My historical Labour Day walking tour

I was searching for historical material for a Labour Day blog post when I discovered that there are walking tours in Vancouver focusing on working class life and labor history—commemorating the importance of labor unions, individuals, collective actions, and much more in Vancouver’s history. A thought struck me: how fitting it would be on Labour Day to be able to travel back in time to the 1860s and 1870s and take a walking tour in the town that was yet not even called Vancouver!

I think our guided tour would start with the forests on the shores of False Creek and English Bay. There we would be astounded to see the world’s tallest trees. Those trees provided masts for the large vessels of the Royal Navy and for the world’s Windjammer fleets. Continuing our walk to the Jericho area we could see the stumps of the giant trees that provided the immense beams for the construction of the Gate of Heavenly Peace in the Forbidden City, Beijing.

Our tour would continue to our Stanley Park of today. Standing at Brockton Point we would have a look at the seagoing traffic in Burrard Inlet. Our tour guide would tell us that lumbering was the first industry along Burrard Inlet. The lumbermen working there at that time would be mostly Scandinavian immigrants and Nootka First Nations people. Sawmills were operating along the shore since 1863 and the first shipment of lumber was sent to Australia. A new sawmill was planned for Brocton Point but the currents and the shoals made ship docking difficult and Hastings Mill was built at a better site. 

Next we would pick our way to the city centre, walking by the Hastings Library Institute, which provided books for the mill workers and eventually became the forerunner of our Vancouver Library. 

By now we would be getting a bit hungry and thirsty, so our guide would take us to Jack Deighton’s small saloon—a 24-by-12-foot shed—to have a drink and listen to the local chit chat. Perhaps we would hear Gassy Jack tell us how Vancouver got its name. First the area was called Gastown, honoring the memory of his liquor facilities. Then the growing settlement’s name was changed to honor Lord Granville, the British Colonial Secretary. Eventually, in expectation of the arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway, Vancouver became the town’s name. Apparently people in Eastern Canada had heard of Vancouver Island and thus had at least a vague idea of the location of this new place. They would have had no idea where a town named Granville might be.

After so much walking on unpaved roads my feet would be sore at this point of the tour. What a good reason to look up one of the physicians of this new town and have my ankles checked out! “Not much luck for that!” our tour guide would say. The nearest doctors were in the recently developed New Westminster, the then-proposed capital of British Columbia. Injured loggers were tenderly laid in a canoe and paddled 10 hours to see the doctor. 

The mental image of that journey brought me back to the present. I was at home safely, in my beloved Vancouver, in the province of British Columbia, a place built by working people. I will be sure to raise my glass to all of them on Labour Day!
—George Szasz, CM, MD

Suggested reading
BC Labour Heritage Centre. Labour history walking tours. Accessed 29 August 2018.

This posting has not been peer reviewed by the BCMJ Editorial Board.

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