Early Subdivisions & Platting

C. P. R. plan shewing site of bridge carrying railway across False Creek, Vancouver, B.C. 23 October 1886.

R.C. Harris Collection. Reproduced in D. Hayes  Historic Atlas of Vancouver and the Lower Fraser Valley (Douglas & McIntyre Ltd. 2005). This is one of the first plans by the CPR of their new terminus on Burrard Inlet.

Discussions about the Vancouver plan usually center on the “crank in the street grid”. Hugging the shore of Burrard Inlet, the Vancouver street grid turns as we move from the West End into downtown; and from downtown across Carrall Street into the East End. It is seldom mentioned that a “Plan for Vancouver” was never drawn. What we experience today in the city’s layout is the confluence of three different plans joined together at the most critical moment in the city’s history—some two years ahead of its incorporation on 6 April 1886.

The fate and form of the future City of Vancouver was determined by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) a private interest with an astonishingly handsome license from the Federal Government. In 1884 the railway found itself in the role of king-maker, its chief executive van Horne being personally responsible for choosing the name “Vancouver”. The CPR successfully negotiated with the Federal Government land grants adjacent to the CPR’s preferred site for the western railway terminus on the Burrard Inlet. It was more or less conceded by all that the site selected by the CPR would become the new capital on Canada’s Pacific shore. Much less certain was the role and responsibility for securing the urban future of that eventual site, wherever it turned out to be.


New Westminster Plan 1859

[New Westminster Plan. From D. Hayes  Historic Atlas of Vancouver and the Lower Fraser Valley (Douglas & McIntyre Ltd. 2005)]

The Colonel Moody Royal Engineer’s Plan for the Provincial Capital belongs to an entirely different planning tradition than what would be used for planning Vancouver by the CPR. The plan demonstrates a knowledge with the entire corpus of Western European town planning dating right back to the time of the Romans, and not more than a little familiarity with the development of London, England, in the same century. The Royal Engineer’s plan for New Westminster sets out the following prominent urban features:

  1. Government Offices Building Sites
  2. Royal Avenue as a ceremonial street
  3. Government Offices Gardens
  4. Victoria Gardens
  5. A Church (in a Westminster Abbey-like location)
  6. Lytton Square on the waterfront
  7. Fraser River Embankment and Promenade
  8. A Merchant Square
  9. A Market Square
  10. Albert Crescent and Circle Gardens
  11. Arthur Terrace
  12. Alice Gardens
  13. Louisa Gardens
  14. Several streets platted at an angle to the grid that compensate for severe topography in the terrain.

Those familiar with New Westminster today will recognize Columbia Street and Royal Avenue. But not much else survives from a plan studded with urban characteristics designed to make this steep and hilly site—occupying the most privileged location on the majestic Fraser—a joy to experience and a convenient place to live, work and carry out life’s daily rituals. Yet, all this urbanism occurs on a strip of land barely 2,000-feet wide, about half a kilometer, or less than a half-mile.


Col. Moody and the Royal Engineers departed from the region in 1863. Their legacy is today the sole remaining link to classical town planning and regional planning tradition in British Columbia.

From 1863 forward a new ethos took hold in this territory best captured at the turn of the century by the English economist J. A. Hobson:

[Vancouver] is a purely business town, a thing of stores and banks and meagre wooden houses, with no public buildings to account…. The stranger was amazed at the profusion of solid banking houses; it would almost seem as if the inhabitants must be a race of financiers, concerned mainly with money and stocks and shares…. And, in point of fact, this is a land of speculation, in mining properties, lumber lands, fruit lands, and, above all, in city lots, the price of which has doubled in the last two years.

In G. Woodcock. British Columbia: A History of the Province. (Douglas & McIntyre, 1994); p. 159.


In 1882 and 1884 two private subdivision maps were registered for lands fronting Burrard Inlet in the immediate vicinity of the CPR’s ultimate terminus. The first, bearing a date of 15 March 1882, was a plan for Lot 185 Group 1 (today’s West End):

Liverpool, Burrard Inlet, British Columbia (15 March 1882) 

Lot 185 Group 1 map from D. Hayes  Historic Atlas of Vancouver and the Lower Fraser Valley (Douglas & McIntyre Ltd. 2005. Note: for this post we have inverted the map, its title and notes by 180° to show north at the top of the image.

A second private subdivision on the southern shore of the Burrard Inlet for Lots 196 & 181 Group 1, was registered in 1884. Up until the 1950’s this area was known as the East End. In the map the Hastings Mill occupies the promontory at the top, a small head of land projecting into Burrard Inlet.

The East End 1884

[Lots 196 & 181 Group 1 map from D. Hayes  Historic Atlas of Vancouver and the Lower Fraser Valley (Douglas & McIntyre Ltd. 2005)].

The subdivision plan for the East End creates Vancouver’s most important urban site. Block No. 5 is platted as a triangular block fronting Water Street in the 1860 Granvill Townsite plan (Gastown). This triangular or “flat iron” block would be the site for the Europe Hotel (1908). The space in front became Maple Tree Square, Vancouver’s most successful urban room.

From the point of view of urban design & planning, beyond this one exception, there is nothing very remarkable about these two plans that survives into our day. The method used for their creation appears straightforward:

  1. Establish the high water line;
  2. Draw a straight line parallel to the high water line, off-set at some distance, to establish the center line of the street fronting the water.
  3. On the water side of this street lay out “water lots”—properties that will be mostly under water at high tide.
  4. On the opposite side of the street lay out building lots that will remain dry at high tide.
  5. From the perimeter thus established, draw a regular grid of streets and blocks laid out in ‘chain measure’, the English standard for land subdivision since the 1600’s (the scale of the subdivision map for Lots 196 & 181, for example, is given as 5 chain equals 1 inch).

In the subdivision plan for the West End (1882: the Liverpool Map) city blocks range in size from 5 to 10 building lots wide, by two building lots deep. The blocks are bisected by a lane running parallel to the fronting street. A prominent street has been platted along the Burrard Inlet shore or Coal Harbour, roughly coinciding with today’s Georgia Street.

In the subdivision map for the East End (1884) the city blocks are consistent, typically 8 building lots wide by 2 building lots deep. The blocks are bisected by a lane running parallel to the fronting street. There is one street that is platted wider than the rest. It runs in an east-west direction corresponding in location to today’s Hastings Street.

The single urban characteristic common to these two private subdivision plans is the complete lack of any provision of land for public and civic uses. In contrast to this approach we can study the 1859 Plan for the Provincial Capital of New Westminster drawn some twenty-five years earlier by Col. Moody and his corps of Royal Engineers. Given the opportunity to choose between the two, the CPR would opt for the more profitable option. Laying aside any pretence to shaping a great city, the railway company would go about its business in a manner calculated to sell. Apparently, considerations about civic and public space did not enter into the negotiations with either the Federal or the Provincial Government.


  • In 1885 the CPR made a public announcement that the terminus would be “in the immediate vicinity of Coal Harbour and English Bay” (Norbert MacDonald, p.5).
  • 13 February 1886, two significant Crown grants were issued to Donald A. Smith and Richard B. Angus as trustees of the CPR. The first, amounting to some 480 acres, granted DL 541, the former government reserve on Coal Harbour, to the two trustees. This grant included thirty-nine specific lots (about eight acres) in the Granville townsite. The second granted DL 526 (some 5,795 acres) to Smith and Angus. With the exception of some logging roads and rough wagon trails, this immense nine-square-mile tract south of False Creek was largely untouched forest in 1886. (Norbert MacDonald, p. 9).
  • One year later a plan for the City of Vancouver was registered at the Land Registry Office signed by L. A. Hamilton on 24th Feb. 1887.
  • On Monday, 23 May 1887 (Victoria Day), the first train arrived in Vancouver at 1 p.m.

All the while the CPR had been busy planning the site for their western terminus. In addition to the map shown at the top of this post (dated 23 October 1886) sources cite an 1886 map by H. B. Smith:

A “Pan of the City of Vancouver – 1886” by H. B. Smith, predates a better-known 1887 map by L. A. Hamilton. The earlier map is a detailed, accurate one showing the precise location of the various CPR facilities. Smith spent most of his career as an engineer and surveyor with the Vancouver Water Works and assisted Cambie in the early CPR surveys.

[Norbert MacDonald ”The Canadian Pacific Railway and Vancouver’s Development to 1900”. BC Studies, no. 35, Autumn 1977 (page 12, footnote 18)].

The “C. P. R. plan shewing site of bridge carrying railway across False Creek, Vancouver, B. C.” (top of this post) is the first of the documents presented here that shows the CPR main trunk along Burrard Inlet, as well as its prominent spur to the engine roundhouse, the railway yards on north shore False Creek, and the proposed bridge to Kitsilano and beyond. The private subdivisions for Lots 185, 196 & 181 were drawn before the route for the railway was known, or made public in 1885.

The 1886 CPR plan shows important changes made to the 1884 East End subdivision plan:

  1. Only 22 city blocks are drawn in the East End, including the line of Skid Row (Gore Avenue), and the Hastings Mill.
  2. This is the first map to show Railway Avenue as a crescent along the Burrard Inlet edge of the East End. This is a much more elegant solution replacing an ill conceived road marked “Mill Reserve” in the 1884 subdivision plan.
  3. It also shows the beginnings of a new alignment for the future Main Street, with lots end-graining to front the street. This is the first appearance of this platting practice since the 1859 plan for New Westminster.
  4. Further to the west are the six city blocks of the 1870 plat for the Town of Granville (Gastown).
  5. Crossing present day Cambie Street, we are shown the first blocks of what will become the north side of Hastings Street in the Hamilton Plan of the following February. Eight square blocks are clearly laid out.
  6. Crossing into the Liverpool (the West End) ten blocks are shown fronting Coal Harbour that correspond more closely to the Hamilton plan of the following February, than to the private subdivision plan registered four years before.

Thus, the 1886 CPR plan shows the CPR actively surveying the site, and trying to reconcile issues with the subdivisions registered on either side of their land grant two and four years previous. Checking the final 1887 Hamilton Plan against the private subdivisions that preceded it, it is clear that the railway company had the ability to change the subdivision plans as it deemed necessary.

While the 1886 plan shows but a few streets and city blocks, all in locations that will look very familiar to us today, it also portrays the reality on the ground. Vancouver’s footprint in 1886 remained a timbered and impenetrable west coast forest. Save for the presence of the aboriginal people, wagon roads to Hastings Townsite and New Westminster, some lumber camps along the Burrard Inlet and the Fraser, and the scant few streets and houses of the early settlers near Fraser Mill and Gastown, this was a pristine and untouched wilderness.

© Lewis N. Villegas, Vancouver, September 2011

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s