Know your history - The Railway Club

Seventy years ago the Railway Club opened as a members-only pub for railway workers from the nearby Canadian Pacific station—the current home of the SeaBus. But the venue hasn’t always looked as it does today, nor did it begin as a place where beer-swilling brakemen could grab a pint or three before they staggered back to work down Seymour Street.

The 1931 city-archives register shows 579 Dunsmuir as the home of the European Concert Café, part of the Laursen Building, which also housed a number of commercial units. It’s not until 1934 that the register lists a name change to “The Railwaymen’s Club”.

The Forsyth family, which now runs “the Rail”, is celebrating its 25th anniversary of ownership this year. Manager Janet Forsyth still remembers coming in for the first time in 1981. “It had these little tables with really gross worn-out covers that looked like they’d never been changed. We’d bought the bar off this chainsmoking lady named Dagmar who ran it with her two boyfriends. It was really more of a legion with a few pictures of trains around.”

The subtle interior lighting and dark-wood coziness did not originally come with the place. “When we opened there was just an Arborite counter. We built the bar and everything inside,” Forsyth says.

The ornate back bar also isn’t original. “That space was a jeweller’s shop that we took over in 1988. The whole back bar is from a West End bar called Buddy’s, which was going out of business. We bought the bar top and fixtures, and loaded it all through the back door. I don’t know how we managed to get it all in.”

Under Forsyth’s management, the club was one of the first in the city to book original music on a nightly basis. The venerable Railway stage has hosted just about every local band worth its salt, many that weren’t, and an endless list of out-of-town acts playing their first Vancouver shows, including Los Lobos, Radiohead, and Blue Rodeo.

The Sport Mart that closed underneath the Railway on the ground floor of the old Laursen Building made way for a 7-Eleven a few years ago. The convenience store now casts a bright glare onto Dunsmuir Street at night, allowing everybody coming out of the club at closing time, especially its more tipsy patrons, to suddenly get a better look at who they’d been making out with upstairs. Just maybe, it might also offer a little light for the ghosts of railway workers past stumbling home.