General Articles

BIG-CITY SAFETY VALVE

Vancouver people rave about Stanley Park. They also fight over it, and make love, bury stolen loot, and die in it

PIERRE BERTON September 1 1947
General Articles

BIG-CITY SAFETY VALVE

Vancouver people rave about Stanley Park. They also fight over it, and make love, bury stolen loot, and die in it

PIERRE BERTON September 1 1947

BIG-CITY SAFETY VALVE

Vancouver people rave about Stanley Park. They also fight over it, and make love, bury stolen loot, and die in it

PIERRE BERTON

WHEN the sun shines in Stanley Park on a summer Sunday, 100,000 Vancouverites pour across the Lost Lagoon causeway and fan out through the thousand acres of timber and trail, lake and lawn, bush and beach. All day long, until well past midnight, the people relax in their park, picnic and sun-bathe, bicycle, ride horseback, play everything from checkers to cricket, make music, feed the bears, the monkeys and themselves, commune with nature, pick flowers, climb trees, hold hands, make love.

But none of them ever takes Stanley Park for granted.

The morale of an entire city is built on this soup-ladle peninsula of native forest, which, through an old Indian’s perfunctory wave of the hand and the British Admiralty’s century-old fear of Russian invasion, has remained, by a miracle, in a more or less primitive state as a front-door playground for half a million people.

Nobody in Vancouver has ceased to marvel that,

in an age when civilization is eating its way across the unruly face of the land, there is still a natural lake deep in the heart of a stand of Douglas fir and red cedar within rifle shot of the city’s post office. Stanley Park is just 10 blocks from the business section and right on the borders of the apartmentcrammed West End.

To the people who use it, talk about it, exclaim over it, fight for it, it is simply “The Park.” Vancouverites are born to the Park, and their lives are inexorably tied to it.

Children learn to swim on its beaches. Businessmen and stenographers eat their lunches there, leaning on the rail that overlooks Siwash Rock, or squatting on a moss-blanketed cedar log in the heart of the forest, or sprawling full-length by a pond or stream. At night the cars are parked bumper to bumper in the moonlight that bathes Brockton

Point, and there’s no telling how many native-born citizens proposed to their wives there. Some even choose the park as a pleasant place in which to die, like the weary old man who sat down on one of the green benches last autumn, stared momentarily at the mallards skimming across the Lagoon under the restless firs, then blew out bis brains.

The park has always been in the news. City editors send their men down its worn old Indian trails on dull news days, and they’re seldom disappointed. In one month last spring, for instance, Stanley Park produced, among other things, one cadaver, one skeleton, $4,000 in buried treasure, a nudist colony, a hermit living in a hollow tree, a major controversy about horses and policemen, and a story about the sex life of peacocks.

Its animals, wild and

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captive, like its human inhabitants are often spectacular. The park has had a set of beavers that persistently dammed the only outlet to the lake, including the sewer pipe installed to thwart them, j a wild cougar who stalked a herd of wild deer, a Yukon etter named Friday (every day was fish day), a good many mallard ducks that waddle in pairs on the golf course, and a black bear who once tore a man’s arm off when he reached down to pick up a peanut.

The people who run the park and the people who use it have always been fiercely jealous of any attempts to change it, and for this reason the park is forever the centre of some controversy, whether it be a plan to put motor I scooters on the driveways or an attempt by the CPR to install a historic old locomotive under the pines.

Chief Capilano Saved It

In 1904 they were angrily arguing the merits of allowing horseless carri! ages in the park. In the early ’20’s it was the question of the 11.30 p.m. closing. (Lovers wooing in buggies were j always being pleasantly trapped all night behind the iron gates.) In 1933 there was an unholy row about the I proposal to put a road through the

park to the still unbuilt Lions Gate Bridge.

There is a reason for this fervent pride in the park and the stubborn resistance to change. For the miracle of Stanley Park is that it exists at ail. It might just as easily have been a high-priced residential district or worse still a coal-blackened, fish-scented industrial centre. Indeed a fish-oil plant, a sawmill and a shipyard have all had toe holds on the peninsula and the logger’s axe nearly ruined it in the 1870’s.

The Park was really saved about 100 years ago. The Admiralty, uneasy about Russian exploration in Alaska, made a pact with old Chief Capilano, head of the Squamish hand of Salish Indians. Capilano made the quickest appreciation of a military situation on record.

“You fight that side,” he told the Navy, waving at the park peninsula, “I fight this side,” waving at what is now West Vancouver.

The Admiralty got Stanley Park and the chief got 100 rifles which he used with good effect, not against the Russians but against an equally imperialistic tribe of Kwakiutl Indians who hastily abandoned an abortive invasion attempt and fled north.

Until 1886 the peninsula was military property and Indian reserve, protected from the white man’s development, hut not against the logger’s

bucksaw. Today a bulk of the forest is second growth and many of the park’s bridle paths are old logging skid roads. The logging W'as selective enough or careless enough to leave a few trees standing, but it didn’t stop a moment too soon. It was an alarmed city council that held its first meeting in 1886 in a tent in the newly chartered City of Vancouver, with the embers of the Great Fire still glowing, and decided to ask the Government to lease the “Old Reserve” as a park.

The Government agreed and Lord Strathcona was asked to give the park a name. Strathcona couldn’t think of one and passed the buck to the Governor-General, Lord Stanley. Stanley promptly named the place after himself, arrived to christen it with a bottle of wine, and on a wet October day in 1889 dedicated it “for the use and pleasures of peoples of all colors, creeds and customs for all time.” A cairn, made up of mineral specimens from all operating mines in B. C., was erected on the spot, but no one knows now where that spot is. The cairn either disappeared under moss and forest mold, or, more plausibly, was removed p;ece by piece by would-be prospectors.

Much of the 46 miles of road and pathway that crisscrosses the park is old Indian trail. The Park is, in fact, the original Garden of Eden of the Squamish Indians, whose religious beliefs closely parallel the Christians’. Here it was that the great Saghalie Tyee, the Indian God, created Kalana, the first man, out of red cedar bark and wild currant twigs and made a woman for him when he grew lonely. Here the Great Flood came when the people grew wicked and Saghalie Tyee caused Lost Lagoon to overflow, drowning every living thing save the good Cheatmuth who built a dugout canoe and escaped. Here came Qu’ais the Transformer, the emissary of the God on earth, to change Skaalch the pure Indian into an undying, unmoving symbol of nobility which the white man calls Siwash Rock.

Once old August Jack, the grandson of Chief Capilano, was asked whether he really believed a man could be changed into stone.

“Certainly,” he said drily. “You paleface believe Lot’s wife was turned to salt. Where is your salt, white man? We Indians have the stone.”

And under the steep, sheer cliffs of Prospect Point in the shadow of the Lions Gate Bridge, where in the old days an Indian sentinel always looked out to sea, old Si’atmulth, the Rain Maker, still sits in his inaccessible cave, opening his door a tiny crack whenever he wants it to rain in Stanley Park. When it got too dry the Indians used to lean over the cliff and shout, “Open the door, Si’atmulth,” or words to that effect.

Stolen Prize

From 1840, right up to the dedicacation year, the east shore of the park near Halleluiah Point, where an old George III cannon now booms out the hour each night at nine, was the only graveyard on the B. C. coast. An asphalt road now runs right over the cemetery, which used to be reached by floating funeral corteges. Even today the park yields up a certain number of corpses and there’s probably a good round dozen bodies lying undiscovered somewhere in the forest right now.

There have been other things buried in the park more intriguing than corpses. In 1922 a man named “Smiling Jimmy” Reid was arrested in Montana and led police officers to a gnarled stump near Second Beach under which was hidden $83,500 in negotiable securities, stolen in a bank holdup in Ladner, B.C. There are still persistent tales of $26,000 hidden under a grove

near the Brockton Point cricket pitch, supposed to be part of a $56,000 bank j holdup in Vancouver in 1942. Just the ¡ other day $4,000 stolen from an Edmonton woman turned up under a hedge inside the Park entrance and last spring a U. S. undercover agent told how he watched members of a | narcotics gang hide decks of opium j under bushes in the park.

The Indians and their descendants j clung stubbornly to their lean-to shacks in the vicinity of the old Whoi| Whoi, now a picnic ground, until the city moved against them as “squatters” in 1917. Heroine of the court drama was Aunt Sally, a gnarled, incredibly old Indian woman who lived in an ; ancient shack surrounded by a maze ; of raspberry bushes in the shadow of Lumberman’s Arch. The onus was on the squatters to prove that they had actually lived in the park for 60 years. Aunt Sally convinced the court that j she had been there, in the judge’s j words “from time immemorial.” Hoisting her five foot two inch frame into j the Supreme Court witness box, leaning heavily on her crooked cane, her driedapple face working expressively, the old woman told how her father before her had built the shack and in it a bunk for her. She was 100 years old, she said, and she’d never slept in any j other bed except that bunk.

The Cave Dwellers

The other squatters lost out, but Aunt Sally’s claim was upheld. Now she owned one of the most coveted pieces of real estate in the city. When Will Shelly, the park board chairman, heard that financial interests were about to offer her $15,000 for the leanto, he drew $17,000 in funds from the bank and headed straight for the park.

He made the old woman a point-blank offer on behalf of the city (which didn’t know about it) peeling off the new money in $500 bills into her tiny brown hand. Aunt Sally jacked him up to $17,500, took the cash, and on the site of the clamshell midden proceeded to stage the last potlatch ever held in Stanley Park. She never recovered from the celebration.

One other squatter was allowed to stay “as a link between yesterday and tomorrow”—a pleasant old half-breed named Tim Cummings who still sits in j front of his hut and contemplates j Slail-wi-tooth—“The Going In Place,” or First Narrows—through which his | forefathers paddled their war canoes, j

There are a few other park residents, ! notably an Army brigadier who has a housing problem and is staying on military territory in the former officers’ mess near Third Beach where the j artillery manned the guns during the | war. The barracks is hidden from public gaze behind an unsightly maze of barbed wire and tar paper and the brigadier is something of a squatter himself. The park board tcok steps this j summer to try and evict him.

The park harbors a few less conventional dwelling places. There’s one man who’s been living in a big hollow tree off Lover’s Walk for two years. When the police disturb him in one tree he moves off and finds another.

A soot-blackened cave a few hundred yards from Siwash Rock has been used as a dwelling place by Stanley Park eccentrics for 15 years.

Just up the beach from the cave i there’s a little cove which is a favorite j spot for nudists. It’s secluded, but one self - styled public - spirited citizen managed to squeeze through the underbrush last spring and observe the 15 nudists for three days in a row before he made his report to the police. There are one or two other little man-made clearings deep in the heart of the park.

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One cold day last February a shivering policeman in a greatcoat came upon a man lying stark naked in the pale sunlight in one of them. Park officials are fairly tolerant of people who sunbathe in the raw as long as they keep out of sight.

But there is a more sinister menace lurking under the brooding cedars of Stanley Park. The forest, with its untrodden byways and dark retreats, has become the natural headquarters of the city’s sex degenerates. For this reason park police patrol the paths on horseback (there was another row last spring when they talked of replacing the horses with motorcycles). The perverts lie hidden in the bushes a few hundred yards from the sea where women and children, contrary to park rules, come to change into bathing suits. And it was here, close to Second Beach, that they found the broken body of little Gary Billings in the summer of 1946, crumpled under a log where his murderer had thrust him. A year later, an unknown sex pervert murdered a young woman on the shores of Lost Lagoon.

An elected board of eight men and women runs the park. Its perennial chairman is Richard Rowe Holland, a hearty balding lawyer who’s been on the board for most of the past 20 years. Holland, a bachelor, loves the park with what amounts to a raw passion. In his own words he “brings the scent of pines and firs” to the Liberal ward meetings which he often addresses and he breathes the spirit of the park into everyone he meets. His whole life is the park, and Vancouverites, who continue to return him with whopping majorities, seem to feel he’s the man for the job. There’s no pay attached to the post, except for a free meal every Monday night in the park pavilion where the board meets.

Thousand-Dollar Moon

The board’s paid superintendent is a slight, reticent civil engineer named Phil Stroyan who lives just inside the park in a big log house. Stroyan loves the park, too (he proposed to his wife there), but he doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve as Holland does. Every fine Sunday morning, for the past 12 years, Phil Stroyan, his wife and their chow dog Judy, have strolled the nine miles around their park, a religious rite that has become a part of the lives of several dozen people. After several years some of these strollers even nod curtly and grunt as they pass each other on the sea wall.

The Vancouver Park Board is big business. Because the Board controls all money-making activities within the park boundaries, it finds itself in the theatre business, the restaurant business, the night club business, the bicycle business, the boat business, the zoo business, the horticultural business, the forestry business, the logging business, the golf and tennis business and several other equally divergent enterprises.

One of its biggest assets—from a tourist point of view rather than a money-making one—is the tremendously popular “Theatre Under the Stars,” a series of light operas and musicals presented nightly for the entire summer from the Malkin outdoor bowl in the park.

The value of outdoor entertainment was demonstrated some years ago when John Charlee Thbmas gave a summer concert in'the bowl. For an encore Thomas sang “The Moon and I,” and as he reached the peak of his song the moon rose above the treetops until its light had crept across the entire audience. f Thomas was so

overwhelmed by this elaborate bit of staging that he talked about it for weeks after and promised he’d come back anytime to sing in the park. He returned to Stanley Park in the summer of 1946 for the big outdoor Jubilee Show, accepting $1,000 a night as a fee, which prompted somebody to remark that “this time they really gave Thomas the moon.”

Stanley Park tends to shrivel irom the outer borders inward. “You can’t surround an ancient forest with a road, pour cars around it belching carbon monoxide, let smoke and cinders blow through it, and expect it to live,” Holland points out. “You’ve got to subsidize it.” Thus the board plants 20,000 new Douglas firs a year and about 10,000 of them live. Once when a gale blew over some big trees the board sawed off the trunks, then replanted the roots. Passers-by, noting what seemed to be newly sawed trees, showered bitter condemnation on the unhappy commissioners. And any suggestion that the Seven Sisters be removed sets up a nostalgic howl. The Sisters are a clump of tall Douglas firs (actually there are 12) which are now dead and stripped of their bark, “like gaunt, druids,” Holland remarks. But the older generation still loves them.

No Progress Wanted

The Board, like the people, hates change. Stroyan and Holland have stubbornly resisted the placing of monuments in the park, which they feel give it an artificial atmosphere. The only monument Stroyan feels in keeping with the park’s nature is the natural, moss-covered rock cairn to the Indian poetess Pauline Johnson. Biggest fight the park had in this respect was the battle to keep old 374, the first CPR locomotive into Vancouver, out of the park. CPR officials insisted the big black machine should rest at Brockton Point, but although the board came close to insulting the company it won out.

Right now the only major change contemplated is the lengthening of the present sea wall to encircle the entire park—“Framing the picture,” Holland calls it—to stop the constant threat of erosion.

Holland has had three bad scares about his park: In 1934 a tremendous gale cut a wide swath through the park, piling inflammable slash 15 and 20 feet high. Holland talked fast, got a relief project under way to halt the fire danger. In 1938 Holland was taking one of his daily walks in the park, when pieces of flaming tar paper from the CPR’s blazing Pier D floated over the forest. Holland himself and a crew of men battled and subdued about 50 small fires. In 1945 the smouldering munitions ship, Greenhill Park, which had blown up on the water front, was hauled out of the harbor and hurriedly beached near Siwash Rock. Holland, watching with horror from his office window, phoned top Navy officials and forced the ship’s speedy removal.

Today Stanley Park with its carefully built firebreaks and hydrants every 300 feet is as conscientiously protected as any park could be. Sitting in his office, close to the water front, whose windows stare out over the low green ^expanse of the park, Holland shudders to think of the psychological impact on the city were the citizens to wake one morning and find their proudest possession a smoldering waste.

“It would be a tragedy,” he says. “I don’t know what we’d do. It would be the kind of tragedy one just couldn’t appraise. Only an act of God could wreck Stanley Park.” ★