A Walking Tour of Vancouver’s Hidden Past

Opium Dens. Rum Runners and mobsters. Paint thinner and the Blind Pigs. A corrupt, scandalized, polygamist AND wanted-criminal for its longest serving mayor. Unbelievable racial tension. The site of Canada’s first drug bust. Massive, incredibly violent multi-day race riots.

Talk about an incredibly checkered past for such a beautiful, modern city!

IMG_2830When we were recently in Vancouver we went on a fascinating walking tour with “Forbidden Vancouver” where we heard stories that brought alleyways and buildings, street corners and intersections, neon signs and historical figures to life.

You’d think that a city as recently settled as Vancouver in a country as young as Canada (this is the celebration year of Canada’s 150th birthday, after all) wouldn’t have many colourful stories from its past. Is that ever a wrong assumption!

Over the course of three hours we walked and listened, enjoyed and laughed our way through many of Vancouver’s lesser-known historical tidbits. Our guide brought along large historical photos to help us visualize scenes, and she told such colourful tales along the way. It was fascinating and fun. Come along for a ride through some of the more colourful bits of Vancouver’s past, as I remember it….

First stop: The Victoria Hotel

IMG_2833Today it has been lovingly restored as a boutique hotel and still has much of its original architectural details preserved, including the ornate starburst patterns between its bay windows. Built in 1898, at a time when the city of Vancouver had only 20,000 people living along its mud roads and wood planked sidewalks, it is the longest operating hotel in Vancouver’s history.

This first stop sets the stage for a bit of a history lesson: in 1897, gold was found in the Yukon and cities like Seattle and Vancouver became staging grounds for a massive get-rich-quick-exodus of people heading up north to seek their fortune. 100,000 people tried to succeed, filtering through these gateway cities, but only 4,000 people actually “made it,” as in made it up there and found gold. Those are not favourable odds. But some beautiful historic architectural gems remain from that time.

Stop 2: Saloons

A typical saloon… now very much a hostel-dive in a seedier part of Vancouver… but you can’t beat that $15/day price!

Hotels and saloons popped up all over the city and were wildly popular. To put it in perspective, the population of 20,000 supported 60 saloons!

A typical saloon interior. Look at all that beer!

A sign of the times, women were not allowed in the saloons… or rather, the “ladies of the night” were allowed in, but there really weren’t many “other” ladies around in this gold rush boom time to speak of. Vancouver was still very much a wild west, frontier type of a city then.

Drinking… gin, rum, whiskey & beer… and drinking A LOT was the favoured pastime of the men outfitting themselves for their expeditions. Just take a look at that photo! Even the Canadian army provided a 5-pint-a-day beer ration to its soldiers. Drinking, and drinking heavily, was entrenched in our society.

Stop Three: The 1910 Dominion Building

The 1910 Dominion Building

When it was built, this skyscraper was the tallest building in the British Empire. A Beaux Arts style of architecture with romanesque columns, elaborate cornices, rounded windows and a flat roof, it was meant to look like a stretched up, modernized, Parisienne-style of building. Now a condo tower, it was one of the first modular home pre-fab constructions: its yellow panels were built off site in factories and considered a modern, architectural marvel in its time. They had to use horses to hoist them up and into place. It was ahead of its time, for sure.

Stop Four: Victory Square

IMG_2845Victory Square has a memorial to the fallen soldiers and is surrounded a circle of street lights: each light has a WWI soldier hats forming the light fixture on top of each lamp post.

World War I brought about incredible changes to the City of Vancouver’s human landscape. Women took on jobs in large numbers to support the war movement and make ends meet at home and had a taste of another life and another set of ambitions. Men died off in huge numbers in the battle overseas. Money for architecture and investment in the burgeoning city’s infrastructure dried up. And out of that chaos and change rose the Women’s Temperance Movement.

While it brought about the vote for women in Canada, it also gave rise to Prohibition. Women stepped up to eliminate alcohol as a means to limit men’s “bad choices in life” (in other words, their excessive drinking & their use of ladies of the night). And that was partly in response to the rampant sexually transmitted diseases that were circulating throughout the population at the time. Very vocal social activists, these women successfully brought about prohibition, and with that came a 6-12 month term of hard labour for the FIRST offence of anyone selling hard liquor. That led to the development of Blind Pigs….

Stop Five: Market Alley

That truck is blocking our view of Vancouver’s notorious Market Alley: the site of many Blind Pigs.

Market Alley lies behind Hastings Street’s upscale shops. During prohibition, it had a far more seedy, notorious, and dark use. Picture this: men with upturned collars, hats pulled down low over their brows, went up and down the alley, knocking on doors and muttering secret passwords like abracadabra, looking for Blind Pigs and opium dens.

IMG_2848It comes as no surprise then, that it was the site of Canada’s first drug bust. Look at the newspaper article that wrote about the incident… talk about blatant racism in its byline! The readers of the time were shocked and appalled that there were white women in these opium dens!

Blind Pigs were a type of illegal bar… but they were not glamorous, 1920’s style speakeasies like the ones you see in the movies. These were rough and tumble spaces, hidden from the police down dark and dirty alleyways strewn with people passed out and stinking with the smell of industrial alcohol.

IMG_2847People were so desperate for alcohol that they were drinking paint thinner, mixed with juice or pop and syrup to make it slightly more palatable (the birth of the modern day cocktail). Drinking paint thinner left them stinking like a pig and potentially blind from its effects…. thus, “Blind Pigs.” And Market Alley had a number of them.

Now at that time there were other ways to get your hands on alcohol…

  1. You could get a doctor’s prescription (worth $5, or a whole day’s wages) that was limited to a gallon of whiskey, a bottle of beer, or… strangely enough… an entire case of champagne! Go figure! You would pick this up at the pharmacy and in essence, it was simply heavily taxed liquor. By 1919, the doctors were very annoyed and found themselves writing 315,000 prescriptions in a province of 400,000 people.
  2. You could go to church,. Congregations boomed during prohibition where sacramental wine was very popular… and coincidentally sold out of the back of churches! According to our guide, priests ordered far more wine than was ever consumed during the services.
  3. Paint thinner.

According to our guide, 50,000 people died from drinking industrial alcohol during these “desperate times” brought about by the Temperance Movement (but that desperation needs to be tempered with an understanding of two things: no doubt there was a lot of alcoholism present in this era due to the socially acceptable practice of drinking A LOT during Vancouver’s wild west gold rush days… remember the photo above of the man in the saloon with his glasses of beer?… and a lot of PTSD must have been present as a result of the horrific experiences of a multitude of WWI soldiers).

Next Stop: The World Tower (Sun Tower)

IMG_2852.jpgThink of the time… it was 1912 and the women’s Temperance Movement and prohibition were about to go into full swing. This was quickly seen as a scandalous building, thanks to its carvings of naked women on its capitol.

IMG_2850 2The World Tower was commissioned by the very corrupt L.D. Taylor, a Chicago banker. In 1896 he was facing embezzlement charges in Chicago, so he jumped bail, left his family behind, got on a train… and its last stop was Vancouver, where he had no choice but to get off. There he found a job working at the World Newspaper and he worked his way up through its ranks until he was made editor, and eventually ran the paper.

L.D. Taylor commissioned this building as a monument to himself (and to the paper) and gave himself the office at the top. And it sat empty, in large part thanks to the scandalous naked ladies up top, but also perhaps due to the fact that it was in very close proximity to the red light district of the time, and because it was located one block off the popular Hastings Street. It sat empty for three years!

LD Taylor still has a street named after him to this day!

So L.D. went bankrupt for the second time in his life, but that didn’t stop him. He picked himself back up and ran for mayor. Despite dodging scandal after scandal (including 1928 corruption charges where he took the stand, freely admitted to being friends with mobsters and receiving nightly suitcases of money from them… prohibition was a very, very lucrative business!)…. and marrying a second time without ever divorcing his first wife… and yet he still goes down in history as being Vancouver’s longest running mayor!

Last Place We’ll Stop: Shanghai & Guangzhou Alleyways


In the first immigration wave of the 1860’s, people came to the Fraser Valley area for the gold rush. In the second wave of the 1880’s it was for the building of the railroad and the bulk of immigrant workers during the railway boom were from China.

Young men were sent here, having to pay off a $500 head tax (an absolute fortune, representing years of hard labour to pay off that debt and freely settle here) on a $1/day wage. As brutally dangerous and harsh as the conditions were, close to indebted slavery with horrific work conditions and many men dying in the building of the CPR, thousands of young men still came here voluntarily to work, pay off their head tax debt, and then pay off the debt of a wife from China to be sent later on. This was living the dream…such was the promise of the new world in the 1880s.

Then the work dried up.

The Chinese settled in a very undesirable area of Vancouver at the time: the marshland area of False Creek. Eventually in the 1920s this land was filled in for construction and became quite desirable. But at the time, it was awful. White people refused to live there, and refused to live with the Chinese. Racism and condescension were rampant. Living conditions were horrific.

By 1907, the area was booming with 1,000 Chinese people living in intensely crowded conditions, often with ten or more to a room, in three to four storey tenement buildings in the space of just 2 alleys. There was one Chinese woman for every 30 Chinese men.

In Vancouver in general, there was a downturn in the economy. A mini depression. There were not enough jobs. There were 40 brothels in the area. There was lots of violence. Lots of frustration. The 1906 fire in Seattle brought many men up here looking to start over. It was a powder keg.

On September 7, 1907, the Asiatic Exclusion League (what a name!) organized a rally with 30,000 people attending it at the intersection of Main & Hastings Streets, nearby. 30,000 was a HUGE turn out, given that there were only 80,000 people living in the Vancouver area at the time. There was a lot of discontent brewing. At the rally, politicians like our good friend, L.D. Taylor, called on the army to come and push the Chinese out, fueling tempers, playing on people’s fears, and stoking the simmering racist undercurrents of the time. (As an aside… imagine, his named street is one block from the site of the worst violence from this riot!)

A mob broke away from the rally, intent on attacking, looting and destroying. They ransacked Japan Town on Powell Street. News travelled fast. The Chinese were ready and defended themselves. Two white men were killed in a violent street fight, but there was never any official word on how many Chinese died that day. By 10 pm the police arrived, and things finally calmed down.

But tempers were still flaring. Hatred and fear still reigned.

The next day, the mobs came back, worse than before. More intent on violence and destruction. Later, the New York Times wrote about the riots, using the headline, “Vancouver 10,000 B.C.” No doubt about it, humanity in Vancouver had regressed to its most basic, most primal, most violent origins.

One interesting thing to come out of the riots was that an opium factory was destroyed, and in the aftermath, pictures were released that showed white girls addicted to opium… Oh, horror of horrors! Now this was a time when opium dens were entirely legal and cocaine was used at the dentist’s office. But racism, a sign of the times, reared its ugly head at the sight of those white girls, stoned, mixing with others. Because opium dens were legal, they applied for compensation from damage caused by the riots. William Lyon Mackenzie was tasked with sorting through and investigating all the compensation claims. He did NOT like what he saw in these photos. His investigation brought about the Opium Act of 1908… the first drug law of any kind in Canada.

Some things change, some things stay the same. But behind it all, there lies a story.”   ~ Will Woods, Founder & Chief Storyteller at Forbidden Vancouver

These are just some of the stories that were shared with us on our walking tour of Vancouver that day. If you ever have the opportunity to do a tour like this, I highly recommend it. We’ve done (and loved) the Seattle Underground Tour. We’ve enjoyed walking tours in many cities around the world, and it just doesn’t matter what the topic is… if you are toured around by a person who is interested and passionate about their city, (and you’re on foot!) you are going to enjoy it, guaranteed. Sometimes, walking tour companies do the tours in costume with themed interpreters to spice things up.

Take my word for it. Anything is interesting, with passion.

For more posts about our Vancouver trip, please go to the Vancouver Travel section of my blog. And for other places we’ve been around the world, poke about under the Travel tab of my Blog.

12 Comments on “A Walking Tour of Vancouver’s Hidden Past

  1. Fascinating history of Vancouver. I’m glad that when don’t need a prescription nowadays when David needs some beers for “medicinal purposes”.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This sounds like an incredibly fantastic tour! Definitely makes me more interested in the idea of taking a walking tour on my next trip as it’s not something I’ve ever done before (which is kinda odd considering how much I love learning about the historical context behind monuments and popular attractions). Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know! Like you, we resisted the idea of a walking tour for so many years… having prided ourselves on being independent travellers… but having now had only good experiences, would never think of bypassing one again. There’s also costumed, themed, more “adult-oriented” tours that are loads of fun too.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. You’ve researched this well, Sheri. 🙂 🙂 I like guided walking tours too. It means I can focus on the place more than worrying about where I’m going. But I like a bit of a wander too. Can I use this in my Monday walk feature, please?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Jo’s Monday walk : Little Ouseburn Open Gardens | restlessjo

  5. Thank you for sharing. It is unbelievable to imagine that a welcoming, friendly and diverse city as Vancouver had such a troubled past…

    Liked by 1 person

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