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Out Of The Woods

June 2024
5min read

During a visit to Vancouver one is told over and over how young the city is and how recently the vast Canadian West was settled. As a wall placard at the forty-story, 360-degree lookout at Harbour Centre reminded me, by the eighteenth century virtually all of the map of America had been filled in except for the continent’s northwest coast. Here, although ships of exploration from Spain, Russia, and Britain had first poked along the shores in the 1770s, no one actually set foot on land, leaving the remote forested wilderness for a little while longer to the tenancy of its native population.

In 1792 the British captain George Vancouver and the Spanish explorer Dionisio Alcalá Galiano arrived simultaneously off Point Grey, which is now the site of the campus of the University of British Columbia. The two had an entirely cordial breakfast meeting on the British ship, compared notes, wished each other well, and sailed away, Captain Vancouver still in search of the Northwest Passage to the Orient. Earlier on this same trip he had passed right by the mouth of the Columbia River at Cape Disappointment, where he noticed a small inlet that bore no promise of a great river. This omission may well have shaped the future of the entire Pacific Northwest. A month later it was the American Robert Gray who sailed inland on the Columbia, laying the basis for the United States’s future claim to the Oregon Territory. A Canadian journalist, Alan Morley, writes: “If the British had held the territory which they first occupied there would have been no border at the 49th Parallel, no necessity to drive the Canadian Pacific Railway through the grim northern passes of the Rockies, and no possibility of the City of Vancouver becoming the great Canadian gateway city of the West.”


Assuming that what might have been can be laid out so precisely, a visitor to today’s Vancouver can only be grateful for the captain’s neglect. He is remembered in the name of the present-day city of more than one million, and the main watery landmarks—English Bay, Spanish Banks (so-called by Vancouver for his Spanish counterparts)—reflect other early explorations.

Still, in a place that has seen much change, it takes some squinting into the historical past to imagine the pristine wilderness of barely two hundred years ago. Some trading vessels, mainly American, followed the first explorers, but it wasn’t until the 1860s that white settlers appeared. In 1886 Vancouver suffered a devastating fire that in twenty minutes wiped out all but a few buildings. The energetic townspeople, who by then numbered a few hundred, started to build the new city within a week. Some of these early citizens lived well into the 1930s and 1940s, when they still recalled the sounds and smells of their fledgling coal and timber industries and the rowdy charms of the community’s core, informally called Gastown after the talkative barkeep “Gassy Jack” Deighton, who remains Vancouver’s unofficial mascot.

These old-timers remembered too, with a kind of passionate pride mixed with regret, that behind their slice of civilization, itself scarcely more than one block deep, rose the seemingly impenetrable virgin forest that they managed to fell in the wink of an eye. The Granville Street of 1890 “was just a slit in the forest; a solid wall of trees on both sides...with timber so tall you had to look straight up to see the sky,” recalled Mrs. H. E. Campbell. Today’s Granville Street, a major artery, is home to traffic, department stores, and at least one splendid old movie palace, the Orpheum.

Early on, James J. Hill, the Minnesota railroader, saw the future here. “A thousand factors...are contributing toward the development of the great western country—and I speak without any regard to invisible boundary lines,” he said. “Seattle, Vancouver, and even Victoria, are destined to be vast centres. Vancouver, with its wonderful hinterland, will probably be the largest city of all. Burrard Inlet, Vancouver’s Harbor, will be the greatest commercial port on the Pacific.”

A good first view of the setting from which Vancouver gained its destiny is offered at The Landing, an agreeable brick shopping center at the edge of Gastown, where several blocks of similar turn-of-the-century warehouses and offices have been restored. From the large Palladian window set into The Landing’s second floor you can look out across the Canadian Pacific tracks to the harbor and the startlingly close mountains of the Coast Range. The bay is alive with excursion boats, ferries, and floatplanes. A dozen freighters lie farther out at anchor. To the left rise the huge, white (Tefloncoated) sails that form the roof of Canada Place, which holds a convention center, a hotel, and the piers where cruise ships dock. On my late August visit I saw five gleaming liners tied up there, waiting to start the Alaska run. Built for Vancouver’s 1986 exposition, which marked the city’s hundredth year of incorporation, Canada Place replaced the fabled old B and C Piers of the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company, which, from 1891 to the Second World War, sent the elegant, white Empress ships to the Orient.

You can discover more about the city’s rise toward its eminence by visiting the Vancouver Museum and the Maritime Museum. Both are in the beautiful Vanier Park, which overlooks False Creek. That body of water was named in 1855 by Captain Richards of the Royal Navy who thought he’d come upon the way to the Northwest Passage when in fact he had found an enclosed inlet. The sprawling fir-clad peninsula across the water is Stanley Park, a thousand-acre greensward for which the city founders made provision just about a day after Vancouver got its name. The clean break of the parkland’s wilderness with the steel and glass city is a strong reminder of the sudden near-eruption of Vancouver from its surrounding Eden.

From Vanier Park’s Heritage Harbour, home to a collection of vintage craft, a tiny ferry crosses False Creek every fifteen minutes, with a stop under the Burrard Street Bridge and another (for the price of a second $1.25 fare) at Granville Island. The double fare is well worth the price. What Granville Island’s management calls an urban park is a place like no other.

Granville Island began life as a sandbar in False Creek, whose waters offered rich fishing for the Indians nearby. With the city’s growth the banks of the creek became ripe for transformation into a prime industrial site attached by a causeway to the heart of downtown. Later, as the factories and mills that had come to inhabit the island moved away, what remained was a filthy, neglected eyesore.

In 1972, with federal help, the city began to refurbish the place. The cement works remained; a wire foundry and a brewery were lured there. So were an art school, a theater, crafts workers, a vast public market, and a variety of restaurants. A hotel and a marina were placed at one end of the 37.6 acres, and a grassy park grew along Granville’s southern margin. Very little was prettified; today all the structures wear the same stucco and corrugated tin siding of the original factories. Since there were no sidewalks in the old place, there are none now, forcing visitors to dodge cars and cement mixers. This is by design. “It has always been that way,” I read on a placard at the information center. “Guys walk across the street while forklifts go in and out.” The goal is “to keep a balance between people going about with their lunch buckets, working eight to four in a chain factory or a cement factory or in a nail factory and people just coming down to the island.”

The clean break of the park’s wilderness with the steel and glass city is a strong reminder of Vancouver’s near-eruption from virgin forest.

All of this sprawls, as cheerful and busy on a rainy day as on a sunny one, beneath the struts and beams of the Granville Street Bridge, which frames the scene’s industrial underpinnings wherever you look.

Granville Island is a huge success with the people of Vancouver. Among the amazing annual figure of six million visitors, out-of-town tourists constitute no more than a quarter. After the second year, a spokesman told me, the whole operation cost the taxpayer not one cent. What is so fine for those of us who love cities is that this unique balance of the elements of urban life succeeds without the perfume of gentrification that invariably wafts through even the most sensitive redevelopment of an aging neighborhood.

You could do worse on a visit to Vancouver than simply hang out with a cup of coffee on the deck of the Granville Island Public Market. Turn your eyes toward English Beach and the bays beyond, where the first explorers stopped for only a moment and moved on, look down on False Creek, busy with its ferries and kayaks, and glimpse off to the left Stanley Park, all that remains of the great fir forest. If that wilderness couldn’t have been frozen in place, and history rarely offers up such choices, then this is a pretty good substitute.

—Caria Davidson 

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