British Columbia history, Canada history, Historical documents, Historical research, Historiography, Oral history, Record keeping, Vancouver history, Writers

The rich warehouse of stories in Early Vancouver

Vancouver’s First Archivist (self-proclaimed)
Major J.S. Matthews
CVA Port P. 11.1

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about a smallpox outbreak in Vancouver in 1892, with quotes from Early Vancouver – a seven-volume set of books based on interviews with settlers undertaken by James Skitt Matthews, Vancouver’s first archivist.

“Major Matthews” – or simply “The Major” as he still is called in local archival circles, claimed the position of city archivist for himself in the 1930’s even though he was not at the time employed by the City of Vancouver.

The volumes of Early Vancouver contain information on a vast range of topics from city halls, to Hotel Vancouver construction, the fire of 1886, trees, streets, hockey teams, and Dominion Day (now Canada Day) celebrations through story, photos, drawings, and maps – frequently accompanied by notes and commentary from Major Matthews.

There is a wealth of raw information woven into the stories depending on what the witness noticed, cared about, or thought was important. Sometimes you only get teasers about a subject because conversations veer off in other directions following the interviewee’s train of thought, making the exact meaning, timing, or relationships mentioned in a transcript unclear.

For example, here’s an account of the 1892 smallpox outbreak by early Vancouver Alderman W.H. Gallagher. In its essence, the story reveals the sense of panic and actions taken by the citizens of the city and its nascent civic administration to make sure noone with smallpox landed in Vancouver, but Gallagher also makes mention of the police and fire department at the time, as well, incidentally, about there being no road to Port Moody at the time.

“I saw the trouble the time the Premier [a steamship] tried to land her passengers when we had the smallpox scare. I did not see the start; the news soon spread, and by the time I got there, there was a big crowd down on the C.P.R. wharf.

The news soon spread through the little city.

“It was this way.

Capt. O’Brien was in command of the Premier, as she was then; afterwards the Charmer, and the Premier was an American ship; flew the American flag, and had been down at Seattle and of course, when she came in she had to pass the customs, and the health officer went on board and he found smallpox, and would not allow the passengers to land, and Capt. O’Brien was determined to land his passengers.

So Capt. O’Brien mustered his passengers, and said he would land the whole crowd of them, and then the fun started.”

Major Matthews: Who started the fun?

Mr. Fraser: “The Premier. The news spread like wildfire, and in those days we had only three or four policemen in town, and they could not handle the situation, so they called out the fire brigade.

Vancouver Fire Brigade outside Fire Hall #1 (Water Street)
1895
CVA AM54-S4-: FD P41

The fire brigade was all volunteers then, and I don’t know just all about it, because I was not there at the start, but the Premier turned her steam hose on to drive the crowd of onlookers on the wharf further back, and some of the crew on the Premier started to throw lumps of coal, and then the fire brigade turned on the” (cold water) “hose, and someone cut the ship’s line, and she drifted off into the harbour, and hung about for a while, and then she turned and headed for Port Moody, and of course there was no road to Port Moody then, and she went to Port Moody quicker than they could, and she went up to Port Moody and there was no one there to stop them landing the passengers.”

Early Vancouver contains a lot of rich raw information but be aware that much of it needs to be untangled and cross-referenced  in order for it to be comprehendible.

Still the stories give a feeling for the subject at hand,  and the anecdotes suggest countless embryonic story ideas.

And now, since 2011, the 7-volume set is available electronically  in 2011.  Before that, researchers had to go in to the Archives to look at the print editions, consulting  each volume’s index individually.

Now you can search across all seven volumes  at once, or limit your search to a specific volume.

For keyword searches, use quotation marks for phrases.

Or use the advanced search page to do a Boolean-like search using the Ultraseek search engine over multiple fields (body, title, link etc) and by date.

Enjoy perusing this fascinating resource – as much a product of the time Major Matthews collected the stories as the actual information they convey. 

l


 

 

Archives, British Columbia history, Canada history, Dupont St, First Nations history, Historical documents, Historical research, Historiography, Oral history, Record keeping, Research, smallpox, Vancouver history

Smallpox in Vancouver in 1892

Vancouver’s first city archivist, Major James Skitt Matthews
who collected stories of early settlers
Photos is from the City of Vancouver Archives
Port P. 11.1

We know about the ravages of smallpox in the colonies of North America, and the devastation they brought to the First Nations communities here but lesser known is an outbreak that occurred in Vancouver in 1892.

Stories about the outbreak can be found within Early Vancouver, a 7-volume set of books filled with the documented interviews of early Vancouver settlers undertaken by the city’s first archivist Major James Skitt Matthews.

Early Vancouver  includes stories and first-hand accounts and details about early Vancouver people, places, businesses, and events, including a few stories about the smallpox outbreak here, in 1892.

I will write about some of the idiosyncracies of Early Vancouver (of which there are many) in a later post but for now, here are some stories I found about the 1892 smallpox outbreak. In them you will also find information about the volunteer fire brigade, Port Moody, Dupont St (now part of East Pender St.), prostitution, the character of various streets in the city at that time, and more.

From Early Vancouver Vol 1, p. 85 from Mrs. J.Z. Hall

” I think it must have been in 1892 that we had the smallpox scare in Vancouver. It was supposed to have come in by the “Empresses”[steamships] from the Orient (sic).”

“It was a terrible July; yellow flags were everywhere; no one who went through it will forget the scare we got. Houses were quarantined back and front—there was no getting out of them; people were quarantined all over the city. We lived on Nelson Street—I was Miss Greer then—Nelson Street was very sparsely settled, so was Robson Street, but there were cases on Robson Street. One young man, [who helped] Mr. Hanna, the undertaker, contracted the disease and died.”

“It was the custom to put those stricken in an express wagon, and with the driver ringing a bell to keep people away, warning them, the load of sick, frequently girls from Dupont Street, who had been visited by the sailors from the Empresses, would be driven down to the dock, and taken by boat to Deadman’s Island”

 

From Early Vancouver Vol 4, p 171, from A.W. Fraser

“I saw the trouble the time the Premier [a ship] tried to land her passengers when we had the smallpox scare. I did not see the start; the news soon spread, and by the time I got there, there was a big crowd down on the C.P.R. wharf. The news soon spread through the little city.”

“It was this way. Capt. O’Brien was in command of the Premier, as she was then; an American ship; flew the American flag, and had been down at Seattle and of course, when she came in [to Vancouver] she had to pass the customs, and the health officer went on board and he found smallpox, and would not allow the passengers to land, and Capt. O’Brien was determined to land his passengers. So Capt. O’Brien mustered his passengers, and said he would land the whole crowd of them, and then the fun started.”

“The news spread like wildfire, and in those days we had only three or four policemen in town, and they could not handle the situation, so they called out the fire brigade. The fire brigade was all volunteers then, and I don’t know just all about it, because I was not there at the start, but the Premier turned her steam hose on to drive the crowd of onlookers on the wharf further back, and some of the crew on the Premier started to throw lumps of coal, and then the fire brigade turned on the [cold water] hose, and someone cut the ship’s line, and she drifted off into the harbour, and hung about for a while, and then she turned and headed for Port Moody, and of course there was no road to Port Moody then, and she went to Port Moody quicker than they could, and she went up to Port Moody and there was no one there to stop them landing the passengers.” 


Since 2011 Early Vancouver has been available  electronically, allowing for online searches.

I’ll write more about Major Matthews and about Early Vancouver in the weeks to come

British Columbia history, Canada history, Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), Environmental history, First Nations history, Historical documents, Historical novel, Historical photos, Historical research, Historiography, Port Moody, Research, Vancouver history

Canadian Environmental history timeline

Photo by Markus Spiske temporausch.com on Pexels.com

This week’s climate strikes, coinciding with the United Nations Climate Action Summit , brought more than 80,000 people out to the streets in Vancouver alone, according to the Candian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC)

So in celebration and solidarity, I thought I’d share this environmental history timeline from the Canadian Encyclopedia.

It is a great start to some painstaking documentation that we need about this grass-roots movement.

But there are many more events, movements, legislation (and catastrophes) – like the Mount Polley mining disaster, that should also be included in this timeline.

The environmental movement has many tentacles and has traditionally had limited access to the powerful media outlets and industry-affiliated lobbying interests that, generally, are working against it.

 Vancouver has a long tradition of environmental activism and is the birthplace of Greenpeace, the Suzuki Foundation, SPEC (Society for the Preservation) and probably more innovative environmental organizations – and those are only the ones I can think of off the top of my head.

If you think this is the kind of project you would be interested in, the encyclopedia is always looking for contributors so get in touch with them here if you think you can help make this timeline more complete.

I have one that I’ve been creating for a couple of years that is a general – mostly British Columbia historical timeline, with fictionalized dates and events pertaining to my novel, interspersed.

And I’ve created another one to help me understand the timing and details of First Nations land grabs within the city of Vancouver that covers over a hundred years.

And finally, I’ve created a shorter one to help me understand the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) controversy over the location of the terminus of the transnational railroad that occurred in the 1870s and 80s.

British Columbia history, Historical documents, Historical novel, Historical research, Historiography, Novel excerpt, Real Estate, Research, Research Tip, social history, Writers

Port Moody passed over in favour of Vancouver

 

grayscale photography of railway surrounded by trees

Photo by Thomas Craig on Pexels.com

“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.

Reference Tip

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.

 

Archives, Audio archives, Historical documents, Historical research, Historiography, Jewish archival resources, Klezmer, Library, Research, Ukraine, USSR, Writers

Jewish folk music from 1908 on wax cylinders in a unique phono-archive in Kiev

In my last post I mentioned a phonographic archive located in the Manuscript Institute of the Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine.

Vernadsky National Library of the Ukraine in Kiev
Vernadsky National Library of the Ukraine

The library holds one of the largest collections of phonographic recordings of Jewish musical folklore in the world – including Jewish synagogue singing –  on more than 1000 wax cylinders.

Before I worked in an archives I remembered  hearing news-stories about things being discovered in different archival repositories and I couldn’t understand – why didn’t they know what was in their collection?

But now that I understand better how many unique items are housed in archives, I see that not everything can be added to a searchable list.

Not to mention the political restrictions that can make archival materials unavailable and even subject to destruction.

In January 1949 the Soviet government confiscated the entire archival collection of the Institute of Jewish Culture and arrested almost all of its employees including Moishe Beregovski who I wrote about last week and about whom I fictionalized a story called Pale Shadow*.

After the break-up of the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) in the early 1990s, the Vernadsky collection of wax cylinder recordings became publicly available and researchers have been going through them ever since – a veritable renaissance.

The collection includes music collected by several generations of cultural researchers who gathered material from as early as 1908 out of Belarus where there was a large Jewish diaspora as well as a plethora of traditional religious centres.

A huge project to re-recording the collection was carried out between 1996 and 1999, from which a  CD was produced, “Treasures of Jewish Culture in Ukraine”, in 1997.


*I entered Pale Shadow into a story contest that the magazine Prairie Fire ran so don’t want to jeopardize my entry by posting it here yet.

Archives, Canada history, Historical documents, Historical research, Historiography, military history, Record keeping, Remembrance Day, social history, Women, women's history

Trying to study war no more

chessmen

 

Tomorrow marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One – the so-called war to end all wars. A senseless slaughter of young men on both sides, sent to fight from muddy, disease-ridden trenches, and told to wipe the memory from their minds after peace was declared and move on.

Yet the physical and emotional trauma those soldiers suffered followed them home after the armistice.  Many ended up in insane asylums or became burdens to their families for the rest of their lives, shunted off to a back room in the family home plagued by nightmares or strange mutterings, or drunkenness.  Even those who seemed to be doing alright walked the streets at night, unable to sleep because of their nightmares.

Broken lives. What we’d now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But those soldiers were told basically, to suck it up and forget their experience of war, and move on.

When I worked at the City of Vancouver archives, I got researchers looking into all kinds of things. Military units and people prominent in the armed forces. Evidence of women’s political groups or agencies or information about those working for suffrage, women’s rights, and equal pay.

And though there were a few documents scattered throughout the collection documenting  the issues or the people working for political and social justice, there were plenty of documents about the military and their people.

I encouraged those who wanted to unearth records about progressive history to look at what we had and try to read between the lines as to what wasn’t there or what was on the other side of the mirror. But that kind of research is harder and takes longer to do.

And often, these researchers were so discouraged by the lack of information about progressive movements that they resorted to the easy-pickings; the men, military, and marine records that have traditionally been abundant in archives. And the result?

The war records get used and studied and written about again and again.

And the documents kept coming in. Old women came to the archives from time to time, proudly carrying their brothers’ or father’s, or uncle’s, or husband’s personal records or war mementos, and offering them to our collection.

Yet they seldom brought in anything that would memorialize their own life’s work or passions. And when I’d ask them, they’d became self-deprecating, shake their heads and deny that they had ever done anything of lasting value.

Generally it takes a certain kind person or a certain kind of organization that, dare I say, has enough of an ego to think their actions and the documents that record them have historical value and relevance. And then think about bringing them into an archive to be preserved and made available to future historians.

Altogether, this makes it easy to see why many archival records are of a conservative nature. They’re more accessible, follow a familiar and logical organizational scheme, and pertain to institutions, organizations, and people who have access to funds and political power.

And that makes them easier to access and get funding to research and commemorate as well.

It’s a bit of a vicious circle.