alberni Inlet and Mineral Creek. Exploration for gold continued over the years with peaks in 1930s and 1960s.

In 1912, Port Alberni was incorporated with the arrival of the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway, and planned arrival of the Canadian National Railway, and the Trans-Pacific telegraph cable at Bamfield.

The forest industry was the dominant economic force, with western red cedar and Douglas-fir forests surrounding the valley. Large logging operators moved in, namely Bloedel, Stewart and Welch. Sawmills were built at Alberni, Great Central Lake, and the McLean Mill. By the second World War, plywood mills and a nascent pulp industry started. For the next forty years, the forest industry reigned supreme. MacMillan Bloedel Limited became the large lumber player in the valley. Then came industry modernization, business mergers, over-cutting, and nearby logging protests.

Once an industrial resource-dependent town, Port Alberni has re-developed itself as a tourism destination. The area’s amenities, such as the natural beauty of the area, the opportunities for fishing (both marine and freshwater), its convenience as a jumping-off point for new outdoor recreation and ecotourism activities such as hiking, kayaking, and mountain-biking, lend themselves to these activities very well.

Birds at the Wharf near the Esta Villa Motel in Port Alberni.

Contact Information

Alberni Valley Tourism

Camping Lodging

The Super Camping / Select Lodging Guide

First Published in 1989