The Man Who Named Vancouver's Streets...and Barely Escaped With His Life

The Man Who Named Vancouver’s Streets… and Barely Escaped With His Life

Leg-In-Boot Square, Blood Alley, Bucketwheel… Vancouver has some eccentric street names and many more conventional ones. It will probably come as no surprise to learn that 276 streets are named after men (in contrast, only 16 women get the honour of having a street named after them in Vancouver). There’s something missing though: As of 2019, in all 651 of Vancouver’s street names, there wasn’t one Indigenous name in the bunch.

When I started working as a tour guide for Forbidden Vancouver I began to notice little things I’d never bothered about before: scraps of the old wooden roads reappearing when there was road work being done; the way places like Gastown’s infamous Grand Hotel nestled beside much newer buildings, beautiful architectural details that many of us never see because we forget to look up.

As I biked to the Dominion Building on West Hastings, where our offices are, I wondered about the street names in the area, English-sounding names like Homer, Burrard, Hastings, and Richards. To my surprise, these names (and so many more!) were the brainchild of just one man: Lachlan Alexander Hamilton. 

Lachlan Hamilton as a young man.

Lachlan A. Hamilton as a young man.

The First Surveyor

Ironically, Hamilton himself was born in a place with a gorgeous Indigenous name that rolls off the tongue: Penetanguishine, Ontario. As a land commissioner for the Canadian Pacific Railway, he was charged with laying out many of the streets which form the downtown core of Vancouver to this day.

What an amazing job! Someone gives you a lifetime supply of wooden stakes and a long chain, and you wander off into the forest near Gastown and then… you just start figuring out where streets are going to go. The very first stake that Hamilton hammered into the ground is only a few feet away from the beautiful Dominion Building, where all Forbidden Vancouver tour guides now go to grab our supplies and change into costume before leading a tour. 

Dominion Building

The Dominion Building, designed by J.S. Helyer, viewed from Hamilton Street. [Photo: City of Vancouver Archives]

As many of us would be tempted to do, Hamilton named a street after himself, as well as for friends and colleagues at the CPR (Abbott, Beatty, and Cambie streets). But he must have had some affection for his surroundings, or at least wanted to pay them tribute, because he also named many streets after Pacific Coast place names: Pender, Bute, Jervis, and Pacific, to name a few.

A keen landscape painter, Hamilton also came up with all the Vancouver “tree” street names. He’d had a clever plan to arrange them alphabetically from Arbutus to Yew. Unfortunately he then left on a trip at an inopportune moment and a subordinate messed it up, which must have rankled more than a bit.

Surveyors Chain

A typical chain used by land surveyors. [Photo: museumsmanitoba.com]

After The Fire

With snobbery typical of the times, Hamilton and his CPR boss, William Cornelius Van Horne, decided that  “the names “Gastown” and “Granville” both smacked rather of the village than of a great city,” in Hamilton’s own words. They wanted a grander name, and ultimately decided upon Vancouver. 

Hamilton’s heart must have sunk to his boots when he saw much of Vancouver destroyed in the Great Fire of 1886, the very same year that it had become incorporated as a city. In fact, he had a first-hand view of the inferno as he raced out of his workplace to get away from it. 

“I lost in that fire all the photographs that I had taken previous to the fire. The heat was so great when I escaped from the building that a number of valuable documents were burnt in my arm, and all glasses in the levels were cracked in the surveying instrument I was carrying over my shoulder.”

As a member of Vancouver’s first city council, Hamilton was on hand to help rebuild the city after the fire was extinguished. You can see him in a famous photograph taken shortly after the fire, along with other city fathers:

first council meeting 1886

Vancouver City council meeting after the great fire of 1886.  L.A. Hamilton is seated third from the left at the table. Vancouver’s first mayor, Malcolm McLean, is seated second from the left. [Photo: City of Vancouver Archives]

In our Lost Souls of Gastown tour, we talk about George Vancouver, the British explorer for whom our city is named, and about William Cornelius Van Horne, whose railway shaped Vancouver, for better and worse. We don’t mention Lachlan Hamilton, but his work is all around us. Hamilton himself claimed: 

”I cannot say that I am proud of the original planning of Vancouver. The work, however, was beset with many difficulties. The dense forest, the inlet on the north, and False Creek on the south, the receding in of the land at Carrall Street…” 

He certainly had his work cut out for him, and I’m glad that there’s a street with his name on it. And although Hamilton was a bit modest when describing his work, he clearly had affection for the city he worked so hard to shape. “I stood God Father when I laid its foundation post,” he wrote. 

commemorative stone

This stone commemorating Hamilton’s first survey post used to be at the corner of Hastings and Hamilton Streets. [Photo: City of Vancouver Archives]

Indigenous Place Names

But it’s other, older names that I truly love to say aloud: 

Lekleki,the original name for Gastown, after the maple trees that grew there. 

Quahail-ya,who was “Gassy” Jack Deighton’s second wife. She outlived him by decades, and was a matriarch of the Squamish nation. 

Kumkumalay:the area where we start our Lost Souls tour. When we added some of these names to the tour we were encouraged to get guests to say them aloud. At first that felt awkward, but I soon saw how much they enjoyed rolling the unfamiliar words around their mouths. 

As Vancouver moved into the 19th century, Indigenous place names that had been in use for thousands of years began to disappear, replaced by the names of “influential” foreigners, battles of yesteryear, and faraway lands. Languages built around the spoken—not written— word rapidly became endangered. 

Indigenous Names Vancouver

Some Indigenous place names around Vancouver circa 1850. [Image credit: Vancouver: A Visual History, by Bruce MacDonald]

A few years ago we did a workshop with an elder from the Squamish Nation, Chief Ian Campbell, who told us that one of the most effective things we could do as tour guides was to keep Indigenous place names alive and teach them to locals and visitors alike. And so we do. 

say the names

as if they were your soul

lost among the mountains

a soul you mislaid

and found again rejoicing

Al Purdy, Say The Names


My name is Alison Jenkins and I’m a musician, a songwriter, and a tour guide with Forbidden Vancouver. Born in Toronto, I moved here with my family when I was 14 years old. Let’s dive into the history of Vancouver together! 


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