The birth of a city, from humble beginnings as a two-block strip on the Gastown waterfront

By John MacKie, Vancouver Sun

In 1862, John Morton, Samuel Brighouse and William Hailstone were mocked for spending $555 on a big chunk of land squeezed between Burrard Inlet, English Bay and a pair of government reserves.

New Westminster was the main town on the B.C. mainland; only “three greenhorn Englishmen” would lay claim to 550 acres of swampy forest in the middle of nowhere.

But the Three Greenhorns had the last laugh -although it took awhile. In 1885, the Canadian Pacific Railway decided to locate its terminus at the head of Burrard Inlet, where the provincial government had quietly given the company 6,000 acres of land.

On April 6, 1886, the City of Vancouver was incorporated. And the Three Greenhorns’ great folly became the West End.


There were only about 600 people in Vancouver when the city was incorporated, almost all of them men. They lived in a rough and tumble village that had sprung up around a couple of hotels/bars in Granville, Vancouver’s original name. Most locals called it Gastown, after hotel owner Gassy Jack Deighton.

Granville wasn’t much. An 1884 photo (seen below – click the image for close-up view) shows a dozen modest wooden buildings perched between Burrard Inlet and dense forest.

Many of the buildings were built on pilings, because the natural waterfront was largely tidal flats. Vancouver’s legendary archivist, Major James Skitt Matthews, annotated the 1884 photo in detail, noting that high tide came in 100 feet at Carrall Street.

Visitors came in by boat, because there was little access by land. Often they’d paddle underneath a hotel or store, then lower provisions down through a trap door on the main floor of the building.

The streets weren’t really streets in the modern sense. In some spots they were rough dirt paths dotted with tree stumps; in other places they were covered with planks so people didn’t have to deal with the mud. Sewage was emptied right into Burrard Inlet, where it was washed away twice a day by the tides.

Granville was centred along today’s Water Street, from Carrall to Cambie. Cottages were also carved out of the forest on Cordova. John Morton had a cabin on the bluff by the present-day Marine Building, and there was a small waterfront settlement at Hastings, by today’s New Brighton Park. There were also native settlements in Stanley Park, Kitsilano and False Creek -some dating back hundreds of years.

The main employer was Hastings Mill, at the foot of Dunlevy, which was founded in 1863. It was reached by Hastings Road, a wagon trail that meandered along modern Alexander, Railway and Powell streets.

Granville sounded quite rowdy, with three hotels, a wine and spirits store and the Terminus Saloon all dispensing liquid happiness. Scottish butcher George Black gave “fashionable evening dances” at his residence, but Matthews’ notes on the 1884 photo state Black also kept a “notorious bear” on a chain outside his shop.

In February 1886, 125 residents -all men, and almost all British -petitioned the provincial government to incorporate the city of Vancouver. Their wish was granted two months later.


Vancouver’s first election on May 3, 1886, was a wild affair, rife with labour unrest and racism. The favourite going into the election was Hastings Sawmill manager Richard Alexander, of Alexander Street fame.

But a strike at the sawmill divided the community, particularly after Alexander announced he would hire Chinese workers to replace the white strikers. The strikers talked real estate salesman Malcolm MacLean into running against Alexander. MacLean had only been in town a few months, but won in a squeaker, 242 votes to 225.

The election was probably stolen. Up to 50 MacLean votes came from a single lease on a Cordova Street property, while MacLean’s backers drove away a group of Chinese labourers who had been sent from Hastings Mill to vote for Alexander.

In any event, the boom was on, as the city raced for the arrival of the CPR. Trees were felled, brush was cleared, and workers set small fires to clear the land for building.

One of these fires was whipped up by a wind on June 13, 1886 and, within an hour, it devastated the city. Every building in the 1884 photo of Granville was destroyed.

“The city did not burn,” said pioneer William Gallagher, “it was consumed by flame; the buildings simply melted away before the fiery blast.”

Vancouver had a large transient population, so no one knows how many people were killed: estimates range from eight to 28.

But the city quickly rebuilt. Granville’s buildings had been made of wood; many of the new commercial structures were brick. Several buildings built immediately after the fire are still around, including the 1886-87 Oppenheimer Block at Columbia and Powell (now Bryan Adams’ Warehouse recording studio), and the 1886-87 Byrnes Block and Ferguson Block, across the street from each other at Carrall and Water.

The first CPR train pulled into town on May 23, 1887. The rail line was initially built on a trestle over top of the tidal flats, and ended up at a wharf at the foot of Granville. A bigger station opened in 1898, which was in turn replaced by the current station in 1914. By then the old tidal flats had been filled in for rail lines.


The heart of the city was initially Carrall and Cordova. But the CPR owned a bunch of land further west, so it successfully lured development westward by building the first Hotel Vancouver at Georgia and Granville in 1887, and then adding an opera house nearby.

Like the CPR station, there have been three Hotel Vancouvers. The second one opened in 1916, while the present one was started in 1929 but wasn’t completed for 10 years -construction was halted because of the Great Depression.

Pioneer Gallagher said the tallest trees in the city were at Georgia and Granville, up to 300 feet tall. Most of the area was forest when the city was incorporated, although there had been plenty of logging -Stanley Park was logged several times before it was declared a park in 1888. Many of the park trails are old skid roads, where loggers would “skid” freshly cut logs.

You can see the layout of the early city in “Bird’s Eye View” maps published in 1890 and 1898 by The Vancouver World newspaper. They featured an artist’s conception of every building in the city from high in the sky above Burrard Inlet.

The buildings were clustered in Gastown, Chinatown, the East End (Strathcona), Yaletown and the West End, although only as far west as Jervis. There were also a handful of buildings in Mount Pleasant, reached by a bridge across Westminster Avenue, the original name for Main Street.

Why was there a bridge? Because False Creek went all the way up to Clark Drive. The eastern end of False Creek was filled in for railway lands between 1916 and 1920. A sliver of water also poked up to Columbia and Keefer; there was a cluster of industry nearby, including the Royal City Sawmill at the top of Carrall. Carrall was an important street in early Vancouver: it also had the city dock on the Burrard Inlet side.

The rich built their homes on the bluff above Coal Harbour where Morton had built his cabin. West of Burrard, Hastings turned into Seaton Street, which was known as Blueblood Alley. But the bluebloods soon left for the West End, and then Shaughnessy. Only one Blueblood Alley mansion remains: Henry Abbott’s home at 720 Jervis.

Abbott was the CPR superintendent in charge of building the railway to the coast. He is remembered in Abbotsford and in Abbott Street.

The CPR supplied Vancouver with many of its street names -the city was laid out by CPR surveyor Lauchlan Hamilton, who named Hamilton Street after himself. But Hamilton didn’t name the city -that was done by William Cornelius Van Horne, head of the CPR.

Van Horne thought Granville was too obscure for the CPR’s terminus; he wanted something that people knew. So he renamed the budding city after English explorer Captain George Vancouver, the first European to sail into Burrard Inlet.

Van Horne’s vision of a Pacific Coast metropolis was quickly realized. The population exploded from 600 in 1886 to 6,000 in 1888, 13,000 in 1890, 25,000 in 1901 and 117,000 in 1911. But it came with a price: Vancouver grew so rapidly, and so constantly, precious little remains of the 1880s city that started it all.

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