Just across the water from Downtown Vancouver on the North Shore, you’ll find a bridge nearly as old as the city itself.
The Capilano Suspension Bridge, hanging 70 metres (230 feet) above the Capilano River, was first built in 1889 and has been a beloved and awe-inspiring attraction ever since. Over its 130 years, the bridge has played host to visitors from around the world, as well as film crews, a Playboy Bunny, and even psychological experiments. On this notable anniversary, we look back over the weird, wild and wonderful history of the Capilano Suspension Bridge.
In 1888, Scottish civil engineer and land developer George Grant Mackay landed in Vancouver. Seeking a slice of the city for himself, he decided to purchase 6,000 acres of forest on either side of the Capilano River, building a cabin on the edge of the canyon wall. The following year, with the help of a young Coast Salish man named August Jack Khatsahlano, Mackay suspended a footbridge made from hemp rope and cedar planks across the canyon. Then-12-year-old Khatsahlano would later become chief of the Squamish First Nation and namesake of the westside neighbourhood, Kitsilano.
The “Capilano Tramps”
Mackay’s summer home quickly became a popular destination for a group of adventurers (dubbed the Capilano Tramps), who would take a steamship across the Burrard Inlet to the North Shore, where they would disembark and ‘tramp’ up the rugged trail until they reached the cabin and bridge. In 1903, after Mackay’s death, the original bridge was replaced with a sturdier model made with wire cables. It was then opened to the public, who could walk across for just 10 cents. These days, the bridge is strong enough to hold 97 elephants and sees over a million visitors each year.
Not only was the Capilano Suspension Bridge the 1962 photoshoot location for Playboy magazine’s first Canadian playmate, Pamela Gordon, it was also the site of a famous psychological experiment. In 1974, social psychologists Donald Dutton and Arthur Aron tested an interesting theory of attraction. They found that men who were approached by a woman while on the suspension bridge were more likely to call her later than those approached on a more solid bridge. It appeared that many of the men confused feelings caused by fear with those caused by arousal.
The laughing bridge
The Capilano Suspension Bridge’s history has many Indigenous influences. In its early days, the Coast Salish peoples referred to it as the “Laughing Bridge” because of the noise it made when wind blew through the canyon, causing the bridge to sway. Capilano Suspension Bridge Park is also home to North America’s largest privately owned collection of totem poles, dating back as far as 1935. The name Capilano is derived from the Squamish word Kia’palano, meaning “beautiful river.” If you visit the park today, you can read more about the fascinating culture of the Coast Salish peoples and see a beautiful collection of their poles and carvings.
Quiet on set
It’s no surprise that this man-made wonder has been featured on film, but did you know it was the site of numerous television episodes? The Capilano Suspension Bridge made appearances in shows such as Sliders, The Crow: Stairway to Heaven, and Psych. Keep an eye out for the Laughing Bridge the next time you’re channel surfing.
All in the family
In 1953, sharp-eyed Rae Mitchell purchased the bridge and began heavily marketing it as a tourist destination. He rebuilt the entire structure in just five days before further curating the trails on the west side and establishing the Trading Post Gift Store. Mitchell’s daughter, Nancy Stibbard, went from selling ice cream at the park in her childhood to purchasing it from her father in 1983, and has since turned it into the internationally renowned attraction it is today.
Want to learn more about this historic site? B.C. residents can get an annual pass for the price of a single visit and can even use it to see Canyon Lights, the popular holiday light display. If you need more reasons to visit the Capilano Suspension Bridge, visitors can now get 30 percent off until September 15 with the new twilight discount, valid for all tickets purchased after 5 p.m. Become a modern day Capilano Tramp and make the trek to one of B.C.’s best-loved attractions today.