York Membery visits Canada’s westernmost city.
A grainy black-and-white film was discovered a few years ago in the basement of a soon-to-be-demolished building in Australia. The six-minute silent movie, taken from a camera that had been placed on the front of a streetcar, was originally thought to be of Hobart in Tasmania – but on closer examination it was somewhere in North America, but where?
The remarkable footage was actually shot in Vancouver by William Harbeck, a pioneering filmmaker hired by the the Canadian Pacific Railway's Department of Colonization ‘to put Western Canada on the motion picture screen’. And while few buildings from the time remain, there were enough to enable archivists to date it to 1907. It’s a timely reminder that, despite being a young city, Vancouver has changed beyond recognition in the 100-odd years since the film was shot.
Visitors to Vancouver, which is now Canada’s third largest city, are usually entranced by its stunning setting between the Pacific and British Columbia’s snow-capped mountains. It is blessed with some fabulous open spaces such as Stanley Park, while the Great Outdoors lies on its doorstep. However, the city also has much to interest history buffs.
It was named after British explorer Captain George Vancouver who claimed its thickly-wooded shores for King and Country in 1792 (and is buried in the graveyard at Petersham Church, near Richmond-upon-Thames, London). However, the first real settlement was Gastown named after a wily publican, Gassy Jack Leighton, whose bar provided the focus for a shantytown in the 1860s. The area is about ten minutes walk from today’s downtown, but more than a century later it’s hard to imagine the once rough-and-ready frontier town.