The year was 1898 and Nanaimo’s Commercial Street was home to six bars.
By the 1900s the were nearly two dozen drinking establishments within the Harbour City.
“There were 22 bars in Nanaimo in 1900,” said local historian and tour guide Kevin Storey. “There were at least seven breweries.”
Details about Nanaimo’s bar scene in its early years are just some of the countless historical facts that people can learn about while participating in the Historic Pub Tour.
Organized and led by Storey and Mark Corbett, the tour lasts for almost two hours and touches on everything from the history of British Columbia’s drinking laws to Nanaimo’s topography.
“We walk the streets in a meandering fashion talking about the history and the changes in the topography and then we cover a lot of the liquor laws and policies of British Columbia from 1853,” Storey said.
The tour begins at the Bastion and stops at the Palace Hotel and the Cambie. It also includes a stop at Mambo’s Pizza.
“They [The Palace and the Cambie] are the oldest and the edgiest,” Storey said.
The Historic Pub Tour is part of the Nanaimo Walking Tours, a tour company run by Corbett and Storey that hosts other types of tours throughout the city.
Corbett says the historic pub tour is great for tourists and people who have lived in Nanaimo for years.
“There is an educational element, with the history and the dates and things, but it is also fun,” Corbett says. “You get to go visit a pub and hang out with the locals and you get beer and you get pizza. It is kind of an experience.”
Those who grew up in Nanaimo will appreciate the tour for its wealth of historical facts about downtown Nanaimo.
“If you’re from here it is definitely going to give you a new perspective on this town,” Corbett said. It is going to get you looking at downtown in a way that you wouldn’t normally do if you just parked and went to your favourite shop.”
British Columbia’s liquor laws have come a long way since the province joined confederation in 1871.
Storey, who has been tour guide with the Nanaimo Museum for years, says that prior to confederation, the region was dominated by cartels.
“At that point there was a beer cartel,” Storey said. “With the establishment of the government they worked hard for years to break the cartel so that they could dominate the alcohol.”
Those who go on the tour will learn about the province’s strange liquor laws.
“In the 1890s in British Columbia it was illegal to be drunk in your home,” Storey said. “Before 1986 you couldn’t buy beer in British Columbia on a Sunday.”
According to Storey, during prohibition, which lasted from 1917 to 1920, veterinarians and doctors could prescribe alcohol to animals.
“People will take away a little bit of some of the quirks of the liquor laws,” Storey said. “For instance prescriptions for horses for alcohol. You know full well that is going to the farmer and not the horse.”
In the last few years, the province made a number of changes to the liquor laws. As of April, residents in British Columbia are able to purchase wine at select grocery stores.
Storey says the government’s position on how people consume liquor has changed.
“The government used to promote going out to drink. So there were many bars and it wasn’t stigmatized because of drinking and driving,” Storey said. “Now that stigma is in place the government seems to be reversing it and making more at-home drinking available.”
Tours are scheduled for Aug. 6, Aug. 27 and Sept. 17 and are $25 per person. Beer and pizza is included. For more information, visit www.nanaimowalkingtours.ca.
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