100th Anniversary Picnic at Fort Langley, 1927

A Brief History of Greater Vancouver

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Envision the span of human occupation in this area—say, 8,000 years—as the width of this computer screen. The events described in this short article could be fitted into a couple of centimetres on the right. Our "modern" story begins in the winter of 1824 with the Hudson's Bay Company setting up a network of fur-trading posts on the Pacific slope.

A party of 40 men led by chief factor James McMillan reached what is now the Langley area December 16, 1824. They approached from the west, entering the Nicomekl River from its mouth on Boundary Bay, paddling through what is now Surrey, then portaging to the Salmon River. They entered the Fraser River about 50 kilometres from its mouth, then carried on north into the interior. But McMillan noted the location and chose a prominent tree, nicknamed the Hudson's Bay Tree, to remind him of it. Two-and-a-half years later, aboard the Cadboro, he was back by the tree with 25 men and instructions to build a fort in the area. It would be called Fort Langley, after Thomas Langley, a Hudson Bay Company director. It was July 27, 1827.

That date is as good as any to mark the beginning of Greater Vancouver. (Fort construction began a few days later.)

Fur Trading Begins

The Kwantlen people left their winter villages at the mouth of the Brunette River to take up fur trading around the fort. In 1832 Fort Langley shipped out more than 2,000 beaver pelts. Then salted salmon became a major industry. By the late 1840s the fort was the largest fish exporter on the Pacific Coast, with Hawaii a major market. The original fort was abandoned in 1839 and a new one built 35 kilometres upstream, the present site. Next, farming became an important source of income. Thirty years after its establishment, Fort Langley was thriving.


Everything changed in 1858 following announcement of the discovery of gold on the Fraser River. That news travelled quickly to California. Within weeks 25,000 American prospectors flooded in, prompting an alarmed James Douglas, the governor of the colony of Vancouver Island, to declare the mainland a British colony, too. The proclamation was made at Fort Langley November 19, 1858.

To ensure control of the new colony by Britain and discourage any thoughts of American expansion, a small detachment of Royal Engineers had been sent for to show the flag and build roads. The first 25 "sappers" arrived from England November 25, 1858 under the command of Col. Richard Moody. (The Engineers get their nickname from an old word, sap, a spade used in digging trenches.) Their settlement came to be called Sapperton. Today it's a New Westminster neighborhood.

Colonel Moody

Richard Moody is the most important figure in Greater Vancouver's early history. He selected the routes for our first roads, the sites for the first military reserves and the location of our first city. Moody was alarmed by Fort Langley's strategically poor location on the south side of the river, with its "back" to the Americans. Calling on the advice of his officers he picked a more suitable site a little farther to the west and on the north bank. Called Queensborough at first, in tribute to Queen Victoria, it would become—at the suggestion of the Queen herself—New Westminster. (Because it was named by the Queen, New Westminster dubbed itself The Royal City.) It became the capital of the mainland colony, supplanting Fort Langley. Victoria was the capital of the colony of Vancouver Island. In 1866, when the two colonies were united, New Westminster became capital of both. But in 1868 Victoria regained the title.

North Road

In 1859 Moody had a trail built through the forest from New Westminster to ice-free Burrard Inlet; today, as North Road, it's the boundary between Burnaby and Coquitlam. Not long after, he set aside a government reserve for a townsite that would come to be called Hastings. Superimposed on a city map today, Hastings Townsite would extend south all the way from Burrard Inlet to 29th Avenue between Nanaimo Street and Boundary Road. (A fascinating graphic account by Bruce Macdonald, in his book Vancouver: A Visual History, shows the process of the city's physical changes over the years in maps and photographs. Macdonald's book is an indispensable guide to the story of the city's growth.)

Settlement Begins

People began to settle in what we know now as Burnaby and Delta. A dairy farm with 50 milk cows was established on the Pitt River. The False Creek Trail, closely following a very old native-built trail, was opened in 1860 between New Westminster and False Creek. Today's Kingsway follows its route fairly closely. A school for the sappers' children was built, and the first permanent church went up. (Oddly, there were no local sawmills yet, so St. John the Divine Anglican, consecrated May 1, 1859 at Derby, near Fort Langley, was built of imported California redwood!)

In 1861 the first newspaper (New Westminster's British Columbian) appeared; in 1862 the first real hospital was built; a telegraph line went in in 1865 (its first message the assassination of U.S. president Abraham Lincoln); postal service began in 1867, and so did the first regular transportation service between New Westminster and Burrard Inlet . . . by stagecoach!

The “Three Greenhorns”

Brothers Fitzgerald and Samuel McCleery arrived September 26, 1862 and set up a farm in what would become the city of Vancouver. (And their farm would become a public golf course.) A month later a Yorkshire potter named John Morton saw a chunk of Burrard Inlet coal on display in a New Westminster shop window and wondered if near that coal there might be fine clay suitable for pottery. There was clay, but of a quality suitable only for bricks, and so Morton and two associates preempted 550 acres—at a price equivalent to $1.01 an acre—with a view to becoming brickmakers. (They spent, some thought, far too much money for the remote "Brickmaker's Claim," and one newspaper report derisively described them as "three greenhorn Englishmen.") The "three greenhorns" built a cabin near the north foot of today's Burrard Street and began to raise cows. The property they had selected, now the West End of Vancouver, made two of them wealthy, one of them (John Morton) very much so.

The native people, the original inhabitants of this bountiful corner of the world, found their occupation of the land ended, after thousands of years, with numbing speed.

Logging Begins

The trees that once thickly covered the Lower Mainland were magnificent: one mighty specimen was recorded at 300 feet, about the height of the Marine Building. With all that splendid wood standing around, it wasn't long before intensive logging began. In 1862 two men, George Scrimgeour and T.W. Graham, preempted land for a sawmill on the north shore of Burrard Inlet and built Pioneer Mills. The mill sent a shipload of lumber to Australia in 1864, the earliest export of lumber from Burrard Inlet to a foreign port.

In June 1867 on the south shore of Burrard Inlet, Edward Stamp began—with British financing—Vancouver's first major industry. Stamp's mill (it was at the north foot of today's Dunlevy Street) built a flume from Trout Lake to its sawmill to sustain its steam-driven machinery.

Gassy Jack Arrives

Confederation came in 1867, creating a new country away to the east called Canada, and naturally inspiring thoughts it might eventually stretch from sea to sea. That was the same year a talkative former riverboat captain, Yorkshire-born John Deighton, with a complexion of "muddy purple," had a vision, although his wasn't so lofty. Deighton paddled into Burrard Inlet on the last day of September with his native wife, her mother, her cousin, a yellow dog, two chairs and a barrel of whiskey and jovially greeted the men who worked at Stamp's mill. The canny Deighton knew the nearest drink for these thirsty fellows was a five-kilometre row east up the inlet to the Engineers' North Road, then a 15-kilometre walk along that rude trail through the forest, the elk and the bears to New Westminster. (Encounters with bears were not at all uncommon those days.) He announced to the mill workers they could have all they could drink if they helped him build a bar. The Globe Saloon was up within 24 hours. The locals had a nickname for Deighton, endlessly and garrulously confident of the area's future. They called him "Gassy Jack." That led, the story goes, to the area around his saloon—a gathering spot for mill-workers and visiting sailors—being nicknamed, in turn, "Gastown." There are other theories for the origin of the name, one associated with a nearby pocket of natural gas.

The irascible mill manager Edward Stamp had a falling out with his English investors and left. The operation, quickly under new ownership, became the Hastings Mill. This was, as historian W. Kaye Lamb has written, "the nucleus around which the city of Vancouver grew up in the 1880s."


Our wood would become famous around the world. There are immensely long, knot-free beams in the Imperial Palace in Beijing, China, cut from Burrard Inlet lumber by famed Jerry Rogers and his men. Forestry brought quick prosperity to the Lower Mainland. By 1875 a village that had sprung up around the north shore mill-now owned by an American named Sewell Moody, no relation to the colonel, and called Moodyville in his honor—could boast the inlet's first library, the first school and, in 1882, the first electric lights on the Pacific coast north of San Francisco. The mayor and city council of Victoria came over to watch them being turned on.

For all our progress in creating new places and in settlement and construction and industry, we were still backward when it came to human rights: on April 22, 1875 Queen Victoria gave Royal Assent to an act passed in the B.C. legislature denying the vote to Chinese and native people, a decision in force for more than 70 inglorious years.

Langley Born

Meanwhile, the boundaries of Greater Vancouver commenced to be drawn. The first entry, in 1873, a big one, was called the District of Langley, named for a Hudson's Bay Company director. In 1874 Maple Ridge was created, the outcome of a meeting held in a dairy farm—also called Maple Ridge, for a long, beautiful ridge of the trees, more than three kilometres of them along the Fraser River. Huge chunks of the map were filled in in 1879 with the creation, all on November l0th, of Surrey, Delta and Richmond. Their populations numbered in the mere hundreds at the time.

Scattered settlements had been made in other places all over the Lower Mainland. Brothers William and Thomas Ladner had settled in the Fraser River lowland in 1868. Their farms grew into the pioneer settlement of Ladner's Landing. The rumpled little settlement that had coalesced around Gassy Jack's saloon and the Hastings Mill got the formal name Granville Townsite in 1870. The first recorded white settler on Bowen Island was Charlie Daggett, who logged there in 1872. In May of 1878 Manoah Steves and his family settled on the southwestern tip of Lulu Island, an area later called Steveston.

BC Joins Confederation

In 1871 British Columbia, assured by Canada that its entry would bring it the railway, joined Confederation. Now British Columbians were also Canadians. If they had known that the railway wouldn't reach them for another 15 years, they might not have been so willing to join! Port Moody, at the eastern end of Burrard Inlet, was in a fever of speculation as the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) line grew nearer. The little settlement had been announced as the railway's Pacific terminus. (It's a slightly bizarre fact of local history that the first CPR locomotive arrived here by sea!) But Port Moody's optimism was misplaced. A CPR official had come out for a closer look at the location and gone back with a melancholy secret: the eastern end of Burrard Inlet was too shallow for the ocean-going ships that were part of the railway's global shipping plans. In August of 1884 the dynamic and forceful William Van Horne, general manager of the railway, visited Granville. A little more than a month later, he asked CPR directors to choose it as the line's western terminus, instead of Port Moody. They agreed. When the announcement was eventually made, the people of Port Moody erupted in rage at what they considered an act of betrayal and began a series of law suits. None was successful.

CPR Dominant

There was an even weightier factor in the decision to move a little farther along the inlet. "The CPR," as David Mitchell writes in The Greater Vancouver Book,"was anxious to develop a sizable new townsite . . . since the official Pacific terminus was to be at Port Moody, the railway's property entitlements from the government of Canada ended there. As a result the CPR secretly entered into negotiations with the provincial government of British Columbia for Crown land on Burrard peninsula. An initial request for 11,000 acres was rejected but a counter-offer of 6,000 acres was agreed upon, subject to an extension of the rail line from Port Moody to a new CPR terminus 'in the immediate vicinity of Coal Harbour and English Bay . . .' The CPR would become the dominant private landowner in the new townsite."

William Van Horne is also responsible for the city's name. The legend, likely true, is that an excited Van Horne was rowed around what became Stanley Park by the CPR's local land commissioner Lauchlan Hamilton—another version has realtor Alexander Wellington Ross at the oars—and exclaimed that the city was destined to be a great one and must have a name commensurate with its greatness. Nobody would know where “Granville” was, Van Horne told whoever was rowing, but everyone knew of Captain Vancouver's Pacific explorations. The town's new name was in use early: the first issue of the city's first newspaper, the Vancouver Weekly Herald and North Pacific News, preceded incorporation by three months.

In 1885 Hamilton began to lay out the Vancouver townsite. A plaque at the northwest corner of Hamilton and Hastings streets marks his starting place.

Vancouver Incorporated

When the CPR announced Vancouver would be the railway's terminus, the town's population was about 400. (Four years after the railway arrived, it was 13,000.) Incorporation came April 6, 1886 at a modest ceremony in Jonathan Miller's house. A civic election followed quickly. A month later the first piece of business at the first meeting of Vancouver's first city council, presided over by its first mayor, Malcolm Maclean, was the drafting of a petition to lease from the federal government a 1,000-acre military reserve to be used by the city as a park, That became Stanley Park.

The tiny city, a ramshackle tumble of stumps, brush and crude wooden buildings was little more than two months old on June 13, 1886 when a swift and furious fire—started when a sudden freak squall blew in sparks from clearing fires to the west—destroyed it in a time recalled as anywhere from 20 to 45 minutes. The Great Fire left a pitiful scattering of buildings.

Rebuilding began within hours, this time with brick, and while the fire's embers were still smoking.

The First Train

Less than a month later (July 4, 1886) the first scheduled CPR transcontinental passenger train reached a still cranky Port Moody and, also in July, the first inward cargo to the port of Vancouver—tea from China—arrived. Then Vancouver's first bank, the Bank of British Columbia (no connection with today's), opened. The first CPR passenger train to arrive in Vancouver, famous little #374, chugged in in May of 1887, adorned with a large photograph of Queen Victoria. The first passenger to step down onto the platform was a 22-year-old Welshman named Jonathan Rogers who would become a prominent Vancouver developer and philanthropist. A band began to play a triumphant ditty called See, the Conquering Hero Comes. Rogers later laughingly admitted he thought they were playing it for him. The first train was followed a month later by the arrival from Japan of the CPR-chartered S.S. Abyssinia with a cargo of tea, silk and mail bound for London. The Abyssinia's arrival marked the beginning of the trans-Pacific, trans-Atlantic trade using the new railway. It left no doubt the little city was going to thrive.

But not without tensions. The same year, 1887, a white mob attacked and wrecked a Chinese camp in False Creek. (A contractor had hired Chinese laborers for work at 75 cents a day when white laborers were asking $2.) Special constables had to be brought in from Victoria and the city's charter was briefly suspended.

Intolerance has been a constant in our history from the beginning, sometimes with official sanction: in July of 1885 an act to restrict and regulate Chinese immigration into Canada received royal assent. It was the first of many enactments to discriminate against the area's large Chinese population, another of which was to impose a head tax of $50. The result (intended) was that Chinese men could not afford to bring their families over to join them. Later that same year a resolution of Richmond Council provided that white labor only would be employed on municipal works contracts. Similar resolutions were passed in many Greater Vancouver municipalities in the late 19th century. Electricity came to Vancouver in 1887.

North Vancouver, Coquitlam and Burnaby

With the population on the north shore increasing, a group of locals applied to the provincial government to incorporate, and on August 10, 1891 the District of North Vancouver was born. Moodyville was invited to be in the new municipality but refused. (Years later it would join North Vancouver City.) The district was huge: it stretched along the north shore all the way from Horseshoe Bay to Deep Cove. The population was sparse, a few hundred.

Later in 1891 Coquitlam was created. Two men named Ross and McLaren had built Fraser Mills, the largest mill in B.C. at the time, capable of producing 200,000 board feet of lumber in a 10-hour shift. Coquitlam had grown up around it.

Settlers had been establishing homes in the area north of New Westminster, writes historian Pixie McGeachie, and they "decided their tax money should be used for their roads and services instead of going to Victoria." Burnaby was born on September 22, 1892. That was the same year the municipality of South Vancouver was created. Greater Vancouver's population now was more than 20,000.

The first of the area's several "secessions" was next. Property owners in North Vancouver's lower Lonsdale area felt they had little in common with the loggers of Capilano and Lynn Valley, and decided to incorporate separately as a city. When North Vancouver City was carved out of the surrounding district in 1907 it had almost 2,000 residents and 53 businesses, a bank, two hotels and a school. Electric service and the telephone had arrived the year before.

West Vancouver

In 1912 the western part of the district would break away to form another municipality, West Vancouver, with a population of 700. Some 28 kilometres of ruggedly handsome shoreline had been attracting people from the southern shores of the inlet, vacationers who pitched tents here during the summer months as relief from the "busy haunts of man." A regular ferry service across the inlet had been started in 1909 by an entrepreneur named John Lawson, called by some "the father of West Vancouver." That triggered a real estate boom.

The Pace Quickens

Meantime Vancouver had been having an unbroken boom of its own for 20 years, with the railway bringing in new arrivals every day. The city's population leaped from 13,709 to 29,000 in the 10 years between 1891 and 1901 ... and then it began to explode. The CPR's first Hotel Vancouver had opened in 1888, the year after the railway arrived. The company—which was reaping a bonanza from sales of its property—built the lavish Opera House where Sarah Bernhardt would perform in 1891. Stanley Park was officially opened, the B.C. Sugar Refinery was gaining new markets, the first Granville Street bridge leaped bravely across False Creek and The Vancouver Board of Trade launched itself with a banquet in which every attendee got a full dinner and a bottle of fine champagne, Tab: $12.50. The Vancouver Club and the Terminal City Club, private clubs for monied businessmen, began. Electric streetcars began to clang along city streets, leading quickly to the famed Interurban lines to Burnaby, Steveston, New Westminster and the Fraser Valley. The first of the CPR's Empress line of ocean liners pulled into port. Canneries at Steveston were shipping salmon everywhere, setting a record in 1901 with 16 million pounds. With all this growth and new sophistication there were occasional reminders it could still be a raw, largely untamed place: there were more anti-Asiatic riots in 1907, a Vancouver by-law restricted the number of cows that could be kept within city limits, and Burnaby's first law enforcer included among his regular duties the reporting of swine running loose.

Culture was not confined to Sarah Bernhardt. The movies got here in 1897, and Pauline Johnson read her poetry here to an attentive audience that included an ex-prime minister, Sir Charles Tupper. We got pay telephones in 1898.

Growth became almost frenzied. Boosterism bordering on arrogance is reflected in the newspapers of the time. A banner across Granville Street proclaimed, in what we would now view as a politically incorrect rhyme, "In 1910 Vancouver then will have 100,000 men." It did, and more.


Logging in New Westminster, circa 1880
Logging in New Westminster, circa 1880

CPR comes to Vancouver, May 1887
CPR comes to Vancouver, May 1887

The First Train in Vancouver, May 1887
The First Train, May 1887