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Urban Planning + Architecture

An Unnatural History of Stanley Park

Imported squirrels. Fake lagoons. Renovictions. And more you won't see in the brochures.

Jesse Donaldson 27 Sep

Jesse Donaldson is an author, journalist, photographer, and one of the founding members of The Dependent Magazine. His forthcoming book, This Day in Vancouver, will be published by Anvil Press. Find his previous Tyee articles here.

"Art will unite with nature in making this the finest park on the continent," Vancouver Mayor David Oppenheimer declared 125 years ago today, from a raised platform in front of the home of Squamish leader August Jack Khatsalano. "A place of recreation in the vicinity of a city where its inhabitants can spend some time amid the beauties of nature, away from the busy haunts of men."

On Sept 27. 1888, at a ceremony on Prospect Point, Stanley Park officially opened. It was an occasion marked with civic fanfare: a 20-piece marching band, a parade which stretched as far as Powell Street, and the attendance of dignitaries from all levels of government and industry, including provincial secretary John Robson and Canadian Pacific Railway superintendent Harry Abbott.

It was a moment crystallized in city history, the park hailed as an enduring natural paradise amid the bustle of urban life. But for many at the time the land was not only a paradise: it was a home. And in the decades that followed, aspects of Stanley Park's evolution were anything but natural.

"In the late 19th century, when the park opened, a number of things would have looked very different," explains Sean Kheraj, author of Inventing Stanley Park: An Environmental History.

Including the forest itself. Following a series of insect infestations in the early part of the 20th century, entomologists advocated the removal of blocks of hemlock and spruce, replacing them with a greater proportion of Douglas fir. The fir was considered a more resilient, more insect resistant, and more aesthetically pleasing tree.

"As a result the treeline of the park today is a lot puffier and smoother than it was in the 19th century," Kheraj says.

Lost Lagoon, so named by poet Pauline Johnson at the turn of the 20th century, is also far from natural; originally a part of Coal Harbour, it was little more than a brackish tidal flat which virtually disappeared at low tide, one which park visitors crossed via a rickety footbridge.

"The shifting tides of Lost Lagoon were problematic for the park board," Kheraj notes, "as well as a lot of ordinary parkgoers, because it created this unsightly, and actually smelly, environment right at the entrance to the park, which was the most popular spot."

In order to solve the problem of access, and the unsightly nature of the lagoon itself, the park board created the Stanley Park Causeway in 1916, permanently sealing it off from the rest of Coal Harbour. The modifications didn't end there. By the 1930s, Lost Lagoon's salt water would be drained and replaced with fresh water, in an attempt to stock it with trout for use as a fisherman's preserve.

It was by no means the only peculiar Stanley Park improvement scheme considered by the park board. For much of the 20th century, the city fielded all sorts of bizarre suggestions, including an electric tram line around the seawall, an elevator at Prospect Point, a Four Seasons Hotel at Devonian Harbour Park, a tunnel through Siwash Rock, a mill on Deadman's Island, and a half-acre, $600,000 artificial island in the middle of Lost Lagoon proposed as the new home of Theatre Under the Stars.

At the time, such changes were not considered unusual; they were part of the prevailing philosophy concerning the management of urban parks, which considered the wilderness something to be tamed and cultured, an "improved" version of nature manicured by human intervention.

582px version of Stanley Park hollow tree
The Hollow Tree in Stanley Park, circa 1911. Image courtesy of the Vancouver Archives.

"They were embodying ideas of 'modernity' in Canada at that time, that nature could be rationalized through science and active management," Kheraj notes.

"There was this sense that the forest was deficient for Vancouverites in the early 20th century, so science was applied to improve the 'deficient' qualities of the natural environment. And similarly, the Coal Harbour entrance was subject to the same kind of thinking about modernizing the wilderness."

Bargain squirrels

Not only were plant species regularly added and replaced in the Stanley Park of the early 20th century; so too were members of the peninsula's animal population. In addition to animals kept in the park zoo (including several deer and a bear notable for its repeated escapes), the park board introduced one particular creature in 1911, which has since become more widespread than any other.

"We received word this morning that one of our trappers had shipped to you one dozen of grey squirrels," reads a 1910 letter addressed to the park board from Pennsylvania naturalist firm Wenz & Mackensen. "A long time ago we placed this order with the trapper and we had no idea that he would fill it after such a long delay without first consulting us. He, however, has shipped the squirrels, and the fact cannot be altered. Since it is practically impossible to get these squirrels at any time than in the winter, and since they can take care of themselves if liberated now, we do not think that there will be such great objection on your part to receive these squirrels, and we would ask to kindly accept them, if you can possibly make use of them."

The park board's quest for the elusive creatures had already spanned more than a year, with Chairman C.E. Tisdall sending letters of inquiry to parks all over North America and Europe. Grey squirrels had proved popular in urban parks the world over (most notably in New York's Central Park), for their pleasant appearance and tourist appeal. However, Tisdall had underestimated the demand for non-native species in city parks worldwide (a demand filled by firms such as Wenz & Mackensen, whose brochure contained all manner of ordinary and exotic fauna), and as a result, none were available for purchase.

After more than 12 months of searching, the squirrels (which cost only $16, because "they were shipped to you without an order") were released in the early part of 1911, and have since spread to all corners of British Columbia. Their population within the park now numbers more than a thousand.

Forgotten families

The acquisition of the Stanley Park lands from the federal government was viewed as a significant victory for the fledgling city of Vancouver. With urban greenspaces already a fashionable concept across Europe and North America, it was seen by many as the logical next step in the evolution of the city's character. However, there were also other more significant factors at play, chiefly land values and the CPR.

"When the railway came through, everybody wanted a piece of the action," explains Jean Barman, an expert on the history of the area and author of the award-winning Stanley Park's Secret: The Forgotten Families of Whoi-Whoi, Kanaka Ranch, and Brockton Point.

"The whole idea was to make money out of urban development, and certainly making money out of the coming of the rail line. And the city officials of early Vancouver were very closely linked by business relationships -- and in some cases even by blood -- they were relatives of people who were very important in the CPR. So, there were various maneuverings."

Among the "maneuverings" Barman mentions was an outright attempt to acquire the park for residential development. The railway was already heavily invested in Vancouver real estate, having coerced and bullied both government and private landowners into granting them land to sell. In early January 1885, CPR vice-president W.C. Van Horne wrote the federal government to request transfer of much of the Stanley Park lands for the railway, for real estate purposes. But the Dominion of Canada still considered it necessary for national defence (in the event of an American attack), and his request was refused.

Rebuffed in its attempts to secure the land, and fearful that the release of such large portions of property would ultimately drive their own land values down, the company used its influence in civic government to ensure that the property would remain permanently off of the market.

Of little concern to the CPR was the fact that dozens of people still called the area home. According to official surveys conducted at the time, there were more than 40 people living on the land at the time it was officially designated as a park.

August Jack Khatsalano, at whose home the opening celebrations were held, had family living in the area for at least three generations. The land on which his house stood was part of a First Nations village known as Chaythoos, one of a number of indigenous settlements scattered across the Stanley Park peninsula. The largest of these, known as Xwayxway (pronounced "Whoi Whoi"), was at one time home to more than 100 people, with potlatches held there as late as 1875 -- though habitation in the area likely went back as far as 3,000 years.

582px version of Siwash Rock at Stanley Park
Siwash Rock, Stanley Park, circa 1890. Image courtesy of the Vancouver Archives.

Following the land's official designation as a park, most of its inhabitants were unceremoniously removed by survey and clearing crews, without remuneration. Some, including August Jack himself, would find their gardens, fences, and properties vandalized or destroyed by survey crews.

As Sarah Avison, daughter of the city's first park ranger would recall, other families were even less fortunate.

"The Park Board ordered the Chinamen to leave the park," Avison explained, in an interview with city archivist J.S. Matthews, "but the Chinamen would not go, so the Park Board told my father to set fire to the buildings... What happened to the Chinese I do not know, but the pigs were set loose and the bull untied, and they got lost in the forest of Stanley Park, and they could not track them down until the snow fell. Then my Dad tracked them down, and they shot them in the bushes, and the bull's head was cut off, and my father had it stuffed and set up in our hallway in our house, the 'Park Cottage.'"

The last of Stanley Park's families remained until the early 1930s, when, after a case that was argued all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, their land rights (claimed through adverse possession) were ruled invalid. The only residents who were allowed to remain were Tim and Agnes Cummings, who lived out their lives in the family's cottage near Brockton Point. They were a familiar sight in the Stanley Park of the era, Tim working in the garden and Agnes running a successful tailor shop on Granville Street.

"[The park board] said: 'Neither one of them is married, and they really look very old, and they're not going to live very long," historian Barman chuckles. "And, of course, then they lived another 20 years, until the beginning of the 1950s."

Rebirth and rejuvenation

The Stanley Park of today, while still managed, is cared for in a far less invasive manner than in years past. Trees are removed on occasion, for safety reasons or to suppress fires. Dead and dying trees in certain portions of the park are often felled and left to decompose, providing nutrients for other plants in the ecosystem. Gone are the pest and predator elimination programs of the past (between the 1910s and the 1960s, the Vancouver Gun Club was licensed to shoot crows on Sundays).

However, as Kheraj reveals, many of these developments are more recent than one might expect; while there have been smaller wildlife rejuvenation programs in the past, ecological sciences has only begun to play a part in shaping management decisions since the 1990s. In fact, he notes, "the first comprehensive ecological study of the park didn't take place until 2010."

While most of the city-sponsored celebrations for the park's 125th anniversary have past, the future of the most photographed place in the country has, over its long history, become irrevocably tied to the future of Vancouver itself.

"A city that has been carved out of the forest should maintain somewhere within its boundaries evidence of what it once was," declared a 1939 editorial in the Vancouver News-Herald. "And so long as Stanley Park remains unspoiled, that testimony to the giant trees which occupied the site of Vancouver in former days will remain."  [Tyee]

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