[by Lani Russwurm] Stanley Park has lots to attract the millions of visitors it sees each year, from the ever-popular totem poles, to the many monuments, forest trails, and of course, the seawall. What attracts us most here at Forbidden Vancouver though, are the often bizarre, occasionally humorous, or sometimes tragic stories behind many of the park’s attractions that inspired our new Secrets of Stanley Park walking tour. Here are five of those stories.
1. Whoi Whoi: Paving Park Road with History
The site of today’s Lumberman’s Arch was an Indigenous village that lasted around 3,000 years until the late 19th century. It was called X̱wáýx̱way (pronounced Whoi Whoi in English) after a dance ceremony involving a sacred mask.
When George Vancouver came to the area in 1792, he and his crew were welcomed by a contingent of about 50 Whoi Whoi residents who paddled out to greet him in Burrard Inlet. They “conducted themselves with the greatest decorum and civility,” he wrote in his journal. “These good people” gave the strangers cooked fish and in return were offered gifts.
According to August Jack Khahtsahlano, who grew up on the peninsula, Whoi Whoi consisted of several buildings near the shore that housed about 100 people. The population would have been larger in earlier times, but had been ravaged by smallpox even before George Vancouver arrived. The “big house” was a 200 foot long post and beam building and was home to six families. The last potlatch held there was in the 1870s and attracted around 2,000 Indigenous people from the Lower Mainland, Vancouver Island, and beyond.
After the peninsula was designated as a park, the City of Vancouver branded the families that lived there squatters and applied pressure on them to leave. A massive four-acre shell midden—a large deposit of clam shells, discarded implements and other artifacts, and even bones—was dug up at Whoi Whoi and the contents ground for the surface of the new road being built around the park. The road looked pretty, but the shell surface didn’t allow rain water to drain properly and it was eventually gravelled over. It was a failed experiment that cost the park its most important archaeological site and willfully disregarded the Coast Salish people who had lived there for generations.
Whoi Whoi was now completely depopulated and the last two houses were burned as a precaution during a small pox outbreak in 1888. With a couple of exceptions, the remaining residents in other areas of Stanley Park were forced to leave following a 1923 court case, although unsanctioned squatters have discreetly lived in the park ever since.
2. An “Indian Village without Indians”: The Origin of Stanley Park’s Totem Poles
While the forces of colonialism treated Indigenous people as undesirable trespassers, there was, strangely, a morbid fascination with native culture. European thought at the time viewed First Nations as inevitably doomed with the spread of “civilization.” The Art, Historical, and Scientific Association (AHSA), today’s Museum of Vancouver, initiated a project to erect a replica “Indian Village” as a tourist attraction and museum at the same time actual native people were being forced out.
In 1919, the AHSA made its pitch to the Park Board, arguing that “valuable relics were being taken away from this province year after year … A large number of trophies were finding their way to American museums” and something needed to be done “to ensure the retention of some of the relics.” The Park Board agreed as long as it didn’t have to pay for the project.
Initially the plan was to buy an abandoned village from the north and re-assemble it in the park. The Hudson’s Bay Company would be approached about erecting an old fur trading fort as well. Park Commissioner Shelly made the first donation to the village, a massive totem pole he had brought in from Alert Bay on northern Vancouver Island. This was the beginning of the totem pole exhibit still there today.
Commissioner Jones was less enthusiastic about the project. “We have an Indian village in a small way there now, and I have no use for it whatever.” Shelly explained that the idea was “to have the village without the Indians.” Jones conceded that some sort of museum would be okay, but that “we have all the Siwashes around there that we want.”
As the planning dragged on, the idea to recycle a northern village was dropped in favour of using new material and bringing in Indigenous carpenters from Alert Bay to build the structures. Historian Jean Barman writes in her book Stanley Park’s Secret that some AHSA members wanted material more exotic than wood used for the structures, such as teepees covered in animal skins.
Architectural plans were drawn up, but fundraising for the project fell short, despite a grant from the City. The Squamish Band objected to the proposal on the grounds that nothing in the village was indigenous to the area, and the AHSA eventually passed the project on to the Park Board.
While planning for the village was underway, a 110 year-old Indigenous man named Tom Abraham testified at a trial to evict residents of the park. Abraham described Whoi Whoi as he knew it in the 1850s and 60s, and the wars that took place between locals and invading tribes from the north, where the totems and other village artifacts came from. The courts ultimately ruled that testimony from Abraham and other natives was not reliable in establishing the long term tenancy of park residents because they believed native people had trouble distinguishing imagination from reality.
3. A Murder of Crows: Hunting in the Park
If you’ve spent any length of time in Vancouver, you’ve probably seen or at least heard about the thousands of crows and their daily commute between here and their Burnaby roost. If you happen to walk through Chinatown at daybreak, you’re likely to see them filling every tree and power line for blocks. Their collective din would make even Alfred Hitchcock uneasy.
Bird experts say the crows have been following this pattern since the 1970s. Earlier accounts suggest that Stanley Park was a major crow roost a century ago, and indeed the birds are still plentiful there and the adjacent West End. Crows back then were not seen as a natural wonder or curiosity, but rather a problem to be solved.
The first time crows became a political issue was in 1899 when a petition signed by hundreds of Vancouverites was submitted to city council to “diminish their numbers” because of the devastation they were causing in “gardens, etc.” Alderman Brown got a chuckle when he asked if petitioners wanted council “to go out and shoot the crows.” The City Solicitor ended the discussion by pointing out that there was a bylaw against discharging firearms within city limits.
Captain Tatlow, park commissioner and MLA in the provincial government, raised the issue again in 1901. Crows were feasting on the eggs and babies of songbirds and the swans that had been recently introduced to Stanley Park. The Daily Province described one incident just after baby swans were hatched: “An immense flock of crows attacked the nest in an unguarded moment and killed three of the little ones by picking their eyes out before the old birds could hasten to the rescue.” At the time, Washington State was contemplating its own scheme to get rid of crows, and there was a fear that BC would be flooded by refugee crows.
A couple of years later, Thomas Cunningham announced that the province had authorized him to offer a bounty of five cents a head up to a maximum of 3,000 crows as an experiment. If successful, the scheme was to be implemented across BC to reduce the crow population. Again the City Solicitor pointed to the bylaw prohibiting the discharge of firearms within city limits. Since the city didn’t have the authority to issue hunting permits, suspending the bylaw wasn’t an option unless everyone was allowed in on the slaughter. City Council wisely feared more people than crows were likely to perish and nixed the idea.
Then the Solicitor had a brainwave: why not treat crows as common vagrants and send the police after them? The Chief Constable stroked his chin and said he did have some fine marksmen on the force. This plan either failed or perhaps other policing priorities intervened.
A more sustained hunt began in 1910 when the Vancouver Gun Club was invited to shoot crows in the park (but with a warning to leave the pair of bald eagles living in the park alone). Stanley Park was closed from 6-9 am two days a week for the month of April. Permission for the hunt was renewed every spring until 1961.
4. Warren Harding: Memorializing the Second Worst American President
Today, many historians would rank Warren Harding as the second worst president in American history. But in his time, he was extremely popular. Harding was very charismatic, came off as presidential, and was perhaps the first modern president (or at least the first to arrive at his inauguration in a car). He was also considered a peacemaker for supporting the World Court, a popular position after the carnage of WWI.
But Harding wasn’t a very effective president. According to historian Chuck Davis, one rival described his speeches as “an army of pompous phrases moving across the landscape in search of an idea.”
In 1923 Harding’s popularity was waning despite his personal appeal. His tax cuts for the rich and his handling of labour disputes cost him support from working constituents, and the 1924 election was approaching fast.
To regain momentum, Harding decided to do what he did best: go on a tour and mesmerize the masses at political rallies around the west. He travelled by train and had a rail car customized to allow him to make impromptu speeches at unscheduled stops along the way.
Harding’s tour included Alaska, which had been purchased from Russia but not yet made a state. Vancouver was on the way, so he scheduled a stop here, making Harding the first sitting president to visit Canada.
Even before his tour, Harding wasn’t a healthy man. In his down time, he smoked and drank, and had high blood pressure. He hadn’t fully recovered from a serious bout of influenza in January. His handlers took care to conceal and downplay his ill health and fatigue.
Vancouver gave Harding as enthusiastic a reception as one might expect on his home turf. Fifty thousand people turned out to hear his Stanley Park address, and many thousands more lined the streets to catch a glimpse of his motorcade.
One week after his Vancouver appearance, Harding died in San Francisco. The official account was that he suffered a stroke. There was no autopsy, so conspiracy theories as to the real cause of death abounded. Some thought he committed suicide to avoid the scandalous revelations that he knew would soon come to light. Others suspected his wife poisoned him in retaliation for his extra-marital affairs. Today, it’s believed that he died of a heart attack.
After Harding’s death the “Teapot Dome” scandal came to light. Members of his cabinet had made a killing in backroom deals and bribes over oil-rich land. The scandal wound its way through the courts in the mid and late 1920s, and landed one of Harding’s inner circle (dubbed “the Ohio Gang”) in jail. Another committed suicide to avoid the charges. Harding himself wasn’t implicated, but the scandal spoke to the alliances he kept and was the most sensational presidential scandal until Watergate.
Meanwhile back in Vancouver, the Kiwanis Club commissioned Charles Marega to sculpt the Harding Memorial statue for Stanley Park, which remains the only monument to an American president in the city.
5. Jimmy Cunningham, the Man in the Seawall
The earliest mention of a seawall for Stanley Park in the Daily World newspaper was at the opening celebration for the Stanley Park Pavilion in 1913. In his speech, Park Commissioner and developer Jonathan Rogers mused that a seawall from Beach Avenue to Third Beach would cost about $100,000 and would take several years to complete. No one, Rogers said, would complain about the expense once it was finished.
As it turned out, the seawall would go all the way around Stanley Park and took more than six decades to complete. Indeed, no one complains about the more than $1.5 million price tag, as it’s probably the most used public attraction in the city for locals and tourists alike.
Work on the seawall began in 1917 at Second Beach. In 1923, the federal government agreed to finance the project on the north shore of the park on the basis that the pounding waves from passing ships were eroding Stanley Park. That was just a ruse to raise funds, but it worked.
Over the years, thousands labored away on the seawall, including unemployed men as part of a relief program, and seamen from HCMS Discovery on Deadman’s Island as punishment. But the most deserving of credit for the seawall is Jimmy Cunningham, a crusty Scotsman who spent 32 years of his life laboring away and supervising the project.
Cunningham was recognized by the city as a master stonemason in 1931. As funding was less than consistent, he often used whatever material he could find, including recycled stones from the streetcar lines that were dismantled in the 1950s and even discarded tombstones.
Cunningham and his crew’s labour was often in vain, as storms frequently undid portions of their work. Part of the devastation caused by Typhoon Freda in 1962 for example, was that several hundred feet of newly built seawall was washed away.
Even into his retirement, legend has it that Cunningham would meander down to the seawall to make sure the crew was doing the job right. On one occasion he came in his pajamas during a bout of pneumonia.
Jimmy Cunningham didn’t live long enough to see his pride and joy completed. He died in 1963. He’s memorialized with a plaque near Siwash Rock and his ashes are embedded nearby in an unmarked spot in the seawall.
You can hear many more strange tales from the park on our Secrets of Stanley Park walking tour, every Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday afternoons from April to November.