Saint Barbara & the Broadway Subway Project

2 April 2023 – Given that she lived (per legend) in Nicodemia in the 3rd century AD, Barbara has no geographic or technological connection with Vancouver’s Broadway Subway Project, now underway.

But she is here!

I only learn all this by following the Bouncing Ball of Curiosity from my physical navigation along the edge of current excavation on Broadway near Cambie, to internet searches once back home.

Some pedestrians are just stomping their way through the tunnelling disruptions to foot traffic, but many of us are downright fascinated. We stop, like this woman…

to peer through gaps in the protective mesh and gawk at the depth and scale of what’s going on below.

I wait my turn for that gap, and meanwhile eye the huge blue metal elbow looming overhead. (You get a glimpse of it, upper right in the photo above.) I lean back to try to trace its origin and end point. I can’t see all the way to where this metal tube begins, but I sure can see it’s ‘way up there.

I then get a good view of where it ends, and what it’s doing, thanks to this construction worker on break.

He generously waves me over, yielding his place at a much bigger gap in the mesh. He also explains what’s going on. Which is why I can now tell you, with considerable confidence, that the blue tube is pumping concrete…

via its needle tip, through the grid into the tunnel floor.

He goes back to work. I continue to gawk for a while, and finally navigate my way through the maze to an exit point, trying to obey all three signs as I go.

Later, I get to wondering about the depth of that tunnel. I visit the Broadway Subway Project home page, can’t find that particular stat anywhere — but then get sidetracked by a passing reference to the tradition of naming tunnel boring machines after women.

It’s because of Saint Barbara, you see. Patron saint of miners, tunnellers and explosives workers, you see.

Well, I don’t see, so I have a whole new bouncing ball to follow.

According to Christian legend, Saint Barbara was a beautiful young woman (here as imagined in an oil painting by Wilhelm von Schadow, 1844)…

who converted to Christianity, much to the displeasure of her father. Legend has it she fled to the cliffs, to escape his fury, and the rocks opened to allow her entry (of relevance to miners).The escape was temporary. Her father subsequently had the non-Christian authorities condemn her to death, and he himself beheaded her. While travelling back home afterwards, he was struck by a thunderbolt that incinerated his body (of relevance to explosives workers).

Enough about her sainthood — which is now of a somewhat diminished nature, anyway. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, since “her biography is questionable and her legend probably spurious,” she was dropped from the General Roman Calendar in 1969.

Never mind. She remains dear to miners, tunnellers and explosives workers worldwide, with her December 4 feast day honoured by a long list of British, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, American, Irish, Norwegian — oh, you get the idea — and many more military and other organizations worldwide. Visit the legend of Saint Barbara, on the website of the ISEE (International Society of Explosives Engineers), and see for yourself.

Meanwhile! Back here in 2023 Vancouver, on the Broadway Subway Project!

While the project website fails me for tunnel depth stats, it rewards me handsomely for my curiosity about the names of our own two TBMs (tunnel boring machines). Per tradition, named for outstanding women. In this case, for Elsie MacGill, born in Vancouver and educated at U of T, who was the world’s first female aeronautical engineer, and for Phyllis Munday, who was a pioneer for women in mountaineering.

I tell you, I am now invested in all this. I care about TBM Elsie & TBM Phyllis.

I therefore linger over, and now share with you, two TBM photos from the Broadway project online gallery of visuals. One shows work done last August to prepare a worksite for assembling TBM Phyllis…

and the other documents the triumphant moment this March when Phyllis arrived at the future Mount Pleasant Station, ready for her part in the 24/7 tunnelling schedule.

Then I notice the Ghella banner, proclaiming “5 generations of tunnelers.”

Oh good grief, a whole new Bouncing Ball of Curiosity to follow!

“Mount Pleasant Station”

12 December 2022 – Not yet Mount Pleasant Station, that’s still years from reality. Not the purpose of my walk either. But this block-long construction site neatly bookends my walk — a rectangular path that takes me purpose-driven south on Main to East 18th, then whim-happy west to Quebec and north again to Broadway.

The planned station so tidy on the map! It’s our local segment of the Broadway Subway Project — the 5.7 km extension of the Millennium Line west beneath Broadway to Arbutus Street.

And so appealing, so welcoming and soothing, in this early-stage conceptual illustration!

But in the reality of right-now, here at Broadway and Main, it looks like this.

Pedestrians scurry past. Only the mannequins in the vintage shop window opposite pay any attention…

and they are unimpressed.

I visit a few shops. I achieve my holiday-season purposes. Yay! So I am ready for amusement by the time I hit East 18th.

I think I am familiar with both visual treats at this corner, but I learn something new about each. (I only learn the somethings-new later, and that’s directly thanks to you, as it always is, because I look things up to share with you.)

This Vancouver Mural Festival project on the S/W corner, I later verify…

dates from 2020, the work of indigenous artist Steve Smith ~ Dla’kwagila.

And these great bendy arches in Sun Hop Park on the N/W corner, I later learn to my delight…

reference the drinking straws in the Palm Dairy & Milk Bar that stood here 1952-89. Nearby seats, I now realize, are bottle-top shaped, and everything is painted Palm Dairy’s signature bright red. (See what you cause me to learn? Bless your boots.)

Around the corner onto East 18th, and another treat: a surviving Vancouver Special. Arguably not a visual treat, but I think an icon worthy of respect — vernacular architecture from 1965-85 that helped address the housing crisis of the day and has continued to serve city residents with the flexibility that was always a core intention of the boxy design.

Another visual icon, at least of this Fairview/Mount Pleasant neighbourhood — street-side swings. So simple, so friendly, so… neighbourly. I am charmed, every time.

Right-turn north onto Quebec Street, and a great smack-up of colours: designer-red on that house opposite, nature’s own moss green up and down this magnificent tree and, beneath it, the careless gold of autumn leaves.

One block farther south, more of nature’s colour palette: black.

What you see when someone rakes up all those sodden leaves to reveal naked soil below.

Down at East 12th, yet more seasonality: St. Patrick’s Secondary School is in the Christmas tree business.

Then more trees, but street-side, and firmly rooted. I stand mesmerized by the play of colours and texture. (And that one stubborn leaf!)


I am back at Broadway. West end of the Mount Pleasant Station site, and just as busy a jumble as the east end.

More fun, though.

All those leaping salmon in the mural (apparently climbing the wall, as real salmon climb a waterfall), and that silver bear, one paw raised in benediction. You’d think he’d be busy nabbing salmon for lunch, not blessing the street…

but perhaps his sun glasses obscure his view.


    "Traveller, there is no path. Paths are made by walking" -- Antonio Machado (1875-1939)

    "The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes" -- Marcel Proust (1871-1922)

    "A city is a language, a repository of possibilities, and walking is the act of speaking that language, of selecting from those possibilities" -- Rebecca Solnit, "Wanderlust: A History of Walking"

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