125 Years Ago – 1886

1886 Granville (aka Gastown) transforms! Granville will be the end of the line for the transcontinental railway. Situated on a long-standing Coast Salish seasonal site, the tiny culturally mixed lumber village explodes into a frenetic boomtown. Overnight, real estate replaces lumber as the primary economic driver. Scores of speculators and railway agents arrive from Eastern Canada. Winning the biggest poker game of the century, the Canadian Pacific Railroad receives a provincial grant of 6400 acres of taxfree land – from Gore to Stanley Park, Burrard Inlet to False Creek – becoming the city’s biggest landlord for 100 years!

As the New Year begins, maple trees, towering cedars, skunk cabbage and swamp surround Granville Townsite; salmon enter the streams of False Creek. Residents assemble on the shell midden under Gastown’s old maple tree for town meetings and performances. Most of the sawmill workers and longshoremen are Native, Metis, Hawaiian; the rest come from the four corners of the globe. Chinook is as common as English. 1/10 of the population is Chinese. Half of the children are part native; Asian, Anglo and Aboriginal children sit alongside each other in school. 75% of the residents have no permanent homes and live in hotels, boarding houses and float houses. Although immigrant entrepreneurs need the cooperation of the First Peoples, they want helpers not competitors. Chinese and Natives are prohibited from voting in provincial elections, buying or working crown land or entering certain professions. Traditional Coast Salish Winter Dances and Potlatches have just been forbidden. By the end of the year, a new elite who believes in the superiority of British civilization will control the town.

JANUARY – on New Year’s Day, Aboriginal residents hold a dance at the Indian Rancherie just east of Hastings Sawmill at the foot of Campbell Avenue. 125 men (most of them newcomers) petition the province to incorporate the City of Vancouver, a name suggested by the CPR general manager.

FEBRUARY – Granville swells to 600 people and 100 buildings, including sixteen saloons and eight legal opium factories (commonly used to ease pain and soothe the mind.) Trees west of Cambie are cut down. Land from Carrall to Gore is cleared for settlement. Cedar trees that provided for every need for thousands of years are disappearing. The air is thick with smoke from burning stumps.

MARCH – the CPR is selling lots around Burrard Inlet and False Creek. It clears them by the bowling pin method, smashing smaller trees with big ones, five acres at a time. Left behind are vast matted pyramids of branches, stumps and leaves; piled 10 to 20 feet high, they spread in every direction.

APRIL – Granville Townsite incorporates as the City of Vancouver; a city statute directs that no Chinese or Indian is allowed to vote. A property boom takes off. The reported sale of two businesses to Chinese entrepreneurs sparks indignation among settlers worried that property values will drop. Newly arrived immigrant workers strike at Hastings Mill for a 10-hour workday: Burrard Inlet’s first official labour dispute. Meeting a conciliation committee under the Maple Tree, mill manager Alexander makes bitter enemies when he plans to replace strikers with a few extra Indians and Chinese declaring “Canadians are only North American Chinamen anyway.” The strikers lose (but will win a year later).

MAY – the city has 400 new residents and 500 new buildings. The city’s first election campaign gets under way pitting unpopular Alexander against real estate dealer Malcolm MacLean, newly arrived from Winnipeg. Alexander attempts to send 50 of his Chinese employees to vote at the polls but they are chased away with shouts and fists. MacLean wins the election by seventeen votes in a closely contested election. Accusations of vote stuffing are rampant. Rebuffed in their attempt to buy today’s Stanley Park land, the CPR lobbies behind the scenes to turn the peninsula into an urban park and keep it off the market. At their first meeting, the new City Council agrees to lease the peninsula as a city park. To obtain funds for operating costs, city councilors impose fines on “drunk and disorderly people” and prostitutes such as Birdie Stewart (who regard the fines as business licenses.) A potlatch for 4,000 people takes place down the road at Second Narrows opposite George Black’s hotel.

JUNE – Jonathan Miller leaves his job as constable to become the town’s postmaster; he’s the last man for the next twenty years to leave his job in the police department without prodding from the citizens. The new police chief tears out the benches around Maple Tree Square to discourage loitering. Columbia Hall opens with an acrobatic song and dance team. With no rains since May, it’s a hot dry summer; the air is thick with smoke from CPR brush fires. 1000 wood buildings – most of them hotels, saloons and real estate offices – are hemmed in with trees, underbrush and the decapitated stumps of monumental cedars. Not one fire engine.

JUNE 13 – Sunday. Just after church, a clearing fire escapes from the C.P.R. crew working near the Roundhouse site. It’s whipped into a fury by gale winds gorging on 100 acres of massed brush. Flames race down wood sidewalks faster than a man can run. The city doesn’t burn – it explodes! Members of a Squamish congregation, dedicating the new mission church across the inlet, paddle to help as they sing a song for protection and guidance that is still sung today. Forty-five minutes later, the winds die. The flames fizzle out just before Hastings Mill and the Indian Rancherie. 1000 people are homeless. Gardens and livestock are consumed. The city is crowded with strangers. No one is sure how many died.

By dawn, wagonloads of supplies arrive from New Westminster for the homeless. Twelve businesses are back in business. The overnight apocalyptic removal of stumps and shacks clears the way for rapid development. One week later, resolutions are passed with the Mayor’s support to prevent Chinese immigrants from re-establishing themselves. These attempts are unsuccessful. Chinese farmers provide most of the city’s fresh vegetables. A small Chinese district forms around Shanghai Alley and Carrall and Main Streets. Squamish long shore crews are known for speed and stamina.

JULY – a new town arises from the ashes as real estate speculation soars. The town survey names streets after CPR officials, British naval heroes, and developers. The Oppenheimer Brothers open the first wholesale grocery in the city’s first brick building. Their Vancouver Improvement Company is the third largest landholder in the city after Hastings Mill, and the C.P.R. Keefer Hall opens at Alexander and Water Streets, doubling as a skating rink, theatre, church and United Workman’s Hall. BC’s first floating fish processing plant that manufactures oil to grease skid roads – Spratt’s Ark – has closed due to failed herring migration. Natives blame the failure on Spratt’s method of fishing with dynamite.

AUGUST – the city’s first fire engine arrives. Ten days later, the new brigade fights its first major fire: they can’t save the abandoned Spratt’s Oilery but do manage to save a few surrounding houses. Hastings Mill operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and sends huge timbers to rebuild the Imperial Palace of China. The crown colonies of Vancouver Island and BC unite.

NOVEMBER – the fire chief takes off for the USA with all the funds of the fire brigade. A white worker’s group known as the Knights of Labour organizes a boycott of Chinese produce and businesses.

DECEMBER – Vancouver has expanded from a population of 400 to 5,000 in one year. Law enforcement is near breakdown. Burglaries are common, gangs roam the streets at night robbing sleeping drunks, saloons are open 24/7, and four breweries work around the clock to keep up with the demand. City Councilors are hard at work promoting development, assisting businesses, building housing and improving civic amenities. b

by Savannah Walling