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Vancouver Archives AM1376-: F06-: CVA 1376-80.33 & On This Spot Enterprises

Historic Walking Tour

Stanley Park's Seawall

The Jewel of Vancouver

by On This Spot

Stanley Park is often called the jewel of Vancouver. The park is a huge patch of temperate rainforest located just beside the downtown core. Ringed by a seawall that offers spectacular views of the city and the North Shore mountains, it's small wonder that Tripadvisor continues to rate Stanley Park the best park in the world. With this tour you can experience the Stanley Park seawall in an exciting new way, peering into the past to see the fascinating changes the park has undergone since its founding over a century ago.

We'd like to thank the Vancouver Archives for generous use of their historic photo collection.

1. 'Jewel of Vancouver'

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Vancouver Archives AM54-S4-: Arch P52 & On This Spot Enterprises


This was the entrance arch to Stanley Park a century ago, though the landscape has been reshaped. Stanley Park was established at the first meeting of Vancouver City Council on May 12, 1886. Before that it had been a military reserve, so the council voted to lease it from the federal government for a dollar a year. It was an act of inspired foresight (though it may have also been an act of real estate speculation), and today this city is so much the greater for that first meeting of City Council.

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Describing the centrality of Stanley Park to Vancouver's identity, one journalist wrote: "The park is our most valuable and integral asset. "Other cities can boast of urban green space — London has Hyde Park, New York Central Park and even Toronto has High Park. "But has any a stretch of ground so integral, so central to its self-image as our idyllic cynosure? "Can you imagine Vancouver without Stanley Park? "It would lose a huge bit of its soul and become just another seaside burg with a mountain view."xx1

2. 'The Rowing Club'

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Vancouver Archives AM1584-: CVA 7-212 & On This Spot Enterprises


This is the old rowing club, which was located just a bit further east along Coal Harbour than the current one. A floating building subject to changes in the weather, it was replaced in 1911 by the new building you see on the left today.

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Vancouver's protected inner harbour, which extended all the way up to Salmon Arm, made this city an ideal place for the sport of rowing. It's hardly surprising then that Vancouver's social elite established the Rowing Club almost immediately, making it the oldest amateur sports organization in the city. Vancouver has produced many Olympic rowers and the country has long been one of the world's leaders in the sport.

3. 'The Causeway'

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Vancouver Archives AM54-S4-: St Pk P56 & On This Spot Enterprises


A barge is dredging up the seafloor to create a causeway connecting Stanley Park to the city. Stanley Park had initially been almost an island, reachable from the downtown peninsula only at low tide. A small bridge had been built over to the park, but it was far too small to cope with all the traffic.

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Stanley Park was immensely popular from the moment it was founded. For instance, on one weekend in July 1911 the city recorded 21,738 pedestrians, 419 carriages, 191 cars, 148 bicycles and 58 people on horseback. There was no way the little bridge could handle all this traffic and in 1912 the causeway was built.Xx2 Before the causeway Lost Lagoon on the other side of the causeway had been a tidal flat. Pauline Johnson dubbed it Lost Lagoon because the lagoon would disappear at low tide. After the causeway was built however the lagoon was made into a permanent lake.

4. 'Squatters'

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Vancouver Archives AM336-S3-2-: CVA 677-228 & On This Spot Enterprises


When the park was created in the 1880s none of the people who lived within it were actually consulted. There was two villages Squamish First Nations and another village of squatters who steadfastly refused to relocate. We can see some of the squatters homes here along the waterfront. Finally in the 1920s, the city had them legally evicted.

* * *

Even before the city purchased the park, the land was far from a pristine wilderness. Large sections of it had been logged in the 1860s. At that same time a group of Portuguese and Scottish sailors set up a squatters' village here, near the Squamish village of Xwayxway which we will see shortly. The sailors married First Nations women and continued life largely undisturbed by the growing city across the water. Then in 1888 city health inspectors destroyed their homes over fears of a smallpox outbreak. Afterwards the squatters rebuilt and defied all attempts by the city to make them leave. Finally by 1921 the city took the squatters to court, demanding evidence of 60 years of continuous habitation of the land. The squatters had no written deeds to prove their claim and in 1931 they were finally evicted. There were a couple exceptions, like the Cummings family, who were allowed to continue living in the park until their deaths in the 1950s.

5. 'The Seawall'

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Vancouver Archives AM1376-: F06-: CVA 1376-80.33 & On This Spot Enterprises


This rather moody photo gives Stanley Park a silent and mysterious air, the man on the bench appears to be watching someone climbing off the seawall and down into the water. The narrow dirt track has since been reshaped into a seawall and a road bringing thousands more people to the park every day.

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The first section of the seawall was built in 1917, and it was gradually extended over the years. Beginning in the 1920s, much of the toughest work around the narrows was overseen by the master stonemason James Cunningham, who worked tirelessly on the project completed over his 35 year career. When the city passed a bylaw that the upright tombstones at Mountain View Cemetery must be replaced with flat ones to make for easier mowing, many of the old tombstones were incorporated into the seawall. Some can still be seen in some sections of the seawall today. The entire wall was finally completed in 1980.

6. 'Nine O'Clock Gun'

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Vancouver Archives AM1545-S3-: CVA 586-1645 & On This Spot Enterprises


For over a century this gun has been a landmark at Brockton Point. Forged in Woolwich Arsenal just outside of London in 1816, it was eventually dispatched to Vancouver Island in the 1850s. In 1894 it made its way over to Vancouver and installed here.

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The gun was fired at 6 pm to warn fishermen that fishing was now closed. Later on it was switched to 9 pm to act as a time signal for people, and a way for ships to set their chronometers. A cage was built around the gun after hooligans stuffed rocks down the barrel, which were then fired out, putting a hole in the sign on a nearby floating gas station.

7. 'The Photography Craze'

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Vancouver Archives AM54-S4-: SGN 72 & On This Spot Enterprises


A woman identified as Mrs. H.W. Maynard sits on a tree stump near Brockton Point. There are a few other photos of her posing in the latest 1890s fashions in Stanley Park. It's hard to overstate the excitement cameras caused as they became easier to use and cheaper to acquire. It's hardly surprising that many early camera enthusiasts took to Stanley Park to have their photos taken.

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Up until this period cameras had been very expensive, required intensive training to use, and were bulky and inconvenient. For these reasons photos from before this era were portraits taken in studios that could cost as much as $35 (a month's wages for the average worker at the time). Exposure times were much longer so people had to remain perfectly still for up to 15 seconds as the photo was taken.xx3 By the 1890s however cameras were downsizing dramatically and becoming easy enough for anyone to use. People were also enchanted by the amazingly high quality of the photos. Since most of the old photos we do see are low-quality reproductions in books and on websites, most people don't realize that many types of old photos had a far higher resolution than most digital photographs do today. Some of the many competing camera technologies a century ago actually had resolutions thousands of times higher than most digital cameras do today. Most DSLRs today have a resolution of about 20 megapixels, or about 20 million pixels. A daguerreotype from the 19th Century had an absolutely astonishing resolution of 100,000 megapixels, or 100 billion individual pixels in an image. It is still beyond our technical capabilities to easily reproduce the unbelievably high resolution of daguerreotypes.xx4

8. 'The Seabus'

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Vancouver Archives AM54-S4-: Bo P533.1 & On This Spot Enterprises


An early sea bus ferrying people between across Burrard Inlet passes Brockton Point. Europeans had been settling the North Shore for as long as they'd been settling Vancouver, but it was not until the 1920s that a bridge connected the two communities. Until then people had to rely on ferries like this to cross the Burrard Inlet.

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The first sea-bus across the Burrard Inlet was the primitive Eleanora. It was essentially a flat barge powered by a threshing machine engine mounted sitting on the unprotected deck. The crew were so afraid that the engine would fall through the deck that they attached a buoy to it with a chain so they could recover it from the ocean bottom. Later on the Eleanora was superseded by the Eliza, a ship like the one in this photo, which set up a much more regular service crossing the inlet five times a day. The fare was $0.25. These ferry connections allowed the small communities in North and West Vancouver to grow.xx5

9. 'Xwayxway Village'

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Vancouver Archives AM54-S4-2-: CVA 371-2213 & On This Spot Enterprises


Here we see a rare photo of a Squamish family getting in their dug-out canoes. Just west of here, towards the narrows, was a Squamish village called Khwaykhway. Archaeological evidence shows the Squamish people lived in this place for at least 3,000 years. It was but one of many villages that dotted the coasts all around this region.

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In the 1800s the Xwayxway village was dominated by a gigantic longhouse built of huge cedar logs. It was over 60 metres long and 20 metres wide. 11 families, about 100 people, lived within in different quadrants. The name for the village roughly translates as 'masked dance performance.'xx6 In the 1880s the village was demolished to make way for the perimeter road through Stanley Park, apparently while the people inside were sitting down to dinner. The people of the village were forcibly relocated to reserves elsewhere.xx7

10. 'Empress of Japan'

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Vancouver Archives AM54-S4-: Bo N83.2 & On This Spot Enterprises


A woman stands by the figurehead of the Empress of Japan, an ocean liner commissioned by the Canadian Pacific Railway to run a mail service between Liverpool and Hong Kong via Vancouver. The ship was scrapped in 1926, but the Vancouver Daily Province paid to save the figurehead and mounted it for display here. The wooden figurehead began to rot and a fibreglass replica replaced it in 1960.

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In the time before cheap intercontinental flight, these huge, fast, and luxurious ocean liners connected Vancouver with the world and were a common sight in this harbour. The Empress of Japan was one of three Empress-class ships laid down in 1890, the other two being the Empress of China and the Empress of India. The ship could carry 770 passengers and all manner of cargo while her powerful engines ensured that she held the record for fastest Pacific crossing for over 20 years. Over the course of her life the Empress of Japan travelled a staggering four million kilometres and crossed the Pacific 315 times. She was eventually replaced by a modernized Empress of Japan in 1930.xx8

11. 'Empress of India'

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Vancouver Archives AM1506-S1-: CVA 447-5 & On This Spot Enterprises


And here we see the Empress of Japan's sister ship, the Empress of India leaving Vancouver harbour on its way across the Pacific. A couple men at the top of the Pipeline Road have taken a moment to stop and watch its departure.

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We can see in this photo that the Lions Gate Bridge has yet to be built, and the North Shore around the mouth of the Capilano River appears almost entirely uninhabited. At this time no Europeans lived in West Vancouver, though a few made occasional visits by boat for summer vacations. It was not until 1903, some eight years after the above photo was taken, that Navvy Jack Thomas, a Welsh deserter from the Royal Navy, settled in Ambleside and became the first European to settle there. Today the municipality has a population of 42,000.xx9

12. 'The Lions Gate Bridge'

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Vancouver Archives AM54-S9---: CVA 265-62 & On This Spot Enterprises


Here we can see the first section of the Lions Gate's bridge deck is being lifted into place. The iconic bridge was a technical marvel when it was completed in 1938, and caused a population boom in West and North Vancouver. The biggest investor was actually the beer-brewing Guinness family, who had purchased much of the land in West Vancouver and hoped a bridge would drive up the value of their holdings. Given the price of land in West Vancouver now (much of which they still own), it was an investment that's paid handsome returns.

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Initially there was strong opposition to the bridge as many argued the busy causeway would ruin Stanley Park. A referendum was held on the bridge proposal in 1927 and voted down. A second referendum was held in 1933 at the depth of the Great Depression. A great public works project that provided skilled jobs was just what the city needed and this time the bridge proposal passed with a 2 to 1 margin. It was decided to name the bridge the Lions Gate, after the landmark Lions peaks that can be seen from much of Vancouver. Two art deco style lions were put at the Stanley Park entrance to the bridge. When completed a toll of $0.25 was charged for each crossing car. The bridge proved so popular that the toll brought in enough revenue to pay off the initial investment and it was eventually scrapped in 1963.

13. 'Prospect Point Lighthouse'

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Vancouver Archives AM54-S4-: SGN 1620 & On This Spot Enterprises


A ferry can be seen passing the old Prospect Point lighthouse in the Narrows. You can see the seawall has not yet been built, though there is a walkway from the left providing access. The lighthouse was necessary because of the strong currents in the narrows that doomed many ships.

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This lighthouse was built in 1888 in response to the sinking of the SS Beaver (more later). John Grove was appointed lighthouse keeper and he moved into the building with his wife and sons. In dense fog the lighthouse's little bell was the only guide for ships to navigate through the treacherous narrows. In 1926 the lighthouse was electrified and after 38 years on the job, Grove was made redundant. The lighthouse you see today was built in 1948.xx10

14. 'The SS Beaver'

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Vancouver Archives AM54-S4-: LGN 461 & On This Spot Enterprises


Men are standing on the SS Beaver after it has been wrecked at Prospect Point. The little paddlewheel steamer may not look like much to us, but it played a huge role in the early European settlement of British Columbia. Over its 53 years of service the Beaver was present at practically every major event in the province's history. When leaving Vancouver harbour on July 25, 1888, the crew was drunk and managed to slam steamer into Prospect Point. It was impossible to refloat the ship and it was stripped down by souvenir hunters and left on the spot until it finally slipped beneath the waves a few years later. The wreck is still down there, just below where you are standing.

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The little ship was launched on the Thames in England in 1835 and, at a time when most ships still relied on sails, it was considered a technological marvel. It was dispatched to Astoria in Oregon, when that was still a British colony, and helped the Hudson's Bay Company maintain trading relations on the Columbia River. When the American border was moved north to the 49th Parallel, the Beaver was sent by James Douglas to reconnoiter Victoria as the potential site for a future city. Over the following years it served as a flagship for visiting dignitaries, as a gunboat for conducting trade and diplomacy with First Nations peoples, and as a hydrological vessel on mapping expeditions. It was key to settling Nanaimo and Fort Langley and provisioning remote outposts. It also carried troops over to San Juan Island, sparking the so-called Pig War, an international crisis that very nearly led to war between Britain and America.xx11

15. 'Siwash Rock'

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Vancouver Archives AM1376-: CVA 1376-118 & On This Spot Enterprises


This is the famous Siwash Rock, a Stanley Park landmark that was formed over 32 million years ago by a volcanic dike. The poet Pauline Johnson wrote in Legends of Vancouver that it was "like a noble-spirited, upright warrior." She recounts a Squamish legend of the rock where it symbolizes a selfless father.

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This is the story of the rock according to the Squamish nation: "Thousands of years ago, a young chief named Skalsh married a young lady from B.C.'s north coast and they wanted to start a family. The night before Skalsh's child was to be born, he and his wife swam in the waters of Burrard Narrows to purify themselves, as custom, in preparation for birth. When his wife crept into the forest of Xwayxway as the Squamish call Stanley Park, Skalsh continued to swim to purify himself and his family as his child entered the world. "Challenged by gods to stop swimming and move out of the way of their holy canoe, Skalsh continued to swim to purify himself for the sake of his family. To commemorate his bravery and commitment to family, the gods transformed him into stone when he swam back to shore, towards his wife and child at dawn. The rocky stand serves as a symbol of ‘clean fatherhood' according to Johnson's account of Squamish creation story."xx12

16. 'Third Beach'

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Vancouver Archives AM1545-S3-: CVA 586-4570 & On This Spot Enterprises


Here we see crowds of people relaxing on Third Beach. This stretch of beach was once very rocky, but in the 1930s sand was trucked in to make it a more enjoyable place for people to relax.

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This photo was taken just after the Second World War and we can see that bathing fashions have changed dramatically from the suits and dresses men and women wore to the beach 30 years before. In photos after the Second World War, these people, our grandparents (or parents) start to feel much more familiar to us

17. 'Squirrels'

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Vancouver Archives AM336-S3-3-: CVA 677-664 & On This Spot Enterprises


A little boy watches a squirrel scamper up a Douglas fir. It's interesting to note his little hat and lunchbox.

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The squirrel in this photo is likely a Douglas squirrel, which is a native of Stanley Park. Today the park is filled with thousands of invasive eastern grey squirrels. As is the case with so many invasive species around the world, humans intentionally introduced them into the new environment without realizing what the effects would be. In 1909 the mayor of New York City gifted 16 of the eastern greys, much larger and more aggressive than the indigenous Douglas squirrels, to the city of Vancouver. They were released into the park and by 1920 their population had exploded across all Vancouver. They tend to be particularly dangerous to the Garry Oak ecosystems found on Vancouver Island and like to pray on bird eggs and nestlings.xx13

18. 'Second Beach'

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Vancouver Archives AM54-S4-: VLP 144 & On This Spot Enterprises


This is a view of a rocky Second Beach before it was filled in with sand in the 1920s and 1930s, making it much more suitable for swimming.

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The little boy handling his little rowboat looks like he still has some learning to do, judging by the way he's holding the paddle. The photograph has been hand-coloured, a common practice at a time when colour photography was still in its experimental phase.

19. 'Trying out a Maxim Gun'

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Vancouver Archives AM54-S4-: Mil P222 & On This Spot Enterprises


Troops from the militia try out a Maxim gun at Second Beach. The Maxim Gun, the first real machine gun, was invented in 1883 and in the years afterwards gradually adopted by the great armies of the world.

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At that time a well-trained rifleman could fire 10 rounds a minute, whereas a Maxim Gun could fire 550 in the same space of time. During the British conquest of Africa the Maxim gun gained almost legendary status. The British booster of Imperialism, Hillaire Beloc, wrote a poem about a British officer named "Blood" serving in Africa. Vastly outnumbered and facing a charge by thousands of African warriors, the situation looked dire for Blood and his men. Blood however steadied their nerves, saying ominously, "Whatever happens we have got, the Maxim gun, and they have not." The Maxim Gun allowed them to mow down the warriors in their hundreds. The men in this photo likely soon found out for themselves what it was like to be on the wrong end of a Maxim gun, as war was about to break out in Europe.xx14

20. 'Pick-up Hockey'

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Vancouver Archives AM1376-: CVA 1376-669 & On This Spot Enterprises


Dozens of people are skating on Lost Lagoon, including some boys in the foreground playing a game of pick-up hockey. Governor General Lord Stanley, who gave his name to this park and dedicated it in the 1890s, was also a huge hockey fan and gave his name to the ultimate trophy in competitive hockey.

* * *

Hockey has always been popular in Vancouver and while the National Hockey Association, the predecessor to the NHL, was formed in eastern Canada in 1917, the Vancouver Millionaires instead played in the rival Pacific Coast Hockey Association. The Stanley Cup was not actually the NHL's trophy, but was an inter-league trophy between the PCHA and the NHA, much like in Major League Baseball where the American League and the National League both compete for the championship title. In 1915 the Vancouver Millionaires won the PCHA championship and actually went on to win the Stanley Cup, beating the NHA champion Ottawa Senators. In 1918 they made it to their next Stanley Cup final but lost to the Toronto Arenas. That time there was no riot. Though it has been over 100 years since Vancouver's last Stanley Cup victory, one hopes the Canucks will be able to win at some point in the next century.


1. Jewel of Vancouver

1. Mulgrew, Ian. "Stanley Park is a huge part of Vancouver's soul." National Post. 21 Apr. 2013.

3. The Causeway

2. Davis, Chuck. Chuck Davis History of Metropolitan Vancouver. Vancouver: Coastal Publishing, 2011.

7. The Photography Craze

3. Curto, Jeff. "Light and Likeness: Portrait Photography." Photo History Class Sessions. 7 February 2014. Audio.

4. Boyd, Sarah. "On Photography Filters in the Digital Age." Ethos Digital Review. 11 July 2014. Online.

8. The Seabus

5. Davis.

9. Xwayxway Village

6. Suttles, Wayne. Musqueam Reference Grammar. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004, P. 571.

7. Barman, Jean. Stanley Park's Secret: The Forgotten Families of Whoi Whoi, Kanaka Ranch and Brocton Point. Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2005. P. 21.

10. Empress of Japan

8. Mowbray, Tate. Transpacific Steam: The Story of Steam Navigation from the Pacific Coast of North America to the Far East and the Antipodes. Cranbury: Cornwall Books, 1986. P. 235.

11. Empress of India

9. Statistics Canada. "Census Profile, West Vancouver." 2011. Online.

13. Prospect Point Lighthouse

10. Lighthouse Friends. "Prospect Point, BC." Online.

14. The SS Beaver

11. Davis.

15. Siwash Rock

12. Post, Miranda. "History of Siwash Rock." Inside Vancouver. 22 Aug. 2013. Online.

17. Squirrels

13. Royal BC Museum. "Aliens Among Us: Eastern Grey Squirrel." 2014.

19. Trying out a Maxim Gun

14. Keegan, John. The First World War. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 1998. P. 45.