West of Degnen Bay, a largely deserted Indian reserve is in strong contrast to the rest of this populated island. Because of its closeness to the Vancouver Island city of Nanaimo, Gabriola is one of the most densely populated islands for its size.
The Coast Salish were the first to visit the south end of Gabriola in the summers to hunt and fish, and petroglyphs can still be seen carved in the numerous sandstone cliffs. Artifacts are also regularly found on the island and the scant remains of a former First Nations village extends over a kilometer on the shoreline.
Spanish explorers sailing the Straits in the late 18th Century have left their names on many of the areas: Descanso Bay, Malaspina Inlet and Galleries, Gabriola Passage. The island’s name, however, although Spanish, appears to derive not from an explorer but from a corruption of the word “gaviota “, which means seagull in Spanish.
Scottish, British and Irish settlers arrived in the 1850’s to work briefly in the coal mines at Nanaimo before turning their hand to farming. The few pockets of good soil on the island, however, were quickly discovered and became market gardens for Nanaimo. Timber was also cut for Nanaimo homes.
In 1887, a sandstone quarry near Descanso Bay produced building blocks for Victoria and later enormous grindstones for crushing logs in the pulp mills. Some of these can still be seen decorating Gabriola gardens.
A brick works opened around the same time, employing many Chinese workers, until it closed in 1945.