The Original Vancouver
Then and Now
Gastown was Vancouver’s first downtown core and is named for “Gassy” Jack Deighton, a Yorkshire seaman, steamboat captain and barkeep who arrived in 1867 to open the area’s first saloon.
Looking west from Hastings Mill 1886; City of Vancouver Archives
The town soon prospered as the site of Hastings Mill sawmill, seaport, and quickly became a general centre of trade and commerce on Burrard Inlet as well as a rough-and-rowdy resort for off-work loggers and fishermen as well as the crews and captains of the many sailing ships which came to Gastown or Moodyville, on the north side of the inlet (which was a dry town) to load logs and timber. The Canadian Pacific Railway terminated on piles on the shore parallel to Water Street in 1886. From this the area became a hive of warehouses.
Carrall and Powell – 1890’s; from buildingvancouver.com
Carrall Street was particularly swampy owing to it being low ground between False Creek and Burrard Inlet. Bridges overcame this obstacle, and the low ground and beach was slowly filled in with refuse. In 1886 the town was incorporated as the City of Vancouver.
It fell victim to the Great Vancouver Fire that same year, losing all but two of its buildings, but the area was completely rebuilt and continued to thrive. Hastings and Main was the traditional centre of town, and the foreshore became an important staging area with the North and West Vancouver Ferries, and Union Steamships all having docks there.
Evans, Coleman, Evans, a longtime merchandiser, had a warehouse; Fleck Brothers, and Koret distributors also had buildings. Department stores such as Spencer’s, Hudson’s Bay Company warehouse, Woodward’s, Fairbanks Morse, Army and Navy stores, and food retailers Malkins and Kelly Douglas traded and were based there.
Gastown found new life as the centre of the city’s wholesale produce distribution until the Great Depression in the 1930s. It was also the centre of the city’s drinking life: there were 300 licensed establishments the twelve-block area of the former Granville.
After the Depression Gastown was a largely forgotten neighbourhood of the larger city and fell into decline and disrepair as a continuation of the Skid Row area with cheap beer parlours, flophouse hotels, and loggers’ hiring halls.
In the 1960s, citizens became concerned with preserving Gastown’s distinctive and historic architecture, which like the nearby Chinatown and Strathcona was scheduled to be demolished to build a major freeway into the city’s downtown. A campaign led by businesspeople and property owners, as well as the counterculture and associated political protestors gained traction to save Gastown. Henk F. Vanderhorst, a Dutch immigrant to Canadian citizen, opened the ‘Exposition Gallery’, an art gallery on Water Street which started, flourished and encouraged a flow of other fledgling business startups to boom in the Gastown core.
His influence with the revitalization of Gastown was acknowledged in 1976 by being awarded ‘The First Pioneer Citizen of Gastown’ award by Mayor Art Phillips. “A key to the city”. Vanderhorst’s efforts, in part, pressured the civic, provincial and federal governments to declare Gastown a historical site, protecting its heritage buildings to this day.
A riot between the hippies and the police in 1971 over marijuana has gone into legend, the incident now made public on the Woodwards building, a throwback to the more serious Post office riot of 1938.
Designated a National Historic Site in 2009, the storied neighborhood offers a saw tooth skyline that dates back to the 1800s, showcasing some of the city’s best Victorian Italianate, Edwardian Commercial and Romanesque architecture.
Gastown is central to Vancouver’s position as one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, providing a rich, textured backdrop for the neighbourhoods vanguard group of entrepreneurs.
Gastown offers a thriving fashion district, impeccably curated décor boutiques, one-of-a-kind galleries and some of the best culinary fare in the city.