It feels like a lifetime has passed, but I’m standing in a time capsule. It all looks the same. Nothing has changed at all. The smells and sounds are exactly how I remember them. It’s a little louder than it used to be and a bit overwhelming, but the familiarity brings a jolt of excitement.
It also takes my breath away. I haven’t stepped out of my incredibly small bubble in two and a half years. The pandoodle shrunk my life down to four walls and the occasional hike. Being back here, now, after so long? I’m going to need a moment.
I spent a good chunk of my life down here. I used to walk out of Waterfront Station every day, turn left, and weave through the crowds of tourists. I went to film school in Gastown, so these cobbled sidewalks are old friends. A friend I haven’t seen in…Well, I’m not going to do the math, so let’s leave it there.
But I think that’s a good description of how this moment feels. It feels like I’m coming home after a long time away. I’m being greeted by an old friend. If that old friend was a train station, and the shouts of welcome from buskers, fast food stalls, and city traffic.
I’m fighting the muscle memory. It wants to run down the street. Can’t be late for class, not again. Hurry up let’s go. Move it! Uh, we graduated years ago. Chill the f**k out.
I’m not here as a hurried student, not anymore. No, I am a tourist in my own city. I’ve got my camera in one hand, and a walking stick in the other. My eyes are wide, my mind is full of curiosity, and I’m looking for an adventure. The nice thing about this new role is that I can take things slower, savor every moment, and be the person that used to make me sigh, grumble, and silently curse.
Come on now, no judging. Wherever you live, you’ve run into tourists who slow you down. You know the feeling. Frustration, bitter resignation, and a twinge of jealousy because you can’t tourist right now. Nope, you have to be a responsible adult. Bummer, I know, but the day will come when you make someone else sigh, crumble and curse.
It’s the circle of life. If you can read that sentence without singing that song from that movie? I don’t know, that’s kinda messed up.
Gastown has to be one of the most touristy destinations in Vancouver. It’s the place you have to visit. It’s a rule or something like that. Or, it should be because a trip to the city isn’t complete without visiting one of the oldest streets in the city.
One of the best parts of becoming a tourist in your own city is learning the local history of places you take for granted. I’ve walked this street a hundred times. The first time I came, I was seven or eight years old. This is old hat, but here I am, actively trying to look at it through new eyes. Learn a thing or two along the way? Yeah, super cool.
So here’s a bit of the back story to the historic Gastown.
The first people to call this land home were the local Coast Salish people. During high tide, they would paddle between the Burrard Inlet and False Creek. On the Burrard Inlet was a local landmark called Lekleki, which means, “Grove of beautiful trees.”
One of the trees, a maple, served as a gathering place for the first colonizers. It burnt down in a fire in 1886, but the spot is commemorated. The Maple Tree Square sits in the central intersection in Gastown. It used to be where old Gassy Jack had his statue. Oo, but the brings up a history that’s messy and complicated.
I’m going to tell you how Gastown got its name, but I’m hesitating. There’s two version of this story. There’s the one I learned has a kid and the real one. One is quirky and fun, while the other is dark and twisted. That’s often the case, isn’t it? We get the sanitized version of history that sounds clean and fun. But the reality- damn, reality- is often darker and hard to hear. Except we need to hear, acknowledge, and learn. Don’t we?
I’m with a friend, so I asked how I talk about this without it becoming too dark. She said I had two choices: I could ignore it or talk about it. I’m a firm believer that reconciliation needs truth first. So, here’s the story of a man named Captain John Deighton (AKA Gassy Jack).
It won’t be the tale of an eccentric entrepreneur who helped found and grow our fair city. It’s not the one I heard as a kid. This is his story. For better or worse. Deep breaths in!
Gassy Jack owned a saloon in New Westminster, a suburb of Vancouver, but a lot of his customers were coming from the Lumber and Sawmill company on Burrard Inlet. That was a five-hour walk, but liquor wasn’t allowed on company land, so the trek was worth it.
Legend has it that Gassy Jack left his saloon in the hands of a former shipmate and American patriot. When he returned, he found that his former shipmate had left him bankrupt. A fourth of July party had gotten out of hand. Free drinks flowed, and the cash on hand went to buy fireworks.
Left with nothing more than a barrel of whisky, two hens, a dog, six dollars, and few supplies, he loaded a dugout canoe. He paddled to Burrard Inlet, a short walk from the mill, and offered workers whisky if they built him a saloon. It was a shack, but the Globe Saloon was up and running within 24 hours.
His booming business soon attracted more like-minded businessmen. It didn’t take long for a small settlement to grow into a community. Stores, a church, and a brothel. The majority of the population moving in were men. Most were far from home, family, and wives. Naturally, loneliness and other feelings followed.
If you know anything about history, this is where it takes a dark turn. An active sex trade boomed; Most were unwilling women from the local First Nations. Gassy Jack took— or bought— many indigenous women and forced them into marriage. Their names are lost to history, but one remains.
This one turns my stomach. It will infuriate anyone with an ounce of decency. He forced a twelve-year-old named Quahail-ya to act as his wife. Twelve years old. A child. I just…I have no words. None at all.
There used to be a statue honouring the man, the myth, and the raging pedophile, but it was torn down by protestors. That was after over 25,000 people petitioned to have it removed. I think that’s when a lot of us learned the real story of Gassy Jack. If you want to hear more from the community and how this legacy continues to impact local First Nations, I recommend watching Red Women Rising on Youtube.
Today, I’m walking down these cobbled streets past gift shops, boutiques, and restaurants. People are laughing, tourists are taking pictures, and the smells from the kitchens are tempting. Oo, Peruvian food? I’ve never had that before.
The old steam clock sings loudly every 25 minutes, and crowds gather, cameras ready, to catch the magic moment. It’s one of the few working steam clocks in the world. It’s not as old as it looks, built in 1977, but its old-world charm adds a little magic to the Victorian atmosphere.
Reminders of history are everywhere, but it’s a cleaner, modernized version. Walk down Blood Alley and enjoy a coffee at the cafe. A stark contrast to its former life as a slaughterhouse for animals and people. If you’re lucky- or not- you might meet one of the souls who linger. If you’re eager for an encounter, there are late night ghosts tours through the dark alleys. Happy ghost hunting and good luck!
In Gastown, mystery, history, and old stories mix with modernity. The darkness of the past dances with the endless possibilities of the future. Here we see where we started, what we could be, and how far we’ve come. Is it a reminder of how far we need to go?
That’s what I love about walking through history. It’s not always pretty, it’s often infuriating and heartbreaking, but it’s hopeful. Look how far Gastown has come in the last 100-plus years and the progress we’ve made as a society. We’ve still got work to do, of course, but if we can grow from dubious beginnings? Well, the possibilities are endless.
Gastown At A Glance:
- The main street is wide so a mobility aid should have enough room to maneuver. This is a popular tourist attraction, so it’s often crowded. I had my walking stick, and people gave me plenty of room to get around. Everyone I encountered was very kind and thoughtful.
- This is one of the oldest parts of the cities, so the buildings weren’t constructed with disability in mind. Some are easily accessible. Others have stairs leading into their establishments with no clear alternatives.
- There are quite a few benches, so if you need a rest, you shouldn’t have a problem finding a place to sit down.
- Gastown is located on a gently slopping hill so be prepared for a walk back up to the station.
- Cobbled streets and sidewalks! They make my history-loving heart sing, but my crippled legs ache. While they add to the Victorian atmosphere they can make walking a little difficult. Slippery in parts, and uneven. I leaned on my stick a fair amount.
- Gastown is loaded with stores and restaurants. Whatever international cuisine you’re craving, you’re sure to find it here. Or, go sit in one of the coffee shops. Perhaps sip espresso in Blood Alley?
- There are public toilets at Waterfront station. I didn’t see any on the street, but with so many establishments, you’re sure to find relief.
- And just for fun: The steam clock sings its song every quarter hour. It’s worth joining the crowd at least once. You might say it’s almost obligatory.
Safe travels, friends.
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