Gastown: It’s Not What You Think

Gastown, Vancouver, is the city’s historic heart and a center of design, dining, and entertainment. Today this section of Vancouver is hip and happening, with over 500 businesses that include trendy galleries, boutiques, and award-winning restaurants that guests on Vantage’s Trans-Canada Rail Odyssey & the Rockies can explore. And while it’s worth visiting for its active nightlife and cultural scene, the city is also known for its colorful, curious history.

Gastown was named after steamboat captain John “Gassy Jack” Deighton, who left his native Yorkshire in 1844 in search of fortune. After unsuccessful gold mining ventures during the gold rushes of both California and the Cariboo regional district of Canada, Gassy Jack opened a saloon in New Westminster, where his affability and love of gassing (talking) served him well.

In 1867, Gassy Jack needed to take time out and tend to his health, so he entrusted his saloon, whiskey, and cash to an American friend who blew the lot on fireworks for the Fourth of July. Disillusioned and nearly broke, Jack, his First Nations wife, her mother, and her cousin traveled by canoe to an undeveloped area known as Luck-Lucky, on the Burrard Inlet. Within 24 hours, he put up a board-and-batten shack near a large maple grove and named it the Globe Saloon, the same name as his previous establishment. Gassy Jack became the first settler on the Burrard Inlet.

By 1870, the settlement of Granville had developed around the Globe Saloon. However, the town plan showed the Globe in the middle of the street. Gassy Jack was forced to move his business. He bought nearby property and built the Deighton Hotel, which contained a bar, billiard table, and several upstairs bedrooms. Granville was eventually renamed Gastown, in honor of Gassy Jack.

Gastown, Vancouver, has had its ups and downs. In 1886, the city fell victim to the Great Vancouver Fire that destroyed all but two of its buildings. The neighborhood was completely rebuilt and remained the center of Vancouver’s wholesale produce industry until the 1930s. By the 1960s, it had become the city’s skid row area. Local Vancouver residents campaigned for its rehabilitation and preservation, and Gastown was given new life. In 2009, it was named a national historic site.

Amid the blocks of Victorian buildings sporting reborn identities is the iconic Gastown steam clock. Steam powers the clock’s sound system, enabling it to chime the time of day. Nearby, the Gastown steam clock plaque commemorates the history of the neighborhood that, in 2012, Complex magazine honored as being the Fourth Most Stylish Neighborhood in the World.

Gassy Jack saw potential in his piece of the world, and he used his vision to transform it. It is said that he once told an old miner, “You and I may never see it, but this inlet would make the nicest of harbors. It will be a port some day.” Maybe he found gold after all.

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