9 Surprising Secrets from Vancouver History
By Don Rauf
This temperate and lush port has become one of the wealthiest cities in Canada, but it still maintains an undercurrent of weirdness. Look past the frequent shroud of low-hanging clouds and shiny skyscrapers, and you'll find a city of peculiarities and unusual history.
1. THE CITY MEMORIALIZES A FAMOUSLY TALKATIVE SALOONKEEPER.
Royal BC Museum // Public Domain
Vancouver's oldest neighborhood, Gastown, earned its name from a colorful bar owner, Captain John (Gassy Jack) Deighton. Deighton was born in England in 1830 and spent his early adulthood toiling aboard sailing vessels. At some point in the 1850s, he headed off toward California to strike it rich during the Gold Rush. Like many prospectors of the time, he kept following the gold, and by 1865 he had married a Native American woman, operated a saloon on Vancouver Island, and captained a steamer.
But Deighton entrusted his saloon to a manager for a bit and it quickly fell into debt. Deciding to leave his troubles behind and seek new opportunities, he set off in a canoe with his family, dog, two chickens, two chairs, a large barrel of whisky, and six dollars. He arrived in the Burrard Inlet, on the shores of what is now downtown Vancouver, in an area called Luck Lucky (from a native term meaning grove of sacred trees). Within 24 hours, he had convinced some local mill workers to help him build a makeshift shack that would become his new saloon. In return, the workers got a day's worth of booze and a place to unwind after work. The bar not only became the focal point of the area, but so did Captain Jack. Because he was a lively and talkative fellow, always overflowing with stories, he gained the sobriquet "Gassy," an informal word for a person who liked to blather on. The neighborhood revolved so much around Gassy Jack that it soon became known as Gastown.
Jack died at the young age of 44, but today a bronze statue of him atop a whisky barrel stands in Maple Tree Square, where the famous blowhard opened his historic saloon.
2. EVERY NIGHT ENDS WITH A BANG.
v4voodoo via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0
The city of Vancouver has a notable daily ritual that it has executed like clockwork for more than 100 years: the Nine O'Clock Gun. Every night, the tranquility of Stanley Park is shattered by a thunderous explosion when an old cannon is loaded with a pound and a half of gun powder and fired (without a projectile). The tradition began in 1898 for a practical reason—to allow the general populace to accurately set their clocks and provide a way for nearby ships to calibrate their chronometers (time-measuring devices). The cannon replaced a nightly dynamite explosion, which was deemed ineffective.
Even as timepieces became more reliable over the years, Vancouver carried on the tradition. Many people who grew up in the city near Stanley Park said the blast served as their curfew warning—when the Nine O'Clock Gun blasted it was time to scurry home. The cannon was only quiet for an extended period during World War II, when the city thought residents might mistake it for the sounds of a Japanese attack. It also fell silent for a short time in February 1969 when students from the University of British Columbia stole it and held it for ransom until a donation was made to the local children’s hospital. (Local businessmen raised a thousand dollars and the cannon was returned.) The cannon also once caused some damage: In May 1964, some troublemakers managed to toss a rock into the barrel, and when the cannon went off, the stone hurtled out and bashed into a fueling station barge anchored offshore, giving it a minor blemish.
Vancouver is not alone in this practice of marking time with a cannon blast, by the way—Cape Town (South Africa), Zagreb (Croatia), Hong Kong, and Edinburgh (Scotland) all uphold the tradition. And if you desperately need to sync your watch to nine o’clock Vancouver time, the cannon is on Twitter.
3. THE CITY IS HOME TO A REPUTEDLY HAUNTED ISLAND.
Dead Man's Island in the early 20th century. Image credit: Vancouver Archives // Public Domain
Just to the south of picturesque Stanley Park, connected by a narrow causeway, lies Dead Man's Island. The site, which is closed to the public, maintains an eerie aura thanks to a long history linking it with death. Legend has it that the island was once the site of a fierce battle in which one group of natives captured 200 women, children, and seniors. These were exchanged for 200 young warriors from the other group, who were executed immediately.
Much later, when one of Vancouver's earliest white settlers, John Morton, arrived there in 1862, he was astonished by an unusual sight: Tied to the tree tops were hundreds of red cedar coffin-size boxes. The region’s Squamish people often raised their dead high above the ground, lashing them to tree limbs. Morton eventually learned that this island was a "tree-burial" ground for the local natives.
About three decades after Morton's discovery, a smallpox outbreak swept through Vancouver. During the epidemic, Dead Man's Island became a "pest house" (a hospital for people suffering from infectious diseases). Many of those put into quarantine on the island were left there to die. In addition to First Nations people and smallpox victims, a number of sailors, pioneers, squatters, and loggers are buried there.
In 1942 the island became home to a naval station, and since that time many supernatural sightings and eerie phenomena have been reported. Some claim to have heard unexplained clanging, hurried footsteps, otherworldly sobs, and the sound of chains being dragged in the dead of night. A woman stationed on the island once felt a hand on her back, although she was completely alone. Others have witnessed an unearthly glow through the trees that eventually coalesces into a human form. For an island that has had so many troubled souls pass through it, it may come as no surprise that many believe Dead Man's Island is still haunted.
4. MARGARINE WAS ONCE ILLEGAL THERE.
Margarine has been around longer than you might think. First concocted by a French chemist named Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès in 1869, it was being commercially produced as early as the 1870s as a less perishable and cheaper alternative to butter. Although first made from beef fat and sometimes whale oil, vegetable oils eventually replaced those ingredients, and the product was thought to be healthier than butter.
Dairy farmers worried that this non-dairy alternative would cut into their butter business. The dairy industry successfully pushed to have margarine declared illegal across Canada in 1886. The ban would remain (with a brief gap during World War I) until 1948, when Canada’s Supreme Court ruled that such bans were a provincial issue, not a federal issue. Despite an attempt to start making margarine in British Columbia, the region soon banned it. In 1949 the ban was lifted and Vancouver became the first new place to produce margarine in Canada (although while the ban was in place, margarine-hooked Canadians got smuggled product from Newfoundland, which had yet to join the Canadian Confederation). In another law designed to help butter producers, Quebec maintained a ruling that margarine (which was naturally white) could not be colored yellow, in imitation of butter. When this restriction was lifted in 2008, butter-colored margarine spread throughout the entire Great White North.
5. FEET KEEP WASHING UP ON NEARBY SHORES.
As you walk along some of the beaches near Vancouver, you may find the expected debris of shells, driftwood, and various discarded items, such as sneakers. Normally a running shoe washed ashore wouldn't be a big deal, but for the past ten years, a number of these footwear have contained feet. The first one found, a man's right foot inside an Adidas sneaker, was discovered in August 2007 by a young girl vacationing on Jedidiah Island, about 40 miles from Vancouver in the Strait of Georgia. Six days later, another man's right foot was found on Gabriola Island in the Strait. Over time, there were others, and in February 2016, Charlotte Stevens and her husband encountered a severed foot along a beach in Vancouver Island. This discovery brought the count of detached human feet found along Northwest shores to 16.
This relatively significant number of disconnected feet has caused alarm and speculation about whom they belong to: Theories include victims of murder, plane crashes, or a tsunami far across the Pacific. While not all the owners have been identified, forensic research has revealed that two of the feet were from a woman who committed suicide by jumping off greater Vancouver's Pattullo Bridge. Some suspect that several other shoes were from people who committed suicide in a similar way. Three other victims were said to have died from natural causes. So why are feet, specifically, being found? Some scientists say it has to do with the natural effects that the ocean would have on a corpse: The push and pull of the ocean water would cause feet and hands to fall off first, and rubberized running shoes serve as perfect floatation devices.
6. FIVE-PIN BOWLING REMAINS A UNIQUE PASTIME.
sam via Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Five-pin bowling is a distinct type of bowling that was invented in Canada around 1909, and many Vancouverites play it to this day. Thomas F. Ryan devised the game specifically for folks who found normal bowling too taxing (mostly kids and the elderly). The game features pins that are about 25% smaller than normal pins and a small ball that fits in the hand without any finger holes (similar to a bocce ball). The alleys are also narrower, and players get three balls per turn rather than the standard two. Two of the older establishments that still offer the game are Commodore Lanes and Billiards (838 Granville Street), which opened in 1930, and Grandview Lanes (2195 Commercial Drive), which opened in 1947. (The game is also popular in other Canadian cities.)
7. IT’S HOME TO THE WORLD’S NARROWEST COMMERCIAL BUILDING.
The Sam Kee Building in 1937. Image credit: City of Vancouver Archives // Public Domain
The Sam Kee Building (sometimes called the Jack Chow Building) on West Pender Street is renowned as the “narrowest commercial building in the world.” Sam Kee (whose birth name was Chang Toy) had bought the land some time prior, but in 1912 the City of Vancouver decided to widen Pender Street, leaving Mr. Kee only a narrow strip of land. Rather than abandon the land or sell it, the determined Kee decided to construct a building on what he had left. The building was renovated in 2010 to include animated storyteller shows featuring neon lights and music.
8. PARTS OF THE WINDOWS IN ONE LOCAL CHURCH ARE FAR OLDER THAN THE CITY.
Some of the stained-glass windows at St. John’s Shaughnessy Anglican Church at Nanton Avenue and Granville Street in Vancouver are made from shattered fragments of 11th century stained glass from England’s Canterbury Cathedral. The cathedral had been bombed during World War II.
9. THE AUTHORITIES HAVE REPEATEDLY CRACKED DOWN ON “INDECENCY.”
Wikimedia // Public Domain
Vancouver seems like a fairly liberal, open-minded place to live. But since officially becoming a city in 1886, the metropolitan hub has had episodes of cracking down on indecency, many of which seem tame by today's standards. In 1914, the mayor of Vancouver banned performances by Marie Lloyd, a hugely popular English music-hall performer and comedian. Why was she so scandalous? At one point in her show, she lifted her floor-length gown two inches off the ground to reveal a watch on her ankle— an act deemed far too shocking for Vancouverites to handle. On June 9, 1933, Vancouver did appear to loosen up a bit, however. On that date, the city council voted to allow men to go topless on city beaches.
Still, the city remained ever vigilant when it came to decency. On January 16, 1953, police raided the Avon Theatre on Hastings Street, where Erskine Caldwell’s play Tobacco Road was being staged. The cast was arrested on charges of presenting an indecent public performance. The crimes: skimpy outfits, blasphemy, and one of the cast members appeared to be peeing in a cornfield! Books weren't beyond reproach either. In October 1961, members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police raided Vancouver bookstores and the main public library and seized copies of a lewd piece of literature—Henry Miller’s novel Tropic of Cancer, which features graphic sexual language. (To be fair, Tropic of Cancer is among the most frequently banned or challenged books in history.)