Vancouver Was Awesome: Navel-gazing at 50 North Dunlevy


It’s the eve of Vancouver’s big day: 125 years. And though I posted before that Vancouver’ origins were in 1865 in New Brighton Park, there’s a spot just over the Main Street Overpass that bears more than just a second look.

It’s quite the kissing spot, and quite an important historic location.

I like to call it the belly button of Vancouver.

A few days ago, I made a pilgrimage to this spot — a strange little yard I’d been told about, butted up against the off-limit port lands. (Side note: beware of Port security trucks. Some of them really don’t know how to drive, back up, etc. without hitting curbs, fences, etc.)

When I stopped by 50 North Dunlevy late last Saturday night, a bunch of friendly Filipino men greeted me with smiles and waves. One of them was making a card-call back home on the old-school outside deck payphone.

I’d heard about the building before, but never thought it was publicly accessible, or really worth seeking out. Wrong, I was, on both counts.

The grand-house-looking building at that address is a circa 1905 heritage building now used by the Missions to Seamen Society to provide “a home away from home” for seafarers who end up in Vancouver.

It’s called the Flying Angel Seamen’s club, and both the exterior and interiors are decked out with quirky mismatched angel-themed embellishments.

I also went be earlier in the day, where I could more easily see letters on the railing that spell out the initials of the former four owners of the building.

A historical intrepretation posted on the building says the building was donated by the Vancouver Harbour Commission to the Missions’ foundation in 1981, on the society’s 125th birthday.

It was built sometime between 1900 and 1906 by the B.C. Mills Timber and Trading Co. to be a showpiece for B.C. timber: “each individual office was paneled out in a different type of B.C. wood — fir, hemlock, red cedar, balsam, etc.” (Sounds like old habits stay with you! B.C. seems like it’s always trying to show off it’s wood, whether it’s at events in London, Beijing, or just at home at the Olympics.)

Unfortunately, all the lovely old-growth grain was covered up in the 1920s by paint-mad renovators. I took a quick peek inside when I came by at sunset, when no one was around.

Though the spot used to be right on the water’s edge in 1864, it’s a ways off now from the concrete-platformed crane-encrusted container unloading area of the port that has been fenced off for quite some years.

I came by, in fact, to see a granite monument that was getting spruced up (or rather, spruced down) by members of the Vancouver Historical Society in time for Vancouver’s 125th birthday, on Wednesday April 6th, 2011.

You see, although there is a plaque in New Brighton Park that says “Vancouver began here,” the popular opinion is that wood-cored Hastings Mill and brick-heavy Gastown are the old heart and soul of today’s glass-towered crystal city.

And it makes sense. When the city was getting it’s first growth spurt, a lot of the working-class money came in through the mill. I like to think of it as an umbilical cord delivering a flow of cash. And what’s left is the belly button — a mark of where downtown Vancouver gestated.

Bruce Watson, one of the Vancouver Historical Society’s gurus who came out to do some gardening, said that the tri-faceted monument was placed there by the society in the 1960s.

The late historian Chuck Davis’ work says it was created by Gerhard Class, who was paid $1,500 by the Vancouver Historical Society, and was meant to commemorate the centennial of the site as “the mill” and the beginnings of our city.

The side of the monument shown just above (at dusk), with the image of a ship, reads as follows:

On July  26, 1867, the vessel ‘Siam’ left Stamp’s Mill with lumber for Australia, thus beginning Vancouver’s prime function — the supply of her great timbers to the world, and from whatever land we came to settle here, we are the heirs and debtors of that first mill.

It goes back to 1865 the British Columbia and Vancouver Island Spar Lumber and Sawmill Company received a land grant on which to build a sawmill. There were already a few immigrant homesteaders farming or fishing from within the boundaries of what is present-day Vancouver; and there was also a hotel and government offices at New Brighton after 1865, but the mill was the first large economic generator for what would become Vancouver city.

The side of the monument shown at the very beginning of this post has an inscripted image of lumberjack tools and says:

Before 1865, magnificent douglas firs and western red cedars towered above these beaches, some of the finest timer the world has ever seen. Handloggers with their oxen and horses drew the logs over winding skid roads to the sea. From New Westminster to the tip of Point Grey, to Stanley Park and all that lay between, the forests fed the mill.

The mill only started producing in 1867, as Stamp’s Mill, and in 1870 a San Francisco firm bought it and re-named it the Hastings Saw Mill, after the Commander of the Royal Navy base at Esquimalt.

The area west of the mill, towards Coal Harbour, was already being used as living area (named ‘beautiful grove’,  or ‘lucky-lucky,’ in the local dialect) and entertainment district (thanks to Gassy Jack Deighton, namesake of ‘Gastown’), and was surveyed in 1870 as the townsite of ‘Granville.’ (I don’t know why that name was used. Any commenters care to enlighten me?)

Three years later a school was opened nearby, and the company store — where the mill workers could recycle their hard-won cash back to their employer — opened a post office.

The Hastings Mill Store was spared in the fire of 1886. The old store was slated to be torn down, but early preservationists successfully lobbied to have it moved in the 1920s to its present location, at the foot of Alma Street in Point Grey.

A third side (see a blurry picture here) has a pictograph of a mill and really captures the economic importance  of the mill. It says:

Hastings Mill, 1865-1928, built by Captain E. Stamp, Hastings Mill, as it came to be known, fostered the settlement that grew to be Vancouver. It’s roar was the pulse of “Gastown.” It’s waste-burner a navigational beacon for the harbour. Stamp, Raymuir, Alexander, Hendry, and Hamber in turn guided its operations. At all times a vital forge in the community’s life and in the establishment of the Province’s forest industry.

In the 1930s, when the Harbour Commissioners moved into 50 North Dunlevy, the group stated in it’s monthly report: “The site on which the offices are located is one of historical value, for around it was built the City of Vancouver.”

And the rest is history.