II. Formation of the City

The impetus for, founding of
and cataclysmic start to Vancouver

“Lately we have changed our name from the pleasing one of Granville, for this bombastic swaggering title of Vancouver.”

Father Clinton, April 3, 1886 (letter)

“…the tract of land known as the Town of Granville …hereby declared to be a body politic and corporate in fact and in law, the name of the ‘City of Vancouver.’”

Provincial legislation, April 6, 1886

“One huge flame, a hundred feet long, burst from the Deighton Hotel, leaped ‘Maple Tree Square’, and swallowed up the buildings where now stands the Europe Hotel; the fire went down the old ‘Hastings road’ (Alexander street) faster than a man could run. Two iron tires and some ashes were all that was left of a man, horse, and cart which perished in the middle of Carrall street.”

H. P. McCraney, June 13, 1886 eyewitness (Early Van.)

“The day after the fire I saw a burned out hotel keeper selling whiskey from a bottle in his hip pocket and a glass in his hand, his counter being a sack of potatoes.

George H. Keefer, June 13, 1886 eyewitness (Early Van.)

“Mr. J. M. Stiles, until today a real-estate dealer in Vancouver, has fled to parts unknown.”

news item, June 1886, (News Advert.))


Vancouver acquired its raison d’être when it was chosen as a railroad terminus at an interface between sea and land traffic. But it was not without a tradeoff.

In 1870, after three years of debating the matter, the colony of British Columbia with its capital in Victoria[1] went cap in hand to Canada asking for a wagon road to be built over the Rocky Mountains as part of its terms for joining Canada.[2] The national government promised a transcontinental railway to ferry Asian goods over British North America, to and through Canada and thence to Europe as well as European goods to Asia.[3] This was the sweetener for the colony of British Columbia and so it joined Canada in 1871. The final coastal terminus, however, was up for grabs. Port Moody was first chosen in 1879 and the first train arrived there in 1886, but the future Vancouver[4] was felt to be a better port. Consequently, in 1884, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) secretly negotiated with the provincial government for valuable land on Coal Harbour between the old Bricklayers claim and the townsite of Granville.[5] In order to seal a CPR terminus deal the following year, the provincial government granted the CPR a total of 6,280 acres, which included the original downtown (Government Reserve) area and a vast area south of False Creek, thereby laying the foundation for a real city. It also meant that Vancouver would become a CPR-dominated town that looked both into the interior and out to sea.[6]

To achieve legal status as a city, on January 8, 1886 the villagers at the Granville Townsite appointed a committee to draft and circulate a petition that was then moved through the legislation stages and became a private member’s bill in the British Columbia legislature.The City of Vancouver was created under the Vancouver Incorporation Act of April 6, 1886. One month after the incorporation, 499 voters elected a mayor and 10 aldermen. The infant city included the old Bricklayers’ Claim, the downtown CPR land grant, the townsite of Granville, and CPR land across False Creek up to 16th Avenue.

Vancouver before the amalgamation of 1929.
Open Learning Agency, as in Barman, The West Beyond the West, 2007, xix



Vancouver after the fire, CVA LGN 455
Vancouver after the fire.
Image: City of Vancouver Archives [LGN 455]

Within weeks of incorporation, however, the city burned down. In a frenzied effort to clear land for purchase and settlement, huge piles of brush had been stacked up on the peninsula. On the morning of June 13th, several piles were set alight for disposal. An unusually strong spring wind roared in, very quickly consuming the wooden settlement of Granville and old Gastown,within 30 minutes killing an unknown number of people.

Mayor, Council and City officials assembled in front of tent.
Image: Vancouver Public Library Archives [VPL 508A]

The fire so embedded itself in the psyche of Vancouverites that it became the founding mythology, with a new city arising like a phoenix out of the ashes. Rebuilding began almost immediately, this time including more sturdy brick structures. Modern streetcars and gas street lamps were soon in place, giving Vancouver the trappings of an instant modern city.

Arrival of first train in Vancouver, May 23, 1887
Arrival of first train in Vancouver, May 23, 1887 .
Image: Image: City of Vancouver Archives [CVA LGN 460]
First locomotive to reach Vancouver CVA 371-2870
First locomotive to reach Vancouver.
Image:City of Vancouver Archives [CVA 371-2870]

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Notes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. The colony of British Columbia, with its capital in New Westminster, had been formed in 1858 and the colony of Vancouver Island, in 1849 with its capital as Victoria. Vancouver Island united with the mainland in 1866 under the name British Columbia, but the capital of the joined colonies became Victoria in 1868, on Vancouver Island, not New Westminster.
  2. As early as 1867, the debt-ridden colony of British Columbia pondered joining the far off newly formed Dominion of Canada on the other side of the vast HBC monopoly trading territory or, alternatively, face the prospect of being sold by Britain to the USA as part of reparations stemming from Britain having built and outfitted Confederate ships during the American Civil War. A need to retain the Royal Navy’s base on Vancouver Island probably tipped the balance in favour of not selling the colony. Akrigg, British Columbia Chronicle, 1847-1871, 344-347; Acceptance by the Dominion of Canada was not a done deal as, for many, Canada limited its vision of itself to that of an agrarian commonwealth, and mountainous British Columbia did not fit this concept; however, those who argued for the broader “vision of access” to the Pacific and thus Asia won the day. Forrest D. Pass, “Agrarian Commonwealth or Entrepôt of the Orient?”, 25-53; Vancouver eventually became the pivotal component in this latter vision.
  3. In later years, the term All Red Route was used to describe the circum-global transportation route serving the British Empire.
  4. The name “Vancouver” came from William Van Horne, the American President of the Montreal-based CPR, apparently while he was being rowed around Stanley Park in September 1884. His reasoning was that Vancouver Island was already associated with British Columbia and the new city’s name should readily be identified as the terminus of the railway rather than the nondescript name of Granville. McKelvie, Romance of Vancouver, 10; It may also have been more than coincidence that Vancouver, Washington, had been the Pacific headquarters of HBC operations for over two decades and that both Van Horne and Vancouver’s ancestors were Dutch.
  5. James P. Delgado, Waterfront, 49; Lisa Smedman, Vancouver: Stories of a City, 8
  6. The first official train arrival in Vancouver did not take place until May 23, 1887