A Vancouver time travelogue brought to you by Past Tense.
Harry Hooper, a.k.a. “Handsome Harry” or “Lightning Harry,” moved to Vancouver’s East End with his family from Ontario in the 1880s when he was a young boy. By the early 20th century, Hooper was a well-known man-about-town through his various pursuits as a dog breeder, thespian, steamboat operator, taxi driver, and competitive cyclist, but was best known as a race car driver.
After spending his teenage years as a petty criminal, Harry Hooper had gone legit by the turn of the 20th century, but his love of speed landed him back in court on more than one occasion. In 1900 he received a $10 fine for “scorching,” riding a bicycle at excessive speeds off the track.
Harry found his true calling behind the wheel of a car and by 1906 was the chauffeur for John Hendry, a lumber baron and the head of VW & Y Railway Company. As Hendry’s driver, he was fined for driving over 20 mph. The next month Hooper accompanied his boss to New York, leading the World newspaper to remark that “if he starts autoing in Father Knickerbocker’s staid old town and strikes the same speed as the police clocked him on here, he is liable to put the traffic of that ancient village into inextricable confusion.”
Handsome Harry worked various other driving jobs, such as demonstrating cars and operating a sightseeing tour car. In 1909, he received a $75,000 inheritance, which, he said, he would use to “get into the automobile business on an extensive scale.” He started the Hooper Taxicab Co., but sold out his share shortly after, and of course raced cars whenever the opportunity arose.
In 1910, Hooper set a speed record for driving from Seattle to Vancouver in just nine hours and thirty-two minutes. In 1916 and 1919, he put his driving skills to the test by racing biplanes. He didn’t win either time, but put on a good show for the crowd. The first time, the World reported that Hooper’s “mechanician perform[ed] some hair-raising stunts” during the race, and in 1919, that the contest was “neck-and-neck.”
When the Great Depression hit, Hooper didn’t want to be one of the many unemployed men clogging Vancouver’s streets, and so took up placer mining on the Fraser River. City archivist Major Matthews interviewed Hooper in 1937 for his Early Vancouver oral history project. This is how Matthews described Hooper:
Pioneer of “Gastown,” associate of prince and pauper, who is in Vancouver, at the Regent Hotel, from his placer mine on the banks of the Fraser River, two miles from Chimney Creek, twenty-two miles from Williams Lake, twelve miles from the nearest store, two miles from his mail box, where he lives with his three dogs and four cats, but no one else, surrounded by his garden full of vegetables; with his radio; gets six newspapers at a time at the end of the week; hangs beef, pork, and mutton in the shed in winter time, and when he wants some, cuts it off; catches the finest of salmon in the river, and salts it down; says that money is worthless; that there is no need for a solitary individual in British Columbia to be “on relief,” and says he has washed fifteen hundred dollars of gold out of the hill side since last May—about four months. He wants a road into his place—about two miles of road; he also needs teeth.
Harry Hooper was back in Vancouver, living in his office in the old Stock Exchange building across from Woodward’s on West Hastings Street, when he died in 1956.