The Lifeguard Joe Fortes
Vancouver's Unlikely Hero
By Andrew Farris
On Vancouver's centenary in 1986 the Vancouver Historical Society convened to select the Vancouverite of the Century. There was no shortage of great pioneers and politicians, innovators and reformers to choose from. Yet when the committee settled on a half-literate lifeguard from the Caribbean it came as a surprise to few. Seraphim "Joe" Fortes was the unlikeliest of heroes, yet his story symbolizes Vancouver at its best. Joe, the gentle giant, embodied the values of service, kindness and modesty that we hold in such high regard. In this tour we'll recount Joe's moving story and learn how he captured the hearts of a generation of Vancouverites. We'll be using excerpts from Barbara Rogers's and Lisa Anne Smith's wonderful and meticulously researched book Our Friend Joe.
We'd like to thank the Vancouver Archives for generous use of their historic photo collection. We also owe thanks to the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association who partnered with us to develop the Stories of Granville Street tour.
1. Joe's Fountain
Joe was born in Trinidad (though some reports say Barbados) around 1865. His father was a black sugar plantation worker and his mother from the Spanish middle class. Very little is known about the early years of his life, but we do know that as he grew into a young man, the great, wide world beckoned. When he hopped on a ship for the maritime metropolis of Liverpool his mother gave him parting words of advice that would stay with him all his life: "You live so that you can look everyone in the face, and then you will be afraid of nothing and nobody… Never forget to whom you belong, and always be straight and honest."2 Joe soon made himself at home in Liverpool, the "New York of Europe", and found work as an attendant at the public baths, giving him plenty of opportunities to perfect his swim stroke. It may seem odd to us now, but for centuries swimming had been viewed with suspicion, the ocean a conduit for infectious disease. Few people ever learned how to do it. It was only around this time in the late 1800s that swimming was beginning to gain social acceptance, though the only strokes known were an awkward kind of breast stroke and a clumsy side stroke.
2. Learning to Swim
In 1881 word spread that the teenaged bath attendant Joe had swum over a kilometre to cross the River Mersey, an astonishing feat of endurance. He'd apparently done it to rendezvous with an Irish girl who lived on the other side. Word of this reached the ear of a member of Liverpool's Daredevil Club, a secret society whose members would carry out risky acts of derring-do, often for a cash reward. He invited Joe to take part in their latest challenge: swimming across the Mersey at midnight. The first across would win an enormous prize purse. Joe accepted. Two other men dared to enter the race, and at midnight the three waded into the chilly waters and began their awkward 19th Century breast strokes against the swiftly flowing currents. A police constable had spotted them trespassing on private property and had hopped in a rowboat in hot pursuit. Soon one of the two men fell behind and was apprehended by the furious policeman. Joe and the second man kept going, leaving the constable's boat behind and approaching the other side. At long last, Joe clambered up the rocks on the far bank, victorious. Turning around, he saw his competitor floundering in the river. Joe, in what was to become his signature move, leapt back in the water and pulled the grateful man to safety. Back at Daredevil Club headquarters Joe was acclaimed a hero and awarded the prize money (minus the steep fine incurred by the unfortunate third man). Yet it would not be long before Joe would become restless again, and in 1885 signed on as a crewman on the aging bark Robert Kerr as it made the circuitous voyage to Vancouver.
3. Coming to Vancouver
The dreadful journey on the Robert Kerr lasted months. They were hounded by storms much of the way and the captain fell ill and died. Finally in September 1885 the wind-lashed Robert Kerr limped into Vancouver harbour. Joe had found his new home. Joe quickly got a job as a shoeblack at the Sunnyside Hotel. These were exciting times: In April 1886 the rowdy sawmill town of Gastown was incorporated and Vancouver was born. Then only a couple months later it completely burned down. As the fire swept through the town's Joe found the wife and eight-year-old son of a local Member of Parliament in one of the hotel's rooms and ushered them outside and into a boat, the flames licking at their heels. The heroic act of saving the family of a Member of Parliament won Joe some powerful friends. As the city rebuilt he climbed a few rungs up the social ladder and found work as a bartender at the Bodega Saloon on 21 Carrall Street. His magnetic personality and easy-going attitude quickly made him one of the most popular people in the city. How else to explain this 1888 news report in the Daily News-Advertiser? "A gloom seemed to pervade the city yesterday, especially that part lying around Carrall Street. Men went about with a sad look on their faces, dogs wore a dejected air, and even the rats seemed to feel the general depression. The cause of the universal sadness was the fact that Mr. Joseph Fortz, alias Joe, the popular bartender of the Bodega Saloon, was suffering from indisposition. He looked quite pale as he sat in a chair thoughtfully placed for him in Tattersall's stables and mused on the mutability of human affairs. All the leading physicians were in attendance and hourly bulletins were issued. Up to the time of writing, Joe, although not quite himself, was in a fair way of recovery and probably by this time as light-hearted as ever."
4. Joe's Discovery
In 1887 Joe was working side jobs in addition to his gig at the Bodega Saloon. At one point he was hired to row some equipment from Vancouver (Gastown) to Jerry's Cove (Jericho Beach). He made good time, and on the way back, with time to spare, explored the densely forested coastline. Rowing up past Kitsilano and the opening of False Creek, he saw the beach that you are now looking at. The soft, white sand, flecked with quartz crystals, beckoned to him, and he disembarked and investigated further. Good swimming beaches were hard to come by along Vancouver's rocky shores (many other local beaches have since had sand trucked in). This place was perfect. Joe excitedly rowed back to Vancouver and told his friends. They soon returned and claimed the beach as their own. The Squamish people of course had long been visiting this place and called it "Eeyulshun" or "Good Footing". They had left a rough trail through the densely forested West End which Joe and his friends discovered. Word quickly spread around Vancouver of the legendary swimming beach, and soon all sorts of people, young and old, rich and poor, were making the trek out to English Bay. Joe, still in his 20s felt a certain responsibility for ‘his' beach and started acting as unofficial lifeguard in the summers. For many this was their first chance to learn to swim, and Joe proved a patient and friendly teacher.
5. Saving Lives
As the beach's popularity grew Joe saw that many of the oldest and youngest struggled on the rough trail to reach his beach. He went straight to Vancouver Mayor Malcolm MacLean and asked a road be built. MacLean liked Joe—the women and boy Joe had saved during the Great Fire were his in-laws—and he approved the plan. A plank boardwalk was extended down today's Denman Street, before turning right at today's Georgia Street and up to Burrard, where the tree-line stopped in the late 1880s. Many people still struggled with swimming (there weren't any pools to practice in) ensuring Joe was kept busy with teaching and saving lives. Soon this beach became unofficially known as "Joe's Beach." On one occasion in 1898 the American consul for Dawson City, J. Mc-Cook, stopped over in Vancouver on his way up to the Yukon and went swimming here. As the Victoria Daily Colonist wrote, he "was overcome with heart failure while bathing in English Bay and rescued from certain death by a coloured man named Joe Fortes, after he had disappeared for the third time."1 All the Vancouver newspapers, particularly the Daily Province, breathlessly recounted Joe's frequent life-saving exploits and lauded his bravery. One report tells of how Joe hopped in his little rowboat during a fierce storm and rowed way out to Point Grey to save the crew of a sinking sailboat. Stories like this could not help but make Joe into a public hero. Officially he is credited with saving 29 lives but the actual number is thought to be well over 100.
6. Official Lifeguard
Every summer through the 1890s Joe minded the beach, though now he was also juggling a job bartending at the Alhambra Hotel, one of the most prestigious hotels in town. He asked for nothing, doing it in his free time out of the goodness of his heart and a love of children. His patented method was to hoist the kids up by the back of their swimsuit and command "Kick yo feet!"1 In 1900 a petition was circulated demanding Joe be instated as lifeguard with an official title and salary. When it was presented to City Council it had garnered thousands of signatures. Council immediately agreed, appointing Joe swimming instructor, lifeguard and special constable of English Bay with a salary of $80.00 a month, a not insignificant sum at the time. Characteristically, the mayor and councillors came down to the beach and had to call Joe out of the water to tell him the good news. A report in the Daily Province soon followed that dispelled any doubts about the decision. "Joe Fortes, lately appointed swimming instructor at English Bay by order of the city council, has already earned his salary."2 He'd saved the life of a five-year-old who'd wandered out into the water and had been submerged for some time before Joe got to him.
7. Joe's Modest Life
Joe led a sober and frugal life. His upbringing in Trinidad had imbued in him a deep Catholic faith and he dressed smartly for Sunday services at Holy Rosary Cathedral. Unsurprisingly, on more than one occasion he leapt into the ocean while in his suit to save a swimmer in distress. His work as a bartender had taught him how to deal with troublemakers, though few would dare to upset the barrel-chested lifeguard. Like his lifesaving, his policing duties were covered in the press. One headline on August 2, 1905 credited Joe with "Sav[ing] a serious hysterical riot at English Bay."2 All through this time his beach was evolving around him. The trees in the West End had come down and neighbourhoods had sprung up. A pier was built, as were two bathhouses. Only the second one survives today. All those old cottages along the tree-line were removed too as the city sought to widen public access to the beach. One modest cottage was allowed to remain at the end of the beach, and this one was given to Joe to live in. It was his home until his death.
8. Fighting for Joe
Like every good story this one has a villain, one Alderman Thomas Neelands. In 1900 he had opposed the decision of council to award Joe an official position, and when he was elected Mayor in 1902 he saw his chance to be rid of Joe, attempting passage of a bill that would have turned over lifeguarding at Joe's Beach to the Park Board. When it was realized this would lead to Joe's dismissal, the people of Vancouver were incensed. A new petition demanding Joe's position be made permanent was rapidly circulated and presented to council. All of Vancouver's most prominent citizens had signed it, as well as 2,000 others representing a broad cross-section of society. Stunned by this rebuke the Mayor withdrew his plans. Joe could not watch over everyone on the beach all the time however. In 1908 two girls swimming to the west of Joe's Beach, by Stanley Park, were snagged by rocks, held underwater and drowned. Joe, probably unjustifiably, held himself responsible. A reporter who interviewed him described his grief as "shattering to behold." The members of the Vancouver Athletic Swimming Club, who had all been taught to swim by Joe, could not bear to see the gentle giant in such a state. They decided to mint a personalized gold medal for Joe to thank him for all the lives he had saved. As the swim team marched to Joe's cottage to present the medal, word spread around town and soon a giant crowd had formed outside his humble home. Joe emerged from his house, shocked by the cheering throngs. When presented with the medal he fought back tears and managed to say "I've always tried to do my best at the bay, and shall try to keep that reputation."1
9. Vancouver's Hero
As the years went by many of the kids Joe had taught to swim grew into adults and often became prominent citizens of the city. Seeing Joe selflessly continue his watch year after year they resolved to honour his service. In 1910 a ceremony was held at the Vancouver Board of Trade where, after a series of glowing speeches, Joe was presented with a gold watch and $472 that had been secretly raised. One Vancouverite who had moved to California wired a $10 contribution. His telegram said "If this was my last $10, Joe would have half of it." Joe stood up and said his aim in life had always been "not to make myself a big man, but only for the benefit of the little ones, to whom my heart is attached and always will be."1 As war enveloped the world Joe bid farewell to many of his old friends who rushed to enlist. Many of them would never return. For the grief-stricken children they left behind there was some solace in Joe's reassuring presence, his broad smile and booming voice always to be found on that beach.
10. Joe's Legacy
By the time the First World War ended the years were beginning to tell on Joe. In 1919 a Japanese fishing boat was shipwrecked in a storm off Second Beach and in saving the crew, Joe caught a cold that he never fully recovered from. In 1921 he took ill with pneumonia and finally had to leave his beach. His sickness worsened and on February 4, 1922, he died. Vancouver went into mourning. It was decided to hold a civic funeral for Joe, though this was an extremely rare honour. As his casket was borne from Holy Rosary Cathedral it was led by mounted police in dress uniform and followed by the mayor, council and practically the whole city government. As the procession wound its way through the city more and more people lined the streets, standing silent and sombre. By the time the cortege approached Joe's Beach the crowd had swelled to tens of thousands. It was the largest funeral in Vancouver's history. He was laid to rest at Mountainview Cemetery. His tombstone simply says "Joe", because everyone knew who he was. The memory of Joe has not faded. Asides from the memorial you've already seen, the nearby branch of the library on Denman Street is named for him, as is a popular steakhouse. He's been featured on stamps and the National Film Board has made a film about him.1
1. Joe's Fountain
- 1. Lang, Wendee. "Black History in Vancouver: Who was Joe Fortes?" Vancouver Observer. 8 Feb. 2012.
- 2. Smith, L. A. & Rogers, B. Our Friend Joe: The Joe Fortes Story. Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2012. P. 9
3. Coming to Vancouver
- 1. Smith & Rogers, 47.
5. Saving Lives
- 1. Smith & Rogers, 57.
6. Official Lifeguard
- 1. Smith & Rogers, 53.
- 2. Smith & Rogers, 66.
7. Joe's Modest Life
- 1. BFP. "Seraphim Joe Fortes – How a black sailor from Barbados became a legend in Vancouver, Canada." Barbados Free Press. 30 Oct. 2006.
- 2. Smith & Rogers, 93.
8. Fighting for Joe
- 1. Smith & Rogers, 93.
9. Vancouver's Hero
- 1. Smith & Rogers, 102.
10. Joe's Legacy
- 1. Haras, Jill. "Joe." National Film Board of Canada. 2002.
- BFP. "Seraphim Joe Fortes – How a black sailor from Barbados became a legend in Vancouver, Canada." Barbados Free Press. 30 Oct. 2006. Online.
- Haras, Jill. "Joe." National Film Board of Canada. 2002. Video.
- Lang, Wendee. "Black History in Vancouver: Who was Joe Fortes?" Vancouver Observer. 8 Feb. 2012. Online.
- Smith, L. A. & Rogers, B. Our Friend Joe: The Joe Fortes Story. Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2012.