History of Vancouver

Mother Earth Travel > Canada > Vancouver > History  Map

The 116-year-old city now dubbed Vancouver was once a wild, densely-forested and mountainous coastal area inhabited only by First Nations people and wildlife. Many events have combined to transform the once pristine and wild setting to the thriving cultural and business centre it is today. Yet the city retains its natural splendour, now set around a diverse urban core. And to think it all began with a couple of explorers who recognized the bountiful resources and spectacular potential of the area..

Before the white tide of fish-men...

When British explorer Captain James Cook first arrived here in 1778, the natives in Nootka Sound mistook the captain and his raggedy crew for a boatful of strange, transformed salmon. It's no wonder, really: the First Nations had lived undisturbed for thousands of years. The region's temperate climate, coastal location and excellent food supply made it an ideal place for natives to subsist comfortably for most of the year. Many, including the Musqueam, Kwantlen and Squamish lived and thrived along the shorelines of Burrard Inlet. But then the white European settlers came and claimed the land as their own, altering years of harmonious and relatively peaceful living.

So this British chap and Spaniard explorer met up one day...

The city's transformation into the urban centre it is today began with explorers seeking the Northwest Passage, a sea route through northern America. In 1791, Spanish explorer Jose Maria Narvaez came through our waters, but decided not to go ashore. In June of the following year, two more explorers showed up. England's Captain George Vancouver led his ship, the sloop H.M.S. Discovery, into Burrard Inlet and later went on to chart the area's waters. He exchanged information with Spanish explorer Dionisio Alcala Galiano, who showed Captain Vancouver maps he had already made of the area. This cooperation between Britain and Spain ended in 1795, after Spain's power began to wane, and the British took control. The Spanish influence, however, can still be seen in area place-names like Dionisio, Galiano Island, Langara and the Straight of Juan de Fuca.

Though the British controlled the area, it wasn't until 1808 that they sent Simon Fraser to set up trading posts in the region. The fur trade, which was followed by gold rush mania, would forever alter the region.

A few ambitious settlers and a chatty bar owner...

Arriving settlers thrived on fish, lumber, fur and farming. In 1858, gold was discovered on the Fraser River and, within weeks, nearly 30,000 Americans had flocked to the area in search of bounty. Fearing a takeover by the Americans, the British declared the mainland a British colony, thereby keeping the prosperity under its control. In 1859, New Westminster (once called Sapperton because British sappers were stationed there), was incorporated and declared the capital of the province.

Meanwhile, a talkative gentleman named John Deighton pulled his canoe into Burrard Inlet and decided to capitalize on the area's industry. The village he founded was eventually named Gastown after him, the name derived from the loquacious Deighton's nickname: "Gassy Jack." Deighton opened up an extremely successful saloon, serving hundreds of thirsty millworkers and prospectors in the budding town. Gastown began to fill up with small shops and services. Deighton was more than just a notorious saloon owner, though. Some historians say he was the founding father of Vancouver because he had faith in its potential long before anyone else did.

As the population grew, people moved outward to settle in areas now known as Burnaby and Delta. The first newspaper went to the presses in 1861, and the first hospital was built the following year. In 1865, the first telegraph lines reached here, and the first message to travel along its wires announced the assassination of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln. Other urban staples appeared: a rudimentary postal system and a stage coach line for transportation. The area was soon cleared by extensive logging.

Canada was confederated in 1867, and the sweeping effects of this change were felt almost immediately in Vancouver. One of the most pivotal moments in the history of the city was the extension of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1884. The railroad now reached clear across the country and brought thousands of people to the area to do business and settle. Rapid development began, and the population grew from 400 to 13,000 in four years.

Arduous beginnings and auspicious renewal...

In 1886, the city of Vancouver--population 1,000--was officially incorporated. Two months later, the Great Fire of 1886, driven by strong winds, destroyed virtually the entire downtown area in just 20 minutes. That same day, after the smoke had cleared and the ashes brushed off, with just half-a-dozen buildings left standing, the citizens of Vancouver began to rebuild. Buildings put up that year still stand today. One of the most significant changes brought by the fire was the transformation of the town's military reserve into the now famous Stanley Park, the city's beautiful oasis.

The population more than doubled in the next 10 years and things really began to boom in 1901. The first editions of the Hotel Vancouver and the Granville Street Bridge were built, along with the introduction of electric street cars, a board of trade, canneries, refineries, and four daily papers. Growth of the city's port, located in one of the world's finest, natural, year-round harbors, was spurred by the opening of the Panama Canal, which facilitated travel, imports and exports to and from Europe.

Overzealous mayors, two world wars and the Canucks...

By 1928, the Lower Mainland's population had reached more than 150,000. The growing city was governed by many memorable mayors, not the least of whom was Gerry McGreer. McGreer was an enthusiastic politician who came into office in the 1930s with election guns blazing. He promised to eradicate gambling, white slavery, corruption and other issues important to the city's wealthy residents. He promised the impossible, but he did succeed in building the beautiful art-deco Vancouver City Hall in 1936.

The Great Depression took a toll on the city, as it did everywhere else. Breadlines snaked down streets and families were impoverished and hungry. Some growth, however, did occur in the 1930s, including the creation of the Vancouver Art Gallery and opening of a steel plant in Burnaby.

World War Two pulled the city out of its economic lull: shipyards, factories, parts exporting and real estate boomed. Single women came from different parts of the country to take over the jobs of overseas soldiers, and many eventually settled in the city. Human rights also got a positive injection: East Indian and Chinese-Canadians citizens finally got the provincial vote in 1947. Japanese-Canadians and First Nations people, however, had to wait till 1949 for the same right.

The 1950s was an era of rapid growth and prosperity, including the extensive development of suburban Vancouver. The population rose to 800,000 by 1961. The 1960s saw many additions to the city's physical and cultural portfolio: the B.C. Lion's won the Canadian Football League's Grey Cup, the Vancouver Canucksdebuted in the National Hockey League, and Simon Fraser University, the Second Narrows Bridge, 401 Freeway, world-class Whistler Ski Resort, Queen Elizabeth Theatre and Grouse Mountain Skyride were built.

A brief but exciting history for this still-young, gorgeous, cosmopolitan city. Many weird and wonderful events have shaped our urban personality, from the local raiding of the biggest LSD factory in the world to our newfound reputation as Hollywood North. The changes and growth continued rapidly throughout the 20th century, until the city became the third largest in the country, and one that is internationally rated as one of the best places to visit in the world. Ethnic diversity, world class cuisine, all mixed with a spectacular urban setting, make Vancouver an incredible place to experience.