Tuesday, August 08, 2006

How the City Changes

Road to prosperity

by Lisa Smedman-staff writer

Back in the 1860s, if you wanted to travel from Gastown to New Westminster by land, there were only two options. You could walk or ride a horse along the narrow trail that had been cut through the forest in 1860 by Colonel Richard Moody and the Royal Engineers, or you could take a boat to the hotel at New Brighton (north of the modern PNE) and travel by horse-drawn stage coach southeast along Douglas Road. The fare was $1 each way, and the trip took two hours.

By the 1880s, the trail that would one day become Kingsway-then known as Westminster Road-was wide enough to accommodate stage coaches. But it wasn't always a pleasant ride.

Muriel Crakanthorp told the Vancouver City Archives in 1938 that her mother recalled travelling by stage coach as an "ordeal." The stages rocked back and forth, and passengers often felt queasy.

"Mother says the trip over was always an ordeal for her; she got 'seasick'-lots of people did... Mrs. Lynn, of Lynn Creek, if she could not have the front seat with the driver, would walk-walk to New Westminster and back-rather than ride on the stage, she got so desperately seasick on the stage."

Sitting up front with the driver solved this problem, but it had drawbacks of its own, especially if the driver was a man named Green. "[He had] a long beard down to his middle, and he chewed tobacco, and he would talk, talk, talk, and the juice got on his beard, and the ladies were feeling squeamish," Crakanthorp said.

Inns sprang up along Westminster Road to cater to travellers. Junction Inn was at the spot where the North Arm Wagon Road (Fraser Street) branched off to the south. Gladstone Inn (at modern Gladstone Street) was, for a time, operated by the brother of Gastown's "Gassy Jack" Deighton. Collingwood Inn (at modern Stamford Street) was also known as the Pig and Whistle, and was in use as a private residence in the 1960s.

Collingwood Inn would give its name to the farming community that grew up around it in the 1890s. Westminster Road, however, was only one of the transportation arteries that helped define modern Collingwood. The second was the "interurban" that began running in October 1891.

This electric railway-which ran through a slash in the forest along a route that is today Vanness Avenue-offered hourly service that whisked Collingwood's settlers into downtown Vancouver or New Westminster in minutes.

At first, Collingwood's settlers simply flagged the interurban trains down, but by the time the Vancouver Map and Blueprint Company published a map of the city in 1912, there were two Collingwood stations: Collingwood East at Joyce Street, and Collingwood West at Rupert Street.

"Each had its own post office, and assortment of necessary stores and services," wrote Barbara Nielsen in her book Collingwood Pioneers: Memories of a Vancouver District. "It was a while before the corner of Joyce and Kingsway took over as the town centre."

It wasn't until 1925, she noted, that bus service began on Kingsway.

Although most of the settlement in Collingwood took place after South Vancouver was incorporated in 1892, the area remained a distinct community for many years-something that's still reflected in the landscape today. Take a look at a map of modern Vancouver, and Collingwood stands out. Its streets are skewed at an angle to the city's usual grid pattern, running northeast and southwest from Vanness. These angled streets stop abruptly at 29th Avenue, which divided the Municipality of South Vancouver from Hastings Townsite to the north, and run as far south as Kingsway.

Many of these streets are named after the settlers who took advantage of what Collingwood offered: a place to farm and raise a family on an acreage that offered a lot more breathing room than a 25-foot-wide city lot in downtown Vancouver.

Like many of the early settlers who gave their names to Collingwood's streets, Phillip Oben had a life that was a classic example of the riches-to-rags-to-riches story.

When he came to Vancouver from Toronto with his wife and her parents in 1887, Oben brought with him more than $20,000. He used the money to purchase lots on Howe Street-then still a rough slash through logged-over forest-and started building houses. He also contracted with the Canadian Pacific Railway to clear its vast holdings in the West End in the late 1880s, overseeing a crew of about 150 Chinese workers who felled and burned the forest with axes and ox teams.

Oben lost money on the land-clearing job. He continued building houses, however, and was in the middle of erecting homes on Pender Street when the depression of 1893 set in.

"...as the financial depression set in, carrying with it everything to the bottom, I lost all the money I made," he would later recall.

By 1894, he was destitute and living with his wife and baby in a "shack."

On one particularly bleak day, Oben trudged along Granville Street looking for work. "I sat there on the corner, feeling pretty blue, no grub at home and no work to be found," he said in a 1932 interview at the Vancouver City Archives. "I looked down on the ground in front of where I sat, saw something that looked like a leaf, reached out and picked up a paper bill; it was for $5. I had a sack full of grub and was on my way home before much time had elapsed."

In 1894, the provincial government amended its Land Act to allow Crown land to be subdivided into small parcels no more than 20 acres in size for lease to British subjects "for the purpose of bona fide personal occupation and cultivation."

These leases had a five-year term, and the first payment wasn't due for 12 months. At the end of five years, the lessee would be Crown granted the land, as long as he or she fulfilled the conditions of the lease by "improving" the property by clearing and cultivating the land and building a residence on it.

One of the first areas in B.C. to be surveyed and subdivided under this scheme lay just east of Collingwood and north of Burnaby's Central Park. For struggling families like Oben's, the 64 acreages offered for lease as part of the Burnaby and South Vancouver Small Holdings offered a chance to rebuild their fortunes.

By 1900, when an inspection tour was conducted of these holdings-most of which ranged in size from five to eight acres-the bulk of Oben's 7.93-acre property had been "cleared, stumped and cultivated." Oben had built a two-storey house, a shop, barns and two cottages.

Oben's homestead was "a thoroughly well improved place in every particular," wrote Arthur Shepherd, an assistant to B.C.'s chief commissioner of lands and works who had been given the task of making sure the leaseholders had made the required improvements to their holdings that would entitle them to land grants.

Oben later said of the small holdings that "[they] were given out as an experiment by the government; it was an idea, I think, of R.G. Tatlow's."

After moving to his small holding, Oben eventually found work with the City of Vancouver at $1 a day. He was "glad to get it" even though the walk to work, along a trail, took him an hour and a half each way.

By 1914, Oben was once again prosperous enough to have his photograph and biography included in the book B.C. From the Earliest Times to the Present, a who's who of its day.

As Oben himself put it, after he "came out into the woods to make a fresh start" he opened a grocery store in the tiny farming community of Central Park, just east of Collingwood. After nine years he sold the store and opened a second grocery store in Collingwood itself, this time on the street that now bears his name.

Oben lived the rest of his life in Vancouver, even though he hadn't been impressed with what he saw upon his arrival in this city in March 1887. But by the time of his death in 1933 at the age of 78, he was proud to call Vancouver home.

The small holdings offered for lease in 1894 drew a number of families whose names would appear, in the years to come, on street maps of what was then the Municipality of South Vancouver. The only street named after a small holdings lessee that still bears its original name today is Battison Street, but others were, for a time, named after settlers John Grant, Joseph Henry Bowman, J. Wilburs and Peter Dubois, whose farm on Westminster Road was home to the area's first school.

South Vancouver was a rural municipality and at first the naming of its streets was very informal.

"All the South Vancouver streets were, in the first place, named as a matter of convenience to men delivering groceries to early settlers," William Williamson, an early settler in South Vancouver, told the archives in 1938. "Fred W. Welsh, the grocer, used to send a buggy out once a fortnight to take your order and whatever road a family settled on, that road got known by his name; that was simple. There was never any formal naming; it was just Wales Road because Mr. Wales lived down that road.

"The [South Vancouver] council liked to keep the names of the old and early settlers, but after amalgamation [with the City of Vancouver in 1929], and all that renaming, dozens of them were changed."

Other Collingwood roads named after settlers include Joyce Street, after market gardener Albert Joyce, who co-owned 10 acres along what is today East 45th Avenue. Earles Street was probably named after Henry Earles, a carpenter who lived in the community of Central Park.

Thomas Winters immigrated to Vancouver from Ireland in 1899 and settled on what later became 5429 Rhodes St.

"They did name a street after me, but it is away down by the interurban station at Gladstone [and] runs from the track to Lakeview Drive," he told the archives in 1938. "They were calling streets after all the old settlers and they picked one after me."

Winters purchased six acres from one of Collingwood's earliest settlers-George Wales, who in 1878 had pre-empted 221 acres of land just east of the street that today bears his name. Winters paid $600 for the property.

"When we went out there, there was nothing, except part of the land had been cleared by George Wales," said Winters. "Part of the six acres [I purchased] was partly cleared, with apple trees between the stumps. We had a well for water, and horse and buggy [and] chickens. I had 30 head of cattle there when I had the milk ranch."

Well into the 20th century, Collingwood was a rural community of dairy farms and orchards. Settlers raised pigs and chickens and sold eggs and produce in Vancouver. They split rails for fences, dug their own wells and cleared land by hand.

In January 1901, farmers in Collingwood and Central Park formed the South Vancouver and Burnaby Horticultural and Poultry Association. Later that year, they held what would become an annual exhibition of produce and poultry in a hall members erected on approximately 17 acres leased from Central Park.

A pamphlet for the September 1902 exhibition boasted that "throughout the districts of South Vancouver and Burnaby many valuable improvements are noticeable. Clearings are being extended, new and large homes are being erected, and last but not least, many of our settlers are taking an interest in beautifying their homes by the planting of ornamental shade trees and shrubs which tend to enhance the value of the property, make the home life more cheerful and add a charm to the home which it would not possess if the grounds were left in their natural state or in a state of cultivation.

"It is an accepted fact that nowhere in British Columbia will be found a more prosperous, contented and as thickly settled district as the district immediately adjacent to the home of our Association."

The 1902 exhibition featured displays of poultry, apples, pears, plums, potatoes, turnips, cabbages, onions, peas, corn, radishes, tomatoes, herbs and cut flowers. Members competed for prizes-$1 for a first-place finish and 50 cents for second place-in such categories as ladies' fancy work, men's drawing and boys' and girls' writing.

Maxwell Smith-a poultryman who also sold real estate-advertised in the pamphlet, offering 1.5-acre and three-acre lots in the Inman property, which had recently opened for settlement. Smith was also Central Park's first postmaster.

M.J. Henry of 3009 Westminster Road (Kingsway) advertised seeds, trees, plants, roses and bulbs for sale, as well as agricultural implements, bee supplies, fruit baskets and fertilizers. His ad promised "white labour only."

A B.C. Electric Railway ad promoted the company's "magnificent passenger cars" which ran hourly from Vancouver and New Westminster, stopping at various settlements along the way, including Cedar Cottage, Gladstone, Collingwood, Central Park and Royal Oak. "Specially cheap rates to settlers and special cars to Central Park from 5 to 7 p.m. daily except Sundays."

By 1905, Collingwood was starting to grow. Collingwood Pioneers: Memories of a Vancouver District cites a 1905 newspaper article as noting that, three years previously, Collingwood had consisted of a small store, a barn, and a few houses. The business community grew after J.M. MacGregor (or McGregor) built a commercial block at the corner of Vanness and Joyce streets.

By 1905, the article continued, the population of Collingwood East was 5,000. The area around MacGregor's block was home to a grocery, butcher shop, drug store, hardware and dry goods stores, as well as a branch of the Bank of Vancouver (which collapsed in 1914).

Water had been installed, and the streets were illuminated by 80-candlepower incandescent lamps. Sewers, however, had yet to reach the area.

South of Collingwood, the main roads through South Vancouver were called simply No. 1 Road (today's 45th Avenue) and No. 2 Road (today's 54th Avenue) and River Road (Marine Drive).

By 1907 J.K. George Co. was offering 10 acres in Collingwood for $1,800. A newspaper ad noted the property was close to school, store, and Westminster Road (Kingsway). "Will make a lovely home and be easily cleared."

As land values gradually rose and the city of Vancouver first amalgamated South Vancouver, then expanded into it, the settlers who had been granted land under the small holdings plan subdivided and sold their acreages. These included William John Battison and his wife Ann, who had come to Vancouver in 1886. In 1946, their son Charles Alexander Battison told the archives, "We moved out to Westminster Road, now Kingsway, and Father pre-empted seven acres under the Small Holdings arrangement..."

Like many of those who took up farming on the small holdings, William Battison had also held down a job in the city. He worked as a planer at a sawmill on False Creek. "He walked in night and morning to the Leamy and Kyle mill-seven miles-and worked 10 hours," said his son.

"[My family's] original seven acres was subdivided and sold; the family own none of the original grant now," his son told the archives.

Although South Vancouver and Burnaby each incorporated as a separate municipality in 1892, people flowed back and forth across the street that marked the official boundary between the two-Park Avenue, today known as Boundary Road.

The communities of Collingwood and Central Park were only a half mile from each other along the interurban line, with the Collingwood stations in South Vancouver and the Central Park station in Burnaby.

Oben, when describing where his small holding was, referred to it in 1932 as being "on the other side of Park Avenue, formerly in South Vancouver, now in the city [of Vancouver]"-a description that seems to imply it lay both east of modern Boundary Road, in Burnaby, and in South Vancouver at the same time.

Yet both the Henderson's B.C. Directory of 1898 and the William's Official B.C. Directory of 1899 list Oben as living in the community of Central Park, whose interurban stop was inside Burnaby. From this evidence, it would seem that the boundary between the two municipalities meant little to Oben.

The community of Central Park got its name from the former military reserve that was designated a park in 1891. As to how the park itself was named, there are two different stories.

In 1936, Florence Oben told the archives that, "After a number of settlers came onto the Government Small Holdings about 42 years ago [in 1894] the need of a post office for the district was felt, so a meeting was held and a petition to the Postmaster General was drawn up. Then the question as to what it should be called came up. Mr. William [G.] Alcock, one of the first settlers on the holdings, who had been to New York, suggested naming the park... Central Park as it is located halfway between the two cities of Vancouver and New Westminster, and the name seemed very appropriate..."

An alternative story, told by George Green, a councillor for Burnaby, attributed the name to Julia Oppenheimer, second wife of David Oppenheimer and originally from Brooklyn, New York.

Whoever suggested its name, the park itself was not only home to the South Vancouver and Burnaby Horticultural and Poultry Association but also to a rifle range used by local militias.

The rifle range, which opened Oct. 1, 1895, was a 100-yard-wide "slit" in the forest with canvas targets set up at 200, 500 and 600 yards.

Militia volunteers from both Vancouver and New Westminster practiced at the range on Saturday afternoons from April to October. Some shot with Lee Enfield .303 long rifles, but a few still had black-powder Snider rifles that emitted a cloud of white smoke every time they were fired.

The B.C. Rifle Association, a civilian organization, also held shooting matches in Central Park. The range closed in November of 1904.

As years went by, automobiles gradually replaced horse-drawn wagons and carriages on Vancouver's roads. By the time Westminster Road was renamed Kingsway, in 1913, automobiles were increasing in popularity. A photo taken on Sept. 30 of that year shows crowds gathered near Boundary Road for the opening ceremony-people who had travelled to the celebration by such varied methods of modern transportation as interurban, bicycle and automobile.

The October 1913 issue of B.C. Magazine reported on the new highway. "It is a broad, magnificent road, and by none would it be more appreciated than by motorists who, to the number of 600, made the trip between the two cities on the day the road was opened."

Today's Kingsway is a busy thoroughfare choked with cars, trucks and buses-a far cry from the trail that Colonel Moody and his Royal Engineers hacked from the forest nearly a century and a half ago. Paralleling it where the interurban once clacked along railway tracks, the SkyTrain slides along elevated rails today.

Moody pre-empted land in 1861 around a long-vanished lake in what is today the heart of Collingwood. He sailed back to England two years later and let this claim lapse. Were he to peer forward in time he would never have recognized the Collingwood of today.

For more information on how Vancouver's streets got their names, the book Street Names of Vancouver, by Elizabeth Walker, is an excellent reference. Copies are available through the Vancouver City Archives at a cost of $15.

published on 08/04/2006

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