April 6 was the 125th anniversary of the founding of Vancouver. We have all seen that famous photo of the serious moustached and bearded men setting up our City Hall in a tent in the middle of the great clearcut that was downtown Vancouver in 1886. Today our local media is full of stories of these times and what happened after incorporation from massive immigration to large-scale development to the emergence of a global city.
Yes, 1886 was a landmark year for the fledgling city and we can officially consider Vancouver 125 years old. But what about the human and natural history that was present in the city’s borders for thousands of years beforehand? For me, this is where Vancouver truly comes alive as a unique original environment unparalleled around the world.
The first Europeans only made their first clear mark on Vancouver’s soil in 1859 when Robert Burnaby and Walter Moberly staked a claim to the coal deposits in the present day Coal Harbour. At that time the main white settlements were at New Westminster and Fort Langley. Before that adventurer Simon Fraser had travelled over the Rocky Mountains from the east in the early 1800s. He encountered a wild river that would later bear his name and many communities of aboriginal people who were living in harmony with the wealth of food available in the esturary where the river entered the sea.
In 1859 when Moberly and Burnaby were registering what they hoped would be their fortune at the mining offices in New Westminster, Vancouver was still pristine. In this temperate rainforest climate—one of the two such regions on Earth—rain fell most of the year. Conifers such as cedar, sitka spruce, western hemlock, and Douglas fir grew to a massive size for periods which sometimes spanned over a thousand years. There is evidence that the tallest tree in Vancouver was cut at Hastings Sawmill. It was a Douglas fir from today’s Kerrisdale neighbourhood and it was almost 400 feet high. Imagine what it must have taken to remove and transport this and other trees to the saw mill! These old-growth conifers—and others that were even taller in North Vancouver—could easily have been the tallest trees in the world. Their evolution was fertilized by nitrogen from the bones of salmon that were dragged deep into the forest by bears and other animals. Alongside the conifers were stands of cottonwoods, big leaf maple, yew, and pines. Large swaths of devils club and berry bushes grew thick in the understory. Grouse thrummed from deep in the woods, frogs croaked from the swamps, while shrews skimmed the water’s surface. Voles, muskrat, and porcupine made a good living in the thick underbrush.
The large mammals—bears, cougars, and wolves hunted in the forest. Eagles and ravens soared in the updrafts overhead searching out their next meal. Beavers were great shapers of land and where they built a dam, lakes formed which then filled with hundreds of waterfowl. Gradually these lakes filled in once more to become grassy pastures where elk and deer came to feed.
Crisscrossing the land in every direction was a myriad of over 50 streams all sizes and lengths that were home to chum, coho, and steelhead salmon and cutthroat trout. The Fraser River itself, as the biggest salmon river in the world, was a major highway for millions of fish. The richness of the fish species was staggering and this was a major cause of the health and wealth of the local First Nations. Sturgeon—a prehistoric fish that grows up to 12 feet long and 100 years were numerous as were dogfish, whitefish, char, as well as the oily forage fishes—smelt, oolichan, and herring.
Vancouver was once certainly one of the greenest cities in the world in plant biodiversity. It was also the bluest in terms of richness of aquatic habitat. It is surrounded by water on three sides as well as receiving a great deal of rain annually. Once, the rich waters of the Salish Sea to the north and west and the Fraser River to the south held abundant food for humans and animals alike year round. Salmon is central to the diet of many species and is the backbone of the ecological health of the Pacific Northwest. It was once so plentiful in the area the First Nations would build small net pens in inlets and just wait for the tide to go out to pick up the fish from the ground. On the beaches were crabs, clams, oyster, mussels, and cockles. In the seawater there were seals, sometimes sea lions and in the river, otters. There were killer whales feeding on the rich salmon runs and larger species such as grey whales following herring. For the human and other land residents the saying was “When the tide is out, the table is set.”
The constant rainfall makes the soil acidic and created some bogs close in structure to the much larger Burns Bog in Delta which can be seen from space. For example where Camosun Bog is today there was a boggy area that was many times its present size and the waters contributed to Lake of the Head Creek which fed the largest steelhead salmon stream run in Vancouver. The stream travelled diagonally across Dunbar Street to enter the Fraser River at Blenheim. There was a boggy area we call the Tea Swamp that was once part of a large lake that covered the area from 15th and St. George’s to 12th and Main. Present in these bogs were plants from the Ice Age, sphagnum moss—one of the oldest known plants on Earth—and insect-eating sundew. Close to today’s Grandview Highway at Nanaimo there was a 120 foot beaver dam which created a large lake. There were many more beaver meadows and small lakes at places such as Douglas Park and Trout Lake.
The inland waterway of False Creek extended all the way to the present Clark Drive. At its eastern end was a large mudflat where countless waterfowl would congregate. Sturgeon would rest in the shallows and First Nations hunted elk in the grassy meadows to the east. Granville Island was originally a sand bar and numerous creeks entered the waters of False Creek—the largest being China Creek at 16 kilometres long which started at 45th and Renfrew. A shorter Mackie Creek—whose headwaters began at Van Dusen Gardens—entered tidal water at 6th and Heather in a trench 60 feet deep.
Historian Bruce Macdonald in his book Vancouver: A Visual History says: “Although Vancouver is not usually considered an ancient city, people have been living in what we now call the city of Vancouver for 3,000 years and in the general area for 8,000.” The Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh people have lived here for millennia, camping temporarily and permanently all around the shoreline. The salmon was an essential food element and there was a great reverence for the cedar tree which was ingeniously used in numerous ways. Like all their relatives on the coast the local First Nations built large cedar houses for many families, carved long canoes out of cedar, and used the ocean as their highway. Cedar strips were woven into clothing and used for baskets. Cedar was carved for paddles and art objects, including sacred masks.
Before 1850 the land was alive with the temperate rainforest ecosystem. There are still many vestiges of this environment today. One has only to go to the forests of Pacific Spirit Park to look up at the tall trees or listen to the frogs in the spring. Sit on the shoreline at Jericho Beach and imagine the native settlement that was once there. Walk by the cool waters of Musqueam Creek—Vancouver’s only remaining original salmon stream.
Paddle a canoe in English Bay and watch eagles feed on herring. Take a walk in Stanley Park and watch a heron fish in Lost Lagoon. Check the False Creek for shoreline and water birds and watch for the shiny head of a seal in the water.
When I walk the paved streets of my own green leafy neighbourhood at night I can sense the water running underground in the sewers and remember the millions of salmon that used this space as their home for thousands of years. The shape of the land will never change and the spirit of its wild history will never disappear for those of us who remember. For me this anniversary is another opportunity to reminisce about the past and look forward to restoring more of this original habitat to pockets of the city as time goes by. Today it is even more important to do this so we can remember why we should live closer to and in harmony with the Earth.
Celia Brauer is a cofounder of the False Creek Watershed Society. Much of the information in this essay is taken from Bruce Macdonald’s book Vancouver: A Visual History.