Local Coast Salish people knew the area that would become Gastown as a portage route between Burrard Inlet and False Creek, where Carrall Street is today. During high tide, a canoe could be paddled between the two bodies of water. On the Burrard Inlet end was a landmark called Lekleki — meaning “grove of beautiful trees” — between today’s Abbott and Carrall streets.
One of the trees, a large maple, was a gathering place for the first settlers until it burned in the Great Fire of 1886. Today, that tree is commemorated by the name Maple Tree Square, the central intersection in Gastown.
How Did Gastown Get Its Name?
Gastown is named after Captain John Deighton, an English mariner and saloon keeper whose talkative nature earned him the nickname “Gassy Jack.” In 1867, Deighton was running the Globe Saloon in New Westminster when he noticed that some of his customers were workers who would walk about five hours from the British Columbia and Vancouver Island Spar, Lumber and Sawmill Company’s sawmill on Burrard Inlet to get a drink. Most of them lived on mill property where no liquor was permitted.
The catalyst for Deighton’s move came on the Fourth of July that year. He had gone out of town and left a former shipmate and American patriot in charge of his saloon. Deighton returned to find that he had been bankrupted by an elaborate Independence Day celebration for the many American expatriates in town. Drinks were all on the house and the saloon’s meagre cash-on-hand was spent on fireworks, gunpowder, flags and decorations.
In September 1867, Deighton loaded a dugout canoe with a barrel of whisky, two hens, a dog and various supplies. With six dollars in his pocket, Deighton, his wife, mother-in-law and his wife’s cousin paddled to Burrard Inlet. The party landed at Lekleki, a short walk from the sawmill property. According to legend, Deighton offered thirsty mill workers whisky in exchange for building him a new saloon. It was only a 12 x 24 foot shack, but the new Globe Saloon was up and running within 24 hours. (See also Gassy Jack Lands on the Burrard Shore.)
Other businesses soon followed Gassy Jack to Burrard Inlet. The fledgling settlement grew into a small waterfront community between Carrall and Cambie streets. In 1870, it was surveyed and officially named Granville Townsite, although most people still referred to it as Gastown. As it was boxed in by a dense forest, transportation in the early years was mainly by water, as it had been for the area’s Indigenous population for generations.
Of the ten buildings that comprised Gastown in 1875, four were saloons. By the 1880s, there was a brothel, a Chinese laundry, a butcher shop, a missionary church, and several stores and hotels. Early Gastown was fairly diverse. The majority of its population was male, but many settlers — including Gassy Jack — had Indigenous wives and there were some large families. Many early residents came to Burrard Inlet as sailors from seaports around the world and often didn’t stay long. Others came from around North America to find work as loggers or to try their luck with small businesses.
Incorporation and the Great Fire
As a condition of British Columbia’s 1871 entry into Confederation, a transcontinental railway was built to the West Coast. Knowing that the terminus was destined to become a major metropolis, speculators and landholders from in and around Gastown arranged for the provincial government to offer the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) more than 6,000 acres of land just west of Gastown to lure the railway to the area.
Initial speculation was that Port Moody would be the terminus, but CPR head William Cornelius Van Horne announced that the line would be extended to Granville. He also insisted that the name be changed from Granville to Vancouver, and the City of Vancouver was incorporated on 6 April 1886. The name Gastown fell into disuse until it was revived in the 1960s.
The first stage in building the new city was to clear the land. On 13 June 1886, an out-of-control CPR clearing fire burned Vancouver to the ground, just two months after incorporation. Dozens of people perished in the fire and only a handful of buildings were left standing.
Despite the devastation and tragic losses of the fire, in city-building terms it was a blessing. The hastily built and rickety wooden structures of old Gastown were cleared away and replaced with more sound structures, and the relief and investment funds that poured into the city in the aftermath fuelled the city’s first economic boom.
Wholesale District to Skid Road
In the years following the Great Fire, Gastown’s Cordova Street was the main commercial strip, but it was soon overshadowed by Granville Street on the CPR land grant to the west and by Hastings Street to the south. Gastown became a mix of retail and second-hand stores, artisans, small manufacturers, and services and accommodation geared toward migrant and unemployed resource workers who spent only part of the year in town. By the early 20th century, it was known as the city’s wholesale district, although a variety of businesses continued to operate there.
Gastown’s role as a home base for migrant and unemployed workers solidified during the Great Depression as jobless men from across the country flooded into the city. Government relief camps temporarily reduced the number of unemployed men in the city until 1935, when thousands of camp workers went on strike and spent two months in Vancouver before commencing the On to Ottawa Trek.
By the end of the Second World War, Gastown was known as “Skid Road,” named after the old corduroy log roads used to “skid” timber out of the forests of Vancouver and other Pacific Northwest towns. Loggers and other resources workers often retired in the single resident occupancy hotels and the term “Skid Road” came to be associated with poverty and vice. Allan King’s acclaimed CBC documentary Skid Row (1956) provides a glimpse into the neighbourhood at the height of its degradation.
Industrial and commercial activities continued in Gastown, but were now more prevalent in other areas of Vancouver. As Gastown’s building stock aged and fell into disrepair, the number of vacancies rose and the neighbourhood became increasingly shabby in appearance.
Gentrification and Historicization
The catalyst for Gastown’s transformation was a massive development called Project 200, proposed in 1966 for the area bounded by Howe, Abbott and Cordova streets and the waterfront. The original plan included demolishing Gastown west of Abbott Street, but was later modified to spare most of the area’s heritage buildings. Project 200 would have created a major new retail centre downtown, adjacent to Gastown.
Project 200 was based on a proposed major freeway network. A public backlash and failed intergovernmental negotiations prevented the freeway, effectively killing Project 200, with only one of 14 proposed office towers making it to completion. Nevertheless, a new wave of entrepreneurs and developers had already invested in the area based on the revitalization potential of Project 200. A 1968 walking tour also attracted considerable attention to and investment in Gastown’s history and potential.
Developers saw economic potential in the area’s heritage, and renovated historic buildings instead of knocking them down. They also incorporated history into the rebranding of the neighbourhood by, for example, reviving the name Gastown and commissioning a statue of Gassy Jack. New businesses opened, many with historic themes, and artists and artisans began moving into the neighbourhood.
The City eventually came on board with a multi-million-dollar Gastown renovation that included street furniture, brick paving stones for Water Street and its sidewalks, and the creation of Blood Alley and Maple Tree squares, all designed to give the area a more historic appearance. Gastown’s most popular tourist attraction, a faux-Edwardian steam clock, was designed and built by local clockmaker Raymond Saunders and installed in 1977 to conceal a steam vent.
Transforming “Skid Road” into “Gastown” came with concerns about displacing existing low-income residents. Some developers were looking to attract artists to rent their renovated upper level spaces for studios and residences rather than the typical Gastown dwellers living on fixed incomes. In many cases, rising property values in the area also led to increased rents.
To help with the affordable housing issue and preserve a heritage streetscape, a community group organized to save two Cordova Street hotels from demolition. With government funding, the buildings were combined and turned into a hostel for low-income people.
Counterculture and Riot
In the late 1960s, members of the youth counterculture began coming to Gastown in significant numbers, attracted by the low rents and its central location. Many were Americans evading the draft (see Vietnam War), while others came from across the country. Several new businesses catered to this demographic, including the Georgia Straight, an alternative weekly newspaper that gave many young adults new to the city a chance to earn spending money selling papers.
Mayor Tom Campbell saw the influx of countercultural youth as one of the city’s most pressing problems. Campbell supported the gentrification of Gastown, but not the young people it attracted, especially those who smoked cannabis (see also Nonmedical Drug Use). Campbell unsuccessfully tried to shut down the Georgia Straight and lamented that Gastown was “becoming the drug capital of Canada.”
Tensions between Mayor Campbell and the hippies climaxed with the 1971 Gastown Riot. In July of that year, Campbell unveiled a new policing strategy dubbed “Operation Dustpan.” Police conducted thorough sweeps of the neighbourhood, cordoning off entire blocks and rounding up soft-drug users. Fifty-nine young men and women were arrested on drug possession or trafficking charges in the first 10 days.
In response to the police crackdown, the Vancouver chapter of the Youth International Party (Yippies) organized the “Gastown Smoke-In & Street Jamboree” on 7 August 1971. It was slated to be a non-violent street party with music, dancing and civil disobedience in the form of openly smoking cannabis (see also Political Protest).
The Smoke-In drew around 2,000 people, and by most accounts was initially peaceful. Police, however, viewed it as an affront to public decency and stormed the crowd. In the end, 11 civilians and 6 police were injured, and 79 people were arrested. The riot unfolded under the watchful eye of the local broadcast and print media, and many Vancouverites were shocked by the police brutality on display.
A provincial inquiry into the riot concluded that police used “unnecessary, unwarranted, and excessive force” and caused “panic, terror, and resentment” among the crowd. The inquiry, however, also denounced the organizers as agitators, and essentially exonerated the police. To the chagrin of the Vancouver Police, the riot has been commemorated by an 8 x 13 m photo mural by artist Stan Douglas in the Woodward’s redevelopment.
The economic impact of Gastown’s revitalization was more lacklustre than developers had hoped. Entrepreneurs did help grow the local economy, but of the first wave of late-1960s private investment, three businesses — the Old Spaghetti Factory, Pier 1 Imports and Cost Plus Imports — were enjoying the bulk of the economic benefits in 1970.
Government enthusiasm for Gastown faded through the 1970s and 1980s as its revitalization attention turned to Granville Island and other projects. Nevertheless, Gastown remained a viable heritage district popular with tourists and with an identity distinct from its Skid Road past.
This new identity sometimes came at the expense of Gastown’s more vulnerable community members. In the months before Expo 86, landlords of single resident occupancy hotels in the Downtown Eastside evicted hundreds of low-income residents to accommodate the influx of visitors to the fair. Many people who had lived in these buildings for decades were given less than a week’s notice before they had to move, and their housing status was not protected by law. Tenants and their advocates unsuccessfully lobbied the provincial government and Expo 86 CEO Jim Pattison to intervene. For many, these evictions still tarnish the legacy of the fair.
During this period, the creation of a SkyTrain station, a cruise ship terminal and the SeaBus crossing Burrard Inlet all made Gastown more accessible.
Gastown enjoyed another wave of investment in the 2000s with renovations and additions to heritage buildings under the City’s Heritage Revitalization Incentive Program, as well as the redevelopment of the old Woodward’s Department Store (with its iconic red neon “W” sign). Controversial since a condominium was first proposed in 1995, the Woodward’s project changed hands from private developers to two provincial governments before the City of Vancouver bought the site in 2003. Anti-poverty activists fiercely advocated for the need to include social housing, fearing that an influx of units at market rental rates would push low-income residents out of Gastown. In 2002, they squatted on the abandoned Woodward’s site for more than two months in protest. Construction of the project’s final incarnation as a mixed-use complex, described as a compromise between various interests, began in 2006. The Woodward’s complex is now a large condominium, retail and social-housing complex that also contains Simon Fraser University’s School of Fine Arts. Such revitalization projects drew new and relatively wealthy residents to the area, and made office space available that became popular with tech start-up companies.
In its successful bid for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, Vancouver responded to fears that the Games would result in Expo 86-style evictions by issuing a “commitment statement” on inner-city inclusivity. BC Housing, a provincial Crown corporation, bought at least 16 Downtown Eastside hotels to preserve social housing ahead of the Olympics. Despite these initiatives, some critics maintain that the Games increased the costliness of the neighbourhood, while others point to the impact of street-policing tactics and larger economic factors on the neighbourhood’s gentrification in the early 2000s.