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!


    "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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