Prior to the arrival of railway, Gastown was as a one-street commercial district serving the Hastings Mill population, and all who arrived over the False Creek bridge from New Westminster, or by boat to any of its rickety floats. With the first railway station located immediately to the west, and the surrounding land a timbered wilderness, Gastown was the first beneficiary of the forces unleashed by the transcontinental.
All unsold lots in Gastown were granted to the CPR on 13 February, 1886, by the Legislature. On 13 June of the same year, either by carelessness or calculation, Gastown burned to the ground. The fire started at a CPR clearing site on False Creek, spread on embers carried by the wind, and quickly consumed all wood structures. Brick buildings were erected in their place. The Alhambra Hotel was first, on the SE corner of Water and Carrall Streets. A two storey building was built opposite, on Carrall Street, to house the CPR sales office.
Water & Cambie Streets looking East
Cordoba Street was the first “downtown”. Water Street developed hotels on the south side, and warehouses fronting opposite. A spur was cut from the south shore of Burrard Inlet to False Creek, just nipping the original townsite plat at its south-east corner, shaping Pigeon Park. Gastown’s decline ensued as the “downtown” relocated—following the directives of CPR land management—first to Hastings Street, and then to Granville and Georgia Street, site of three consecutive CPR hotels.
The revitalization of Gastown came in 1970. It is one of the finest efforts at historic preservation in Canada. The street space was built with a continuous ground plane, using bollards to exclude cars from pedestrian areas. Decorative lighting was installed that had no historical precedent in the city, but conveyed instead the reinterpretation of the site as a pedestrian precinct. Historic preservation continues apace into the present day producing fine examples of building re-use, and re-interpretation.
However, not all the new moves have been welcomed. Modernism finally established a foot-hold on Water Street with the opening of the ‘Storeum’, an unfortunate enterprise that laid bare the worst aspects of cruise ship tourism. An out-of-scale modernist structure holds a theatre where actors recreate the story of the urbanism found just outside the front door. Other intrusions of exactly the wrong kind of urbanism soon followed. The Woodward’s Department Store block was razed to the ground in an anachronistic 1950’s tabula rasa, to make room for a set of towers. The Alhambra Hotel addition dealt a similar blow to the historic character of the oldest structure in Gastown.
© Lewis N. Villegas, Vancouver January 2012.
Annotations to the photo at the top of the post.
North Side of Water Street (originally Front Street)
1. Sunnyside Hotel (c. 1875-6; Lot 13 Blk. 1)
5. George Black Cottage (c. 1875)
6. George Black Butcher Shop
[Gassy Jack Deighton’s Globe Saloon was on the south side of Water Street, behind No.’s 1, 5 and 6 in the photo].
11. Portugese Joe’s; First Merchant (before 1870; Lot 16, Blk. 6).
13. The Parsonage
14. Parsonage boat house
South Side of Water Street
C. Customs House (c. 1865-7; Lot 2, Blk. 2)
D. Granville Hotel (c. 1872-4; Lot 3, Blk. 2)
F. McKendry’s. “Famous boot and shoe doctor” with trade as far as Cariboo.
G. George Brew’s Restaurant (in 1871).
H. Gin Tei Hing Wash House and General Merchandise.
I. Wah Chong Chinese laundry.
J. Arthur W. Sullivan General Store with balcony (bef. 1880).
L. Louis Gold Dry Goods.
N. Customs House.
O. John A. Robertson “Hole in the Wall Saloon (c. 1870)
P. Dr. Master’s Office (1882-3). Lean-to against Saloon.
Q. Robertson’s home (1882).
T. Blair House (after 1881).
U. Tom Fisher cottage (after 1882)
From: Maj. Matthews. Early Vancouver: Vol. 4 (pp. 2 – 6).