In his book, The Last Spike, Pierre Berton wrote about CPR Vice President and General Manager Cornelius Van Horne’s visit to Port Moody in 1884, ostensibly to discuss the lay-out of the new metropolis.
The people of Port Moody, anticipating that their town was to be the terminus of the trans-national railroad, the Canadian Pacific, imagined a new wharf, station houses, roundhouses and machine shops, theatres, churches and paved streets.
Berton said their hopes were all “tragically premature”.
Because by then, a small syndicate of provincial politicians and businessmen had already made a deal with the CPR to have Granville – later Vancouver – designated as the terminus. The syndicate had been purchasing land in the little milltown of Granville for the previous ten years, gambling that their investments would reap huge profits when the railroad finally arrived.
And while they waited for that time to come, they used their influence to lure the CPR to their way of thinking by offering parts of their land holdings (stolen land – noone said anything about the fact that the First Nations presence and use of the land there upon arrival), in exchange.
Meanwhile, the average person in Port Moody and Vancouver and even New Westminster still believed that the terminus would be Port Moody, and were buying land and moving there, starting businesses, and building houses in anticipation.
At the same time, the editorial columns of the newspapers in New Westminster and Port Moody were sparring, the Port Moody Gazette sniping about lies and idiotic reporting in the Columbian that cast doubts on the Port Moody terminus, even going so far as to say that its editor, John Robson had been played for a sucker.
Yet Robson, along with his other cronies had already made large investments in Vancouver real estate, and had the last laugh on Port Moody when Van Horne announced Vancouver as the railroad terminus, in early 1885.
Despite petitions, protests, and legal challenges launched by the squatters between Port Moody and Vancouver who tried to block the tracks from crossing their property, the dye had been cast and Port Moody immediately went into an economic tailspin and comparative obscurity.
“Those in the know were in a position to act on their information; others could only guess at what was going on” from G.W.A. Brooks M.A thesis in HIstory, April 1976
I’ve been trying to get my head around the back room deals and characters who were buying huge chunks of land as early as the 1870s in the area that later became Vancouver .
Anticipating that the national railroad, promised to British Columbia as an incentive to join Confederation would terminate here, a syndicate of politicians and businessmen began speculating on land in the undeveloped area that would later become Vancouver, ultimately reaping them millions in real estate transactions.
But they first had to use their financial connections and instigate some political manoeuvering to rig it so that Vancouver and not Port Moody became the ultimate winner of that real estate sweepstake.
Who were these people and how did they know or at least strongly influence the selection of Vancouver as the terminus?
They were government officials, including then Premier William Smithe, Dr Israel Powell, Laughlin Hamilton, and others, and businessmen George Campbell, Richard Alexander, Edward Heatley, John Robson, David and Isaac Oppenheimer and others after which many of the streets in the oldest part of Vancouver are named.
And they quietly split up large swaths of land here as early as the late 1870s, even though approval for construction of the Canadian Pacific Railroad, the CPR, didn’t even receive royal assent until 1881. And then they offered pieces of their cheaply bought (stolen) land to the CPR in exchange.
These guys were business partners and buddies, mostly operating between Victoria, New Westminster, London England, and San Francisco, with a few ambitious early arrivals based in Granville (later Vancouver), Hastings Townsite, and Yale.
They hung out socially too with dinners and arranged marriages between the various families; and whist and poker games that frequently went on until 3 in the morning.
Officially, Port Moody was designated as the railroad terminus in 1884, but this political and economic syndicate had the connections to lure the railroad further west, to Vancouver, and were motivated to do it because they knew that their properties would skyrocket in value and make them all filthy rich.
So while the “man on the street” was distracted by the excitement generated by the Port Moody terminus announcement, men working at the Hastings Sawmill in Granville (later Vancouver) just kept drinking and gambling, and generally not paying much attention to anything but their bodily needs and trying to survive the boredom of life in the milltown.
In the end, the CPR garnered more than 6000 acres of property here in exchange for making Vancouver the railroad terminus, becoming the largest landowner in areas of the city that later became the West End, Shaughnessy, Coal Harbour, and Fairview.
The novel I’m writing, begins in 1880s Vancouver, and already encompasses land and property issues, including First Nations land grabs by settlers, so I couldn’t pass up the opportunity of touching on this scandal too, part of the bigger picture of Vancouver real estate speculation and corruption.
I’ve been trying to pin down some details – gritty stories and actual day-in-the-life specifics of a young seaman working on a sailboat in the late 1800s – what they ate, what work they did, where they slept, what they did in the lulls and anything about pets or children onboard.
But I’d been having trouble finding much that was useful. I did keyword searches on the Vancouver Public Library (VPL) using the terms sailing and sailboat and history and “daily life” and came up with a lot of current information about how to sail, where to sail, and contemporary sailboats in general with a bit of historical information thrown in about the heyday of sailing and the advent of steamships in the late 1800s, but still not finding quite what I was looking for.
When you’re doing historical research in particular you may need to think about some older and even antiquated terms for the activity or concept you’re searching for, though I had a similar challenge trying to come up with just the right search term when carrying out research on a (current) aspect of environmental science as well.
Finding the right term is like finding the right key to the lock and is sometimes the first step in finding useful material. Try turning phrases around in your head us, brainstorming different terminology for your subject, and trying this keyword-to subject-heading research in order to come up with the right term that will bring you success.
Before Google and keywords changed the world of online searching in the late 1990s libraries catalogued material using a thesaurus to ensure that all librarians were using consistent terms for classifying books and related material in different formats.
This meant that when terminology migrated (from ecology to envirormentalism for example) related material would still fall under the same classification heading and researchers wouldn’t have to look up multiple terms for the same thing.
Subject headings originate in the classification thesaurus used by libraries (usually Dewey or Library of Congress) and follow a rigid format as you’ll see from my research example, below.
But now, when you’re carrying out research, you can use a combination of keyword searching and the more traditional subject classification searching to pinpoint more specific or obscure information. The subject classification will encompass books and other resources that use terms you might not think of.
For example in my research on the daily life and conditions of sailors in the 19th century I did the following keyword searches.
I then chose a book from my results and scrolled down to find the library subject headings under which it was classified. On the Vancouver Public Library site, subject headings appear on the far right, a little down from the book title, and are hyperlinked.
Using the keyword “Sailing” gave the Subject heading of “Sailing”
Using the keywords “Sailing history” gave the Subject heading of “Sailing ships pictorial works”
So I clicked on “Sailing ships pictorial works” to see what other books have been put into that classification, but they were mostly about yaching and racing, neither of which I was interested in.
So I tried another tack (pardon the pun)!
Using the keywords “sailing daily life” – gave me no results
Using the keyword “sailors – pictorial works” brought up books with photos of sailors, a few novels, and some analysis of gender issues among sailors.
Finally I remembered the word ‘seafaring” and once I entered that term I hit paydirt because suddenly there was a plethora of books on the daily life of a sailor aboard a sailing ship in the 1800s, from the work they carried out in stormy weather, in port, and while in the calm waters, the doldrums of southern South America, near the Magellan Strait, to the fo’cs’le where they lived and slept, to the food they ate.
So if you aren’t finding the material you need, try thos little librarian trick of starting with keywords and then looking at subject headings of books that come up in the results that yield other sources on the subject you’re looking for.
Of course you can always ask a librarian for help. They will probe you for specifics and relevant terminology in this same way as I’ve just explained, but it’s always heavenly to have someone else to work on it with.
Don’t resort to being a mere mortal and thinking you can do everything yourself because it will save you a lot of time and frustration to use the professionals who know these things and more, so well.
Many archives are now working to digitize collections of their photos to make access easier for researchers to do preliminary research from their home or office, and to minimize the handling of originals.
To track down digital images, start your research in the appropriate archive for your location or subject (municipal/provincial/federal OR cultural/industrial/artistic), and see if they have a photo database you can search.
Every database will be slightly different but generally, you can enter date parameters, location, and photographer information, plus a subject you think will be appropriate to carry out your search.
But not all of these databases are user-friendly so write or phone the archives and ask for step-by-step instuctions or help in using them.
Don’t feel embarrassed or shy about asking for help.
Archivists know that their databases can be challenging to use and are usually more than willing to help you navigate and find something you’re looking for.
They want you to succeed!
Bear in mind that the images you see may only be in a thumb-nail version, or they may be bigger, but regardless, your use of them will generally be limited to research purposes only unless and until you’ve made arrangements with the archives that holds the copyright to that photo.
Considerations of fair use, copyright, and costs for various kinds of use including replication in books or used for a commercial purpose such as a poster, t-shirt, mug, or marketing material.
“The new town, called Vancouver, will no doubt be of some detriment to Port Moody”
This quote, comes from the 1887 BC Directory’s introduction to Port Moody, the city that had its designation as the terminus for the national railway pulled out from under it that year, in favour of Vancouver.
Rampant speculation, investment and enthusiasm ran high in the few years prior as Port Moody prepared for the onslaught of growth and investor interest that would come with the rail terminus.
But a syndicate of the CPR, headed by CPR Vice-president William Van Horne negotiated a deal with Premier William Smithe to bring the terminus to Granville (later Vancouver) in exchange for 6000 acres of land.
Interestingly, title to this land went not to the company, but to two of its board members, Donald Smith and Richard Angus.
And you have to be suspicious when, a few years later, Smith and Angus, along with other Victoria government officials, businessmen, and politicians earned spectacular profits on real estate parceling and selling of that land.
This is an important piece of Vancouver’s earliest settler history. The speculative nature of real estate profiteering from the 1880s established much of our local politics and business interests to this day.
Ironically, the world view that engendered this display of greed and avarice entirely dismissed any First Nations claims to this land in the first place.
In the novel I’m working on, set in Vancouver 1884-1913, I’m exploring these and related issues from a young settler woman’s perspective.
I can’t tell you how much I love the old directories to get a snapshot of the moment from that time’s perspective and countless “reading between the lines” possibilities that they provide.
I consulted the early BC Directories to learn more about Port Moody when one of my characters wants to get out of Granville (later Vancouver) because he can’t stand the boredom and backwardness of it. I have him weighing the pros and cons of moving to New Westminster or Port Moody in the months before the final CPR announcement in favour of Vancouver.