[By Lani Russwurm]
This is the second post in our Squatting Early Vancouver Series. Don’t miss out on part 1 about the Tar Flat neighourhood.
When the Canadian Pacific Railway arrived in Vancouver in the 1880s to claim the massive real estate holdings they’d been granted, the company found many people who’d beat them to it. First and foremost, the Coast Salish people never ceded the territory they’d lived on since time immemorial. In addition, a number of squatter encampments existed on otherwise unused land now granted to the CPR. This post looks at one entrepreneurial and unlucky squatter, and the community he built in the heart of Gastown, Cut-Throat Johnny’s.
The Province newspaper called JR Linton “gaunt, lanky, and unkept” and the “character of characters” of old Vancouver. He could barely speak because he had damaged his vocal chords in a grisly suicide attempt after having his heart broken, resulting in the nickname “Cut-throat Johnny.” Linton squatted the foreshore at the foot of Abbott Street shortly after the Great Fire of 1886. There he built large rafts that eventually held as many as 20 8’ x 10’ cabins, which he rented out for a dollar per week to men ranging “from the college graduate to the longshoreman, and who on the whole live very peacefully together,” according to the World in 1889.
Linton had big ambitions for his squat. One of the cabins served as a bathhouse. He also planned to build a waterfront “pleasure palace,” a four-story sports and entertainment complex that would feature an opera house, swimming pool, and a rooftop cycling and running track. He even advertised the opera house but was ultimately unable to convince the federal government to grant him title to the land. Another time Linton was charged with operating an illicit still at the site. He intended to open a brewery there, but the City refused him a license.
Later characterizations suggest that Linton’s squat had become a slum. By the end of the 1890s, the Province newspaper began campaigning for his shacks to be removed along with Tar Flat. “There is a distinctly criminal class who frequent ‘Cut-throat Johnny’s shacks and ‘Tar Flat,’” they wrote. “It is hardly too much to say that person or property is in danger so long as the habitations exist.” The shacks were “receptacles of stolen goods” and the police claimed that “they hold the toughest congregation of men and women in all Vancouver.”
According to the Province, Cut-throat Johnny’s was where “all the scum that floats up on the beach of a seaport city hold nightly carousals … Unlucky is the man who, drunker than he ought to be, is enticed down the ladder or gangway into one of the cabins.” More truthfully, residents of Cut-throat Johnny’s were a diverse group of working class men who couldn’t afford anything better.
Police Court newspaper columns only mention Cut-throat Johnny’s a handful of times in its 15-year existence. For example, of the ten residents listed in the 1901 census, two were charged with selling liquor to Indigenous people: a former Water Street restaurateur named Harry “Eyebrows” Chapman in 1897, and John Dunn in 1902, which earned him 30 days of hard labour on the chain gang. Thomas Devine received an 18 month sentence for stealing a suitcase outside Hotel Europe. Police also acknowledged that Linton reported any bad characters that showed up there.
The newspaper campaign against him helped fuel constant police harassment of Cut-throat Johnny’s tenants. At one point Detectives Butler and Wiley came by nearly every morning around 2:00 am to search the cabins for vagrants. Linton complained to city council, and when asked to explain, the police chief alleged that the squat was “one of the worst dens the force had to contend with.” Linton also visited the Province newspaper office after it published anonymous allegations and racial slurs against his tenants to make the case the police don’t harass them enough. Linton was livid. He threatened to fight the news staff, but ultimately backed down and left.
The City responded to the Province’s campaign by sending the health inspector out to declare the shacks unsanitary. Linton was ordered to clean up the place or the shacks would be destroyed by the fire department. He cleared out the two worst cabins, but that wasn’t good enough for the City and he was given a deadline to remedy the situation. Linton hired a lawyer and got two doctor reports saying his shacks were indeed habitable. The City backed down after receiving a letter from Linton’s lawyer threatening to get an injunction that would block the destruction of Cut-throat Johnny’s.
Linton’s lawyer eventually worked out an agreement with the City’s lawyer promising to spruce up the cabins to make them less unsightly. He also agreed to tear down the row of cabins that were most in disrepair. The City thought this was the beginning of the end of Cut-throat Johnny’s, until he re-built the cabins.
Finally the CPR stepped in and bought Linton out so they could fill in the foreshore and extend their wharf. Linton accepted and headed for Alaska (or Australia, depending on the source), and the CPR began its reclamation project in the spring of 1902. Linton later returned to Vancouver and rented a room on Carrall Street until his death in 1903. There were rumours that he left a substantial inheritance to the physician that had taken care of him for years.
Cut-throat Johnny’s and Tar Flat aren’t unique in Vancouver’s history. The City, the police, and property owners evicted many squatter communities, sometimes with violence and sometimes through the courts. The squatters were disproportionally Indigenous in many cases, and typically more ethnically diverse than the general population of the city. In a repeating colonial process resembling a game of whack-a-mole, squatters were severely vilified by opponents and forced to move on. But then, as now, people without the resources to secure more acceptable housing needed somewhere to be, and made do with what was available. It’s a subject as old as Vancouver itself.