Gastown Chronicles

August 18, 2014

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Home to the Herschel Supply headquarters since 2009, Gastown, Vancouver is an internationally renowned center of culture and cuisine with an eventful past. As Vancouver’s first town center, Gastown has survived a roller-coaster ride of good and bad times. Since the beginning the area has been a dichotomy of natural beauty and industrial spirit, attracting colorful characters, dreamers and entrepreneurs. As with many before them, Herschel Supply recognized the progressive and optimistic energy of Gastown and elected to call it home. Sharing a refurbished 1934 can factory by the port with several other fashion and design businesses, Herschel Supply is physically connected to a major aspect of the city’s identity – travel.

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Outside the office windows shipping containers move like Tetris blocks before a stunning panorama of the North Shore Mountain Range. Yet the constant flow of trains, ships and travelers that pass through Gastown everyday weren’t always there. Almost 150 years ago pioneers looked across the same shore, dreaming of the day when their new settlement would become a city. Their dreams and those of generations after them culminated to build the Gastown we know and love today – the one that is the heart and soul of Vancouver.

It all began in 1867, when Canada had just become a nation and the Burrard Inlet in the western province of British Columbia was a blank canvas for businessmen and opportunists. Miles from anything, the area was initially characterized by a few native villages, swampy low lands and thick forests. All activity centered around the inlet and the Hastings Sawmill, where empty lumber ships came to reload with the land’s timber bounty. The shore was a modest base for loggers, fisherman, sailors and pioneers, who’d all come to “make it”. Cedars were felled and swamps were re-claimed to make way for a handful of streets including Water, Carrall, Powell and Main. Horse drawn carts carrying dusty logs rumbled past tired workers heading to the general store for a tobacco fix. Four parts wilderness and one part industrial hub, this far western settlement was at the crude and hopeful beginnings of a long and eventful life.

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One fateful day in 1867, English sailor, gold prospector and barkeep John Deighton arrived to take advantage of the thirsty millworkers and start a new saloon. ‘Gassy Jack’, as he was named for his loud and rambunctious nature, also turned out to be a savvy negotiator. He struck a cunning deal with idle Hastings Mill workers, promising them a day’s worth of free liquor in exchange for the saloon’s construction. 24 hours later the workers and the town had their first makeshift bar, across from the Maple tree at what is today’s Water and Carrall Streets. Gassy Jack’s mark was so well felt that locals began referring to their home as Gastown, a nickname whose staying power would mirror that of the town.

British Columbia joined the confederation in 1871, with the promise of a transcontinental railway. To the people of Gastown’s joy, the Canadian Pacific Railway, or CPR, would soon build the terminus at the Burrard Inlet. The advent of this station would provide a stream of travelers, businessmen and workers unprecedented access to the area as well as positioning Gastown as the gateway to the Far East. In 1886, in anticipation of the terminal, the CPR’s executive re-named the area Vancouver, after the British explorer who mapped the area. The township set to work preparing for the railway and inevitable expansion of Vancouver by greedily clearing the forest and burning off the debris. Expanding the town’s borders came at a high price on June 13th, when a strong Easterly gale whipped the fire into a blaze, engulfing all of Gastown in an unrelenting wall of flames. Within an hour all but two of the wooden buildings were reduced to a smoldering wasteland.

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With the same fervor used to build Gassy Jack’s saloon, Gastown’s inhabitants erected a handsome, new brick and stone town by 1887. Typical Victorian style saw buildings decorated with elegant archways, regal pillars and artful moldings. A year of new beginnings, ’87 also brought the fateful arrival of the west coast’s first train, all the way from Eastern Canada. Gastown now served not only as Vancouver’s heart, but also as Canada’s connector – opening its borders to national and international travel and business. Over the next 30 years the bourgeoning city relished an industrial, tourism and economic boom. Ocean liners and trains carried passengers from Canada and Asia, the logging, fishing and trade industries flourished and gold prospectors poured in to get equipped at the town’s outfitters. The riches flowed through Gastown’s groceries, hotels, department stores and warehouses, making the town a gold mine in itself.

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Gastown’s fortunes ebbed and flowed as the city developed. During the early 1920’s, the CPR’s new urban planning schemes sent Vancouver’s development West to Granville Street, turning the attention away from Gastown. The area fell into decline when many of Gastown’s historic buildings and once bustling warehouses were abandoned. Perhaps the final blow came in 1929 when the Great Depression slowed Vancouver’s trade and tourism industries to a screeching halt. All but forgotten, Gastown’s many hotels and bars now housed brothels, hopeless down-and-outs, drunks and addicts. As if being stripped of its once glamorous name, the Gastown area became known as the Downtown East Side or DTES. The good old days of riches, grandeur and optimism were over and a heavy cloud of alcohol, homelessness and despair hung over the DTES well into the 1960’s.

Beyond the borders of the DTES, Vancouver continued to grow and the demand for new highways now threatened to flatten the disgraced area. Increased talk of demolishing Gastown unintentionally brought it back into the spotlight and the city rallied to preserve its oldest quarter. Not dissimilar to the gold prospectors before them, a handful of inspired locals recognized the development value of Gastown’s storied architecture and character. These four young men: Killam, Saunders, Meakin and Rogers, pledged to try their luck in the dusty land of Gastown. In 1967, on its 100th birthday, Gastown’s four new friends gave it the best present of all – re-birth. Starting with the Byrnes Block “Alhambra”, they began buying and renovating the “worthless” buildings, transforming them into characterful loft residences, shops and restaurants. With one eye on the past and one on the future, the group began to re-invent Gastown around a newly erected statue of Gassy Jack.

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Unfortunately for this set of prospectors, the locals didn’t respond with quite as much rigor as they had to Gassy Jack’s saloon. Despite being declared a historic site by the provincial Government in 1971, most people were reluctant to accept tumultuous Gastown back into their hearts. A hopeful few store owners had moved in by the early 1970’s, including the now infamous shoe emporium John Fluevog, interior design house Inform and the venerable Spaghetti Factory. This first wave of entrepreneurs stood fast to the belief that Gastown would soon rise from the ashes and evolve into a progressive contemporary neighborhood. Their commendable faith was tested by The Gastown Riots of 1971 – when a peaceful drug-related protest turned to violence by overzealous police. A dark time in Vancouver’s history, the riots also damaged Gastown’s precarious image even further. The next year brought the first real sign of hope when a new city government lead by Mayor Art Phillips and his TEAM council were elected to run Vancouver. Phillips was far more supportive of the transformation of Gastown than his successors, and with the help of TEAM he took great steps towards the area’s rehabilitation. Major renovations such as new red brick streets, old-fashioned sidewalk bollards and distinctive lighting helped restore Gastown’s social image and its physical heritage grandeur. Gastown was slowly being nurtured back to health. Over the next two decades the Vancouver community cautiously re-accepted Gastown and began to share the vision of Phillips and developers like Killam, Saunders, Meakin and Rogers.

By the early 2000’s the area had finally began to fulfill its potential. Recently restored heritage buildings were attracting new residents and with them came an influx of retail and hospitality businesses. During the next ten years additional cutting-edge boutiques joined Fluevog and Inform, including The Block, One of a Few, Roden Gray, Haven and Old Faithful. Today, world-class bars and restaurants like L’Abbatoir and Meat and Bread compliment Gastown’s boutiques, and the once disgraced cobbled streets have become a favorite destination for locals and tourists alike.

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Gastown has come back from the brink many times over and with each phase of its life, a new layer of character accumulates. Although much has changed since 1867, the pioneering spirit established by early settlers remains intact. Following in their footsteps, a refreshing combination of modern day pioneers including designers, store owners and restauranteurs continue to breath new life into Gastown. Herschel Supply is proud to be connected to such a diverse local community and important aspect of Vancouver’s identity. Who knows what the future holds for this unique portside community – but it is certain to be extraordinary.

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Enjoyed ‘Gastown Chronicles’? Check back next week for the another instalment from The Journal, Issue Three. Or to find your own complimentary copy of The Journal, visit Herschel Supply stockists around the world.