The Edge of Coal Harbour

19 July 2022 – The “edge,” both in geography and in time. In geography, because I walk the northern boundary of this neighbourhood, eastward along the Burrard Inlet sea wall from Stanley Park to Canada Place. In time, because here I am for just a few hours, one afternoon in 2022, on territory that has been inhabited for millennia.

Not that I have such lofty thoughts in mind as I jump off the #19 bus at West Georgia Street and cut down through Devonian Harbour Park to the water. I’m just out for a walk. This mini-park, smack at the eastern limit of Stanley Park, seems the perfect starting point for an agreeable afternoon in the semi-sunshine.

Pleasure + frustration as I go. I can find no ID for this dramatic sculpture…

neither in the park nor later online. Grrr.

Vancouver, like everywhere else, is opening up again. Cruise ships are back, and so are movie crews. A seaplane drops noisily over a marina as it streaks toward the Harbour Flight Centre beyond…

while we obedient pedestrians below halt in our tracks, obeying the director’s call to “Stand still please, for just one more take.”

I’m enjoying sights & sounds as I go — the activities & lingo of dogs/gulls/ravens/seaplanes/people. I’m not snagged by the historic depth of the area until I stop to read some of the inscriptions on & beside the Coal Harbour Fellowship Bell. It honours, say the plaques, the people & companies who made the industrial marine history of this area, 1890-1979.

Then & later, I learn a little more. First inhabitants, the Squamish First Nation, millennia ago; first settlers (i.e. non-indigenous) in the early 1860s, drawn by the discovery of low-grade coal. The coal never led to anything much, but the 1884 decision by the CPR to make this the railway’s western terminus launched a near-century of industrial activity: sawmills, warehouses, shipping piers, and — as that engraved bell reminds us — a long history of shipyards, engine & propeller shops and all the other trades & services that built & repaired Vancouver’s fishing & tugboat fleets.

‘Round about here, I start playing peek-a-boo with a big cluster of red container cranes some three kilometres or so farther east — just past Canada Place, marking both the planned end of my walk and one of the terminals within the Port of Vancouver.

Ignore the bench-sitter, the jogger with wonky left knee, the dogs, the kids. Follow Purple Hoodie Lady’s right arm. She is, inadvertently but accurately, pointing to the “giraffes” (a friend once called them that; I still do), the cranes whose long necks stretch high above the busy dance of ships & containers below.

I now find myself looking for them at each turn in my walk.

Sometimes prominent across open water, in spikey contrast to the bulk of the cruise ship…

and sometimes hard to distinguish — the merest scribble of one more silhouette above the rows of boats & houseboats in Coal Harbour Marina, who in turn are dwarfed by city towers beyond.

I look landward as well. This construction site sinks my heart as I imagine some monstrous tower, right at water’s edge…

and then I read the signage.

Coal Harbour Phase 2, it tells me, will provide an elementary school, daycare centre and 60 affordable [sic] family-sized rental units, in a complex designed to quality for LEED and Passive House certification.

Art work, here in Harbour Green Park, that I can identify. (Thank you, signage.)

Light Shed, by Liz Magor, is a half-scale replica of the freight shed that was located on the Vancouver City Wharf here in Coal Harbour, about a century ago.

(See the giraffes? We’re getting closer…)

Water fountains add sparkle to a cafĂ© beyond…

and water provides liquid tarmac for the seaplanes that come & go from the Vancouver Harbour Flight Centre.

(Another hit of that cruise ship beyond. And the giraffes.)

I’m almost at my end point, almost at Canada Place, walking my way around the West Convention Centre building toward Bon Voyage Plaza.

All along the railings, signage to teach us a little more about the natural and human histories of the area. Some I pass by; a few I scan for key phrases; and one stops me flat. Because… look at the power of that gaze.

Meet Lucille Johnstone, whom I had never heard of, but who for good reason is saluted here as Queen of the River. A high school grad, she began as receptionist for a little company called River Towing, and soon was its one-woman office staff. I could go on about what happened next, but instead I’ll let you read it directly, the same way I did.

I think this is terrific, I think she is terrific, and I love the further detail that explains the funny little tugboat next to her photo. When the Vancouver Airport authorities wanted to name something in her honour, as a tribute to her service as a member of the board, she requested it be something fun for children. Which is why that tugboat was built, and installed on the Departure Level.

More art just off the corner of Bon Voyage Plaza, and a whole different mood and style than the tugboat.

Twenty metres of bright blue raindrop, named (of course) The Drop, created by a Berlin collective known as Inges Idee. I’ve always loved it — simple, graphic, perfect scale for its location, perfect image for its physical environment.

And now, finally, here I am.

I have walked around the edge of the Convention Centre, then around the high edge of Canada Place, and I am about to drop down the staircase on the eastern side to ground level. I am as close to the giraffes as I’m going to get. There they are — just beyond that SeaBus shuttle route between Waterfront Station this side of Burrard Inlet and Lonsdale Quay over in North Van.

I put away my camera. All done. Then I take it out again, because I have to show you this.

World, you have been warned.

Hallelujah!

14 August 2020 – We are at the foot of Burrard St., smack on Burrard Inlet, and headed for Hallelujah Point — not that we quite precisely know that.

As we look north across the water, with the “sails” of the Vancouver Convention Centre (East Building) soaring into the sky …

what we do know is that we plan to follow the seawall north-west along the water, around the great scoop of Coal Harbour into Stanley Park.

Like this. (Ignore the “you are here”: we aren’t, so you aren’t.) From that wine-red building lower right; past the Vancouver Harbour Flight Centre; all along Devonian Harbour Park; around the curve into Stanley Park; then (as it turns out) eastward along that park lobe that looks like Vancouver’s answer to the Italian “boot” beloved of map-readers; and right out to the heel of the boot, Hallelujah Point.

Cormorants stare north-west across the Flight Centre toward Stanley Park, and so do we.

Float planes all lined up, today’s tidy remnant of Coal Harbour’s long industrial / maritime past.

Col. Moody discovered low-grade coal here in 1859, giving the area its name. The coal was never commercialized but the area was, especially after it became western terminus for the CPR (Canadian Pacific Railway) in 1884. Decades and decades of ship yards, seaplane ports, shipping piers and commercial activity followed, but then a series of fires in the 1950s destroyed the docks, ushering in a half-century of massive redevelopment (hotels, condos, parkland).

I’m not complaining. I love the parkland; I love the Sea Wall; and I respect how much signage, and how many installations, ensure that we connect with the history piled up behind us.

The Komagata Maru Memorial, for example.

On 23 May 1914 the Komagata Maru steamed into the harbour, bearing 375 Indians from India and other British colonies who claimed right of entry as citizens of the British Empire. Only a few were allowed ashore; the rest were refused entry under Canada’s assortment of regulations designed to prohibit Indian immigration. The stalemate lasted until 23 July, when a Canadian naval vessel escorted the steamship out of the harbour and sent it back to India, with the great bulk of its passengers still on board.

Attitudes have changed. The memorial was donated by the Khalsa Diwan Society (which in 1914 fed the people trapped aboard the ship), funded by a branch of the federal government, and supported by the Vancouver Parks Board. This incident, says the plaque, was

a catalyst for change to Canadian citizenship and immigration laws. This monument reflects Canada’s commitment to a nation where differences are respected and tradition honoured.

Here’s what I find so powerful about the memorial. Those walls are pierced with the names of the ship’s passengers. We are not just recognizing a seminal moment in history, we are recognizing — and thus honouring — the specific people caught up in it.

I think about the power of naming-the-name. The Vietnam War Memorial in Washington leaps to mind. So does Toronto’s memorial to the 329 victims — each one named — of Air India Flight 182, brought down by a terrorist explosion off the coast of Ireland in 1985. And Ireland Park, also in Toronto, honouring the starving immigrants trying to escape the Irish Famine of the 1840s — but only able to name a handful, though paying tribute to them all.

And always, as backdrop as we walk, rolling parkland, tranquil with shrubbery and benches.

But water’s edge is focus, and there is always more to look at.

Light Shed, for example, Liz Magore’s half-scale tribute to one of the freight sheds that used to line Coal Harbour …

and a ship’s bell, engraved not just with names of the industries that used to be active here, but names of the employees as well.

There are marinas full of boats, some of them owned by Americans who have no chance of visiting them this summer — and, amidst all that glossy wealth, a trio of sassy houseboats.

We’re around the curve now, in Stanley Park, heading east down the “boot.”

Maritime history is also maritime right-now. This stretch will take us past the Vancouver Rowing Club, still housed in its 1911 building; HMCS Discovery out on Deadman’s Island, which has recruited & trained thousands of Canadians since being commissioned as a naval reserve facility in 1941; and the venerable Royal Vancouver Yacht Club. (You’ve got “Royal” in your name? You are venerable.)

All that on the water side of things. On the Park side… lots and lots of trees. This one a soaring great cedar, but there are plenty of other varieties to keep it company.

“We’ll go as far as The Gun,” says my friend. “Okay,” I say, no image springing to mind but practically hearing the capital letters of respect in her voice.

The Gun is a Vancouver institution — a “naval type, 12-pound muzzle loader,” cast in 1816, brought from England to Vancouver in 1894 or thereabouts, and still busy today.

It is not just The Gun, it is the Nine O’Clock Gun. There is an astounding amount not known about its history, but this we know about it now: it deserves its name. Every night, at 9 p.m., it is fired.

And that is quite enough.

So… hallelujah!

We are at Hallelujah Point, and at the Nine O’Clock Gun. We turn smartly on our heels to head back to town.

One last moment with nature, with parkland still at our backs but the traffic of West Georgia St. very much in our faces.

Otters!

We swivel our heads with the inscription. It tells us that otters hold hands so they don’t drift away from each other.

Umm, well, I’m not really sure about that…

But I love the thought, and I carry it with me on my bus ride home.

 

 

  • WALKING… & SEEING

    "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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