When I first heard that the historic district of Vancouver was called Gastown, I began to wonder. This older section of the city sits on the northeast edge of the downtown Vancouver area. It is bound by Columbia Street, the waterfront (naturally), Cambie Street, and Hastings Street. It was named for “Gassie Jack” Deighton, a Yorkshire seaman, who arrived in 1867, and opened the city’s first bar. No word on how Jack got his rather colorful, or stinky name. It is considered the birthplace of the city.
The area soon prospered due to the Hastings Street sawmill and the highly accessible port. But thanks to Gassie Jack, it also became a rough and rowdy area for seaman, loggers, hookers, fishermen, and mill workers alike. Though it went through several wholesale warehouse type businesses, it thrived as the center of the city’s drinking life, with over 300 licensed bars in a twelve block area!
But after the depression, the area fell into disrepair and declined until the 1960s. Finally, the city fathers decided to preserve the distinctive architecture of Gastown, culminating in the city declaring it a historic district in 1971. Today, the result is a mix of retail, fashion, tourist oriented business and restaurants (mostly on Water Street), and some upscale housing. It has also become a hub for technology and new media.
Gastown is now the home to the famous Vancouver International Jazz Festival, as well as Global Relay Gastown Grand Prix. But perhaps more famous than anything else is the Gastown Steam Clock, built in 1977, on the corner of Cambie and Water Streets. The clock was engineered to trap the steam from below to keep people from sleeping on the streets. Others say it was meant to be a tourist attraction. The steam comes from a downtown-wide steam heating system from a plant near the Georgia Viaduct. The steam powers a miniature steam engine in its base, which drives a chain lift. The chain lift moves steel balls forward until they are unloaded and rolled onto a descending chain. The weight of the balls drives a pendulum clock escapement, geared to the hands of the four clocks.
The clock was built by Canadian horologist, Raymond Saunders. I assume that profession is different from a whore-ologist? I just could not resist that joke. The clock is now owned by the city of Vancouver, and cost $58,000 CAD.
Nightlife is popular down here after dark. It turns out that clubs and bars reside in different licensing categories. Some have live music, and some, like the Blarney Stone, are called party houses. The cobblestone streets cannot be conducive to late night bar hopping. Gastown is located directly next to the Downtown Eastside, notorious for drug addicts and panhandlers. But with several shootings and gang activity in the area, I think we will stick to the friendly confines of Robson Street. See you there!