[by Lani Russwurm] Stanley Park was supposed to be a large, wild, and untamed rainforest. Almost 1,000 acres of virgin Pacific Northwest woodland preserved in a natural, pristine state. But nature had other ideas. In the 129-year history of Stanley Park, it has occasionally been devastated by massive storms.
In the early days, Park Board officials’ vision was to retain the pristine vibe of the park. They would build infrastructure to make the forest accessible, but otherwise leave it alone. Other sections were cleared and dedicated to sports and leisure activities. It was an elegant idea–for the natural and human worlds to co-exist for the public good–but that relationship has been rockier than anticipated.
Read on for a devastating history of Stanley Park!
Heavy rain followed by a strong winds rocked Vancouver on Christmas night, 1901. It was “the greatest wind storm in the history of Vancouver as a city,” reported the Daily World. “Windows were blown in, fences were torn down, chimneys were broken off, and only those in the most sheltered portions escaped without injury.” Awnings and billboards were knocked down. Wires lay strewn everywhere.
The Canadian Pacific Railway’s telegraph connecting the mainland to Vancouver Island was cut off due to damage “wrought in the buffeting about of the cable landing house in the Stanley Park reserve.” The little building was ripped from its foundation.
Trees were toppled throughout the park and much of the work that had gone into it appeared to be undone. “Some touch of artificiality has been removed,” lamented the World. “The forest primeval is again general throughout the park.”
“Artificiality” had returned to the park by the end of March, 1902. Paths and Park Road had been cleared of fallen trees and bonfires took care of the driftwood that washed up onto Second Beach. Only a smashed retaining wall was left as a reminder of the storm.
An October 1934 windstorm followed by a January 1935 snowstorm wreaked havoc on Stanley Park on a much larger scale. The Daily Province newspaper described the carnage:
Trees are down in thousands—literally thousands. Hundreds of others will have to be felled because they are hanging in dangerous positions. Some of the best timber in the Park is gone—great cedars and magnificent Douglas firs and giant hemlocks lie piled upon one another in hopeless tangles. The vine maple—benison of summer and glory of autumn—is flattened and destroyed. Branches of conifers have been wrenched away by the weight of snow and the bare poles left standing. Trails are blocked and torn. The spoil of the storm is everywhere …
Stanley Park is a wreck—but not a hopeless wreck. It can be reclaimed; it can be restored; it can be made more glorious than ever.
The clean-up wasn’t as straight forward as it was in 1901. It was the Depression, and the city was on the verge of bankruptcy, barely able to pay for basic day-to-day operations, let alone an expensive park restoration effort.
The Daily Province turned the story into a campaign to raise funds and political will. It focused on the fire threat once all the debris dried out in the summer months. “Vancouver’s most priceless possession” was at risk of complete destruction.
The paper’s “Save the Park” campaign was a call to arms for Vancouverites to trek out to Stanley Park and survey the damage for themselves, then urge their political representatives to step up.
The Daily Province published opinions of dozens of Vancouverites of the emergency. Many suggested that the unemployed be mobilized to restore the park through a relief (as welfare was called in the thirties) program. Maude Cook from Kitsilano summed up what many felt: “There are droves of able-bodied relief recipients loafing around the city, in many cases having the time of their lives. Why should they not be put to work? It is about time these people gave the overburdened taxpayer some return for his money.”
Merchant William Dick was less callous in suggesting that the unemployed should be hired and paid “regular wages” to clean up the park. John J Harford saw an opportunity to improve the park. “Level enough trees so the sun can get to the ground and the grass grow,” he said. “You would then have pasture for several hundred sheep, which would keep the grass short and fertilized. People would get restful enjoyment out of such a Park instead of trying to peer through a tangled mass of underbrush … The sale of firewood alone would bring in thousands of dollars.”
Sawdust Bill offered to take charge of the clean-up and do it on the cheap. “Give me a caterpillar, fifty wheelbarrows, axes, spades, grubhoes, crosscut saws, thirty-inch circular saws, a shaft with an eight-inch pulley, and permission to obtain 100 men, preferably those on relief.” Wages, argued Sawdust Bill, would be paid for by grinding all the wood into sawdust and selling it. S Stevenson of White Rock argued that the clean-up could be paid for by selling off “the miserable animals in the zoo” living in deplorable conditions.
Mayor McGeer agreed that making the clean-up a relief project for the unemployed was the way to go, but pointed out that it still would cost more than the city could afford. Eventually the provincial government kicked in $20,000, and the City another $5,000 for the project. By the end of it, 250 relief recipients spent about three months restoring the park.
Freda’s Wrath, 1962
The next major storm to trash the park was another doozy. The remnants of Typhoon Freda battered Vancouver one night in October 1962. Although Freda had downgraded from typhoon to extratropical storm by the time it reached the city, it caused extensive damage to the city and especially Stanley Park.
Thousands of trees were again flattened throughout the park. The Stanley Park causeway—built after the 1935 storm—was a tangled mess, and a nightmare for numerous motorists trapped in their vehicles. Seventy-six year old Rene Archibald died when a massive hemlock crushed the car she was riding in through the park.
Forest management practices put in place after the 1930s storms made the public reaction to the devastation in the park very different in 1962. Aside from the fire risk, the goal of park restoration was to recreate the appearance of a primeval forest, undisturbed by human hands.
Many of the park’s original tree varieties were deemed too vulnerable for the park. After the dead and dying trees were removed in the 1935 clean-up, tens of thousands of Douglas firs were planted over the next few decades, and the appearance of a virgin, mature forest returned to the park.
By the time Freda ravaged the park in the 1960s, reforestation had virtually erased any sign of the 1930s storms, as well as the public’s memory of the damage done. When it came time to clean-up the mess left by Freda, Vancouverites were shocked to see the park had essentially become a logging camp where many had assumed had been a naturally wild forest.
Longtime Vancouverites lamented that the park they had grown up with was gone. Mayor Rathie declared that it was impractical to keep a wild forest in the city. The underbrush, he said, should all be cleared and replaced with grass.
Fortunately, Rathie’s opinion was met with fierce opposition from the public and his fellow politicians. A large area near the children’s zoo that was especially hard hit by Freda was used to build a bigger and better miniature railway, but most of the damaged areas were replanted.
Post-Freda restoration went on for many years. Numerous newspaper articles featured park officials and forestry experts reassuring the public that Stanley Park was being restored. In some ways, Freda had been a benefit by knocking down weak and diseased trees that would have had to be removed anyway. The curtain had been pulled back to reveal what actually goes into keeping Stanley Park’s forest the way we expect it to be.
2006 Wind Storm
The next major storm slammed the park in December 2006, once again knocking down thousands of trees. The Globe and Mail spoke to a homeless man who was living in the park when the storm hit:
“It was the most terrifying night of my life. It was like an artillery barrage,” he said of the storm … “It sounded like a freight train. You couldn’t hear the trees falling because the wind was so loud.”
The man, who looked to be in his late 40s and had long hair tucked under a hood, said there was so much flying debris that he was afraid to run.
“I couldn’t get out,” he said. “I just sat still for three hours. I was up to tremor fear. Do you know what that is? It’s the first level of battle fatigue. Every muscle tenses up because you are shaking so hard.”
Like the storms in the 1930s and 1960s, damage was extensive, as was the clean-up. An area near Prospect Point that was more or less flattened was cleared and turned into a parking lot, but again, the goal was to restore the park back to its former glory. Nearly ten million dollars was raised to restore the park. This included two million each from the federal and provincial governments, and one million from billionaire Jimmy Pattison. “Stanley Park has been so good to so many people, including my family and a lot of my friends over the years,” Pattison told CTV News. “It’s been an important part of our part of the world.”
In contrast to the earlier restoration efforts, much of the fallen debris was left to rot on the forest floor where it would nurse the next generation of trees with nutrients. Although extensive logging once again took place and millions of dollars were spent on the clean-up, this time nature would play a bigger role in regenerating the park’s forest.
As with the rest of the city, Stanley Park’s history is a story of change and evolution. Human efforts to maintain and preserve the park’s forest as an unchanging natural oasis have been foiled by what appears to be a regular pattern of violent wind and snow storms. Walking through the forest today, you can see many old tree stumps of toppled trees, with new ones sprouting on top as a testament to the storms the park has weathered.
Some stumps date back to 19th century logging operations from before it was a park. Many landmark trees that became famous to locals in the early days of the park have died from diseases as well as storms. And of course the destructive side of nature left its mark on the area long before it was a park, when only Indigenous people lived here. As much as we value having a slice of nature right in the city, Stanley Park has taught us to appreciate that nature itself is a volatile and sometimes violent force for change.
For more, see Sean Kheraj, Inventing Stanley Park: An Environmental History (UBC Press, 2013). For a more human history of the park, see Jean Barman’s book on the Indigenous and other communities that lived there, Stanley Park’s Secret: The Forgotten Families of Whoi Whoi, Kanaka Ranch, and Brockton Point (Harbour Publishing, 2005).
Title image: Photo by Stephen Joseph Thompson, ca. 1898, City of Vancouver Archives #St Pk P223