I didn't know what to expect when we signed up for the Forbidden Tour of Vancouver. On the Forbidden Tour website, they advertise, Discover Vancouver's Forbidden History. It mentioned opium dens, booze and prohibition, mobsters and corrupt government officials, and more. The tour sounded intriguing. The tour started at 7:00 p.m. and not being familiar with that part of Vancouver we arrived early to find parking and a snack before start time.
We were told to meet in Cathedral Park on the corner of Dunsmuir and Richards Street in downtown Vancouver, B.C. A park called, "Cathedral Park" sounded heavenly, after all it was across the street from a church. Instead, this run down park occupied by pigeons, seagulls, and vagrants was anything but heavenly. Our tour was starting off in a seedy location and in a not-so-pleasant part of Vancouver. It turned out to be the perfect setting and location for a tour about the seedier side of Vancouver and its history.
The Holy Rosary Cathedral, was the starting point of our tour. Built in the late 19th Century it was heralded as the largest building in the area. Today it still stands proud only it is now dwarfed in size compared to the buildings surrounding it. You can read more about its history on their website. And check out the photo of the church on their website with the nice fountain, that is a photo of Cathedral Park but that is not what it looks like today.
Our history lesson started before Vancouver was Vancouver. It was formerly New Caledonia, a district of the Hudson Bay Trading Company. Vancouver Island was under British rule and the queen decided she wanted the mainland too, so out with the old (Hudson Bay) and in with the British Empire. The Queen did not like the name New Caledonia, she wanted something more British, so they combined British with the largest river, the Columbia, and the area become British Columbia. In 1871, British Columbia accepted Canada's invitation to join them and became a province of Canada.
Built during the time of the Gold Rush, The Victoria Hotel was one of the first. You can read some its history on their website, but what they don't tell you was the real reason people came to the Victoria Hotel, it was the Saloon.
Our tour guide showed us a photo of the saloon and took our imaginations on a journey of the what it was like back then, mostly the smells. I will spare you the details and just say the floor was covered in sawdust everyday, sometimes more than once a day.
Today it is a quaint hotel and one of the oldest remaining hotels in the city.
Our next stop, the Permanent Building, originally known as B.C Permanent & Loan Company. Opening in 1907 as a bank, it was also the first building in Vancouver to get electricity. Built of thick walls, a tunnel for bringing in the gold, and in the 1930's was guarded by a machine gun, is now an Event Center and used in movies and television shows. Built in the heart of the city, this prominent building played an important role in the growth of Vancouver.
Charles Marega, the sculptor who did the lions on the Lions Gate Bridge was involved with the work in the interior.
We moved on to the Dominion Building, once known as the tallest building in the British Empire. Built in 1908-1910, in the heart of Vancouver, its Beaux-art style and flair was popular during that time period. Partially financed by Alvo von Alvensleben, the son of a German Count, who amassed a fortune of $25 million, some of the materials purchased were from other companies he owned, including a steel factory, making this one of the first buildings built from steel.
The company that built the Dominion Bulding, the Imperial Trust Company, found it difficult to raise the full $600,000 needed to complete the building. A plea and a bond was issued with the citizens of Vancouver, but soon they had to arrange a merger with the Dominion Trust Company, whom assumed ownership of the building, but they too failed.
What was supposed to be the future of Vancouver and a symbol of hope, proved not to be the case with the collapse of the real estate boom.
Read more about Alvo von Alvensleben, he lost it all and ended up in Seattle.
Soon, we found ourselves in an alleyway, rats scurrying from dumpster to dumpster, the pungent smells of an alley, and as our guide progressed with the story, you could almost feel the history surround you.
The alley was once referred to a 34 Market Alley. This important alley was a hubbub of activity and shops for the Elitists (the rich people). But it was also home to opium dens and Blind Pigs (speakeasy's) during Prohibition, run by mobsters and other nefarious characters. Aghast at what officials saw happening in the opium dens, Canada created its first drug law.
We meandered just over the line in Chinatown where Aman told us about the riot that killed around 200 people. Read more about it in the Drug War and Market Alley article. We then finished our tour in Gastown at Blood Alley and Gassy Jack's statue. Blood Alley got its name from the butcher shops that supposedly resided there but that's just a myth. Today it is filled with swanky restaurants. Read more about Blood Alley on Forbidden Tour's website.
John 'Gassy Jack' Deighton opened a bar. Gassy Jack's name came about because he was a talker and those that talked a lot were called, Gassy. With very little to his name, he talked local sawmill workers into building his bar in exchange for all the whiskey they could drink in one sitting. Twenty-two hours later, a bar was erected. The rest, they say, is history and a neighborhood called, Gastown.
Our seedy tour of Vancouver ended 2 1/2 hrs from when we started. Our guide, Aman, was entertaining, filled our heads with fun and educational facts, and guided us through the shadier history of Vancouver. Today, the city is everything and more than what its original founders dreamed off. Its beginnings gave it a foundation and helped shaped its future. There are still seedy sides to it, but then that is what gives it character.
If you are a history buff, or even if you are not, this tour should be on your list of things to do in Vancouver. Visit Forbidden Tour's website for more information and check out their other tours, I might have to sign up for the Art Deco and Chocolate tour next.
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