Fires of Prometheus

Vancouver's recent past

The historical archaeology of a young city

Although in my opinion historical archaeology should examine and record the past that began yesterday, and which, indeed, is already as inaccessible and mysterious as the neolithic, Vancouver's past has mostly been handled by historians, with archaeologists, justifiably, concentrating on the indigenous peoples who were displaced when colonisers arrived only 140 or so years ago.

It may seem that we already know most of what happened since the first invaders settled on the shores of the Fraser River, yet much of the last 150 years has vanished for ever beneath a young and rapidly-expanding city. Little remains, for example, of the British Columbia Electric Railway system that existed for only some 60 years but which, by establishing "streetcar suburbs," created the east/west shape of the modern city.

Vancouver's streetcar suburbs

The history of Vancouver's BCER streetcars has been well recorded, expecially by Henry Ewert (1986). My interest goes beyond the rails that were laid down Vancouver's roadways, because communities were influenced, instigated and intertwined with the streetcar network as it expanded, thrived and declined. I plan to survey extant evidence for the existence of streetcar suburbs, as well as documentary and cultural material pertaining to these areas.

It is now almost impossible to find more than a handful of clues that might remind us that, once, Vancouver was served by an extensive network of streetcars or trams. One of the fun archaeological projects that can be done from afar is to spot these clues on Google Maps. Here, for example, is a short stretch of track heading for the site of the original Georgia Viaduct. The bridge was so poorly constructed that the tracks were never used! When the viaduct was demolished in 1972 the tracks buried within it were briefly visible.

Another survival is the stretch of original cobbled roadway (no track) along the 1200 block of Frances Street. More track can be seen on Quebec Street. It is likely that, since the streetcar track was often simply buried beneath a skin of tarmac, more will probably temporarily emerge as the surface wears.

Streetcar rails from the 1890s buried, since the 1950s, beneath Granville Bridge.

A nice introduction to the Granville area can be found here. The track divided into a line continuing up Granville Street and another heading along Fourth Avenue.

Vancouver's streetcar network, like most such systems, grew from a small but significant beginning. At a time when the city only consisted of 18 miles of streets, the first line was just 3.35 miles long (Ewert 1986, 15). Subsequent steady expansion often took the extremities of the system into areas where there was little or no housing, or commercial development. The presence of each new transport artery had the effect of encouraging both the establishment of businesses and residential building. The areas that resulted fro the growth of the network can be called "streetcar suburbs," and I plan to make a study of this phenomenon. I originally thought I might use the topic as the basis for my PhD research, but in the end I decided that I would study miniaturisation. Ironically, the final focus of that study moved to objects that have almost completely vanished, just like traces of the Vancouver streetcars.

Five fascinating minutes of Vancouver streetcar footage from 1907. (The film begins in Victoria.)

Vancouver streetcars in the 1950s

This is going to be a gradually expanding section...


Ewert, Henry (1986) The Story of the B.C. Electric Railway. Vancouver: Whitecap.

Last updated: 1st March 2018

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More Vancouver rails

Ralph Mills and the Lulu Line
Me and the Lulu line, 2009.

I have always been fascinated by what might be called railway archaeology, the traces of long-lost lines and their associated structures. Despite Vancouver's rapid growth, and its obliteration of most of its heritage, industrial or otherwise, a few scraps of evidence survived, at least until I captured them photographically. For example, until recently, the abandoned rails of the so-called "Lulu Line" which until abour 2000 delivered the occasional load to the Brewery near Granville Island, remained rustily as a narrow archaeological site running north-south though Vancouver's south-western suburbs. Alas, the rails have gone, replaced by a cyclepath and walkway, a long, rather ugly strip of tarmac. Ironically, there is talk of using the corridor as a light rail route. Yet, here and there, one can still find short lengths of rail embedded in roadways and rusting in unused lots.

Disused railway track
Disused trackage near Vancouver CPR station.
Buried railway track
Buried trackage near Vancouver CPR station.