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Notes on the Geography of Canada (B.C.): Old Vancouver

Shortly after 1900, a Cambridge-educated Englishman named Martin Allerdale Grainger came to work as a hand logger on the British Columbia coast. The book he wrote about this experience, Woodsmen of the West, (1908)is a novel masquerading as autobiography: how much of it is true is anybody's guess. Still, the book gives a fair sense of the character of the industry in those years, most strikingly its rough lawfulness, much like the make-do jurisprudence of mining camps--and light years away from Hollywood's suicidal violence. Grainger begins with a stroll along Vancouver's Cordova Street, where loggers congregate between jobs. They drink mostly, saunter, buy necessities, and catch up on gossip. We happen by the same street one afternoon in 2011.

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Canada (B.C.): Old Vancouver picture 1

The Canadian Pacific terminal at Seymour and Cordova. It's the third terminal on the site and was built a decade after Grainger wrote. He would have known this building, however, since he stayed in B.C. until his death in 1941. In those later years, he headed the B.C. Forest Service and, later, a company exporting B.C. wood. (Odd coincidence: both he and H.R. McMillan would make the jump from running the government's forest service to running companies logging those forests.) This station marks, of course, the western terminus of Canada's first transcontinental railroad. The neighborhood Grainger writes about lies to the right, where the track runs east along the waterfront. Those columns, by the way, are leftover water mains, and the Ionic capitals are the front bogeys from old locomotives. All right, all right; that's baloney, but the columns are pretty ugly, and the capitals do look a bit like wheels, no?

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Waiting room, still in use though now mostly for a light-rail transit system.

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Loggers in 1900 had a choice of accommodation, including a wide range of hotels. Here's one of them, still in business.

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Grainger actually mentions this one, the Columbia, still in business though apparently none too eager to advertise the fact.

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A third.

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Here, a hotel with a Britannic flourish.

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That would be Victoria, of course; there has since been no other empress.

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The Vancouver of these years had single-family homes, too, albeit simple.

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Another, more trimmed.

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Apartment buildings, too.

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The commercial district of 1900 has morphed into Gastown, a festive retail neighborhood, here remembering Gassy Jack, a chatty saloon keeper.

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Most of the neighborhood is not only intact but in better shape than ever.

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An early office building.

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Another office building, originally with a hardware store below.

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Sign on the spot. Two-man crosscut saws? The store must have had them in abundance.

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Grander still. See the corner entrance?

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What's that you say? A rat in the broken pediment? That's an indictable offense. Beavers command respect.

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Here's the grander entrance. The fanlight reads The Dominion Building.

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View from across the street, with a World War I memorial.

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Interesting: the tallest commercial building in the British Empire in 1910.

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Across the street.

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On the spot.

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Taller still.

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Another angle.

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Then as now, buildings don't get to hold onto height-records for long.

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And you thought that Andrew Carnegie only supported libraries in the U.S.? Not so. In 1902 he gave $50,000 for this building, which opened a year later. No doubt Grainger knew of it, though he makes no mention of it, perhaps because it would have made Vancouver seem more staid than readers wanted.

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And what have we here?

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Set in the sidewalk is one hint. Woodward's was the leading department store in British Columbia for decades.

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Here's a bit of the old Woodward's, with the tall new building rising behind it.

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It's part of a redevelopment project on the Woodward's site.

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Decorative steelwork, with hints of mossy forests.

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Not a lumberjack in sight.


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