Vancouver's Gastown

by - November 09, 2020

I was shocked by how Boston had so many underground places to keep warm as did Chicago. Well, turns out Vancouver has its own underground secrets in Gastown, which was actually the original townsite from which Vancouver grew in the 1870s. 

Gastown was named for "Gassy" Jack Deighton, a Yorkshire seaman, steamboat captain and barkeep who arrived in 1867 to open the area's first saloon. He was famous for his habit of talking at length (or "gassing") and the area around his saloon came to be known as "Gassy's town," a nickname that evolved to "Gastown."

The town soon prospered as the site of Hastings Mill sawmill, seaport, and quickly became a general centre of trade and commerce on Burrard Inlet as well as a rough-and-rowdy resort for off-work loggers and fishermen as well as the crews and captains of the many sailing ships which came to Gastown or Moodyville, on the north side of the inlet (which was a dry town) to load logs and timber. The Canadian Pacific Railway terminated on piles on the shore parallel to Water Street in 1886. 

Gastown is home to a series of steam pipes connected to a generating plant run under Georgia and Beatty Streets. The system provides heat to most of the downtown core, and provides the steam for the whistles of the famous Gastown steam clock. Despite seeming like a remnant of the Victorian era and being located in Gastown, the Steam Clock is actually from a hundred years later, built in 1977 by horologist Raymond Saunders and metalwork specialist Doug Smith.

Saunders was hired by Gastown’s local merchants to build the clock as a monument. It also had an alternative purpose: Placed over a steam grate above one of the aforementioned pipes, it kept local homeless from sleeping on the warm spot. The clock is likely only the second steam clock ever constructed, the first having been built by Englishman John Inshaw in 1859, to draw customers to his tavern. Because Inshaw’s clock was small and very inaccurate as a timekeeper, Saunders had to reinvent the steam clock from scratch. The new clock proved to be finicky and hard to keep running and required additional funds to get it working properly, around $58,000. 

Saying the clock is “steam-powered” is factually incorrect, because the clockworks itself is powered by descending weights. The mini-steam engine at the base of the clock case takes up the role of the human “winder” by raising a series of ball weights and delivering the weights to the clock drive train. But the steam engine is connected by a rubber belt to an electric motor hidden from view - much more reliable than steam power. Every quarter-hour, the two-ton Steam Clock shows off a bit, whistling and shooting steam from its five whistles in its version of the Westminster Chime. On the hour it marks each hour with a toot from each whistle. 

There are six other working “Steam” Clocks in the world. The lesson was learned, though – only the whistles are steam and the clockworks are electric. The clock is a key tourists destination in Vancouver. It’s also the near the start and a finish line of the Gastown Grand Prix, a single-day cycling race.

Besides the steam clock, other landmarks is Gastown include Victory Square and statue of Gassy Jack. Victory Square was at one time the grounds of the city's provincial courthouse, which was torn down in 1911–13 when the new Francis Rattenbury-designed courthouse on Georgia Street was opened (now the Vancouver Art Gallery). The location had significance when it was chosen, as it stands at the intersection of the old Granville townsite (aka Gastown) and the CPR Townsite, which was the downtown-designated land grant obtained by the CPR as part of the deal to locate the terminus and thereby found the city (the corner of Hastings and Hamilton is the northern tip of the CPR Townsite).

Gastown is also home to Water Street, named for its proximity to the water, in this case the south shore of Burrard Inlet, and was briefly known as Front Street. Water Street is a great place to walk around, with its cobblestone footoaths.  In the early to mid 20th century, Water Street was the center of Vancouver's food, clothing and dry goods wholesale businesses. Due to Vancouver being the main port of western Canada, much of the trading of goods from east Asia went through Water Street.

Some great cafes in the area include the Prado Cafe, with local roasts from 49th Parallel Coffee Roasters, as well as a number of brunch options. Close by is also Vancouver Lookout, which I think is a bit overpriced but you might like it.


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