Vancouver demystified

Bloody Alley Square at Gastown. - Photo by Kenny Louie

Bloody Alley Square at Gastown. – Photo by Kenny Louie

As Vancouver approaches its 127th anniversary and tourism season nears, it’s time to re-visit stories of the city’s muddled history. Some of the myths that persist today – Chinatown tunnels, public executions, blood spilling onto alleyways – stem from half-truths, misunderstandings or are just plain old urban legends.

Blood Alley Not so Bloody?

John Atkin, local author and civic historian. - Photo courtesy of John Atkin

John Atkin, local author and civic historian. – Photo courtesy of John Atkin

Blood Alley is an evocative name with a less evocative past. Tourist information on Vancouver suggests that Blood Alley was named for the buckets of blood spilled onto the streets by butchers that populated the area in the early 1900s. Other rumours suggest that it might have been a place where murders or public executions took place. But according to local author and civic historian John Atkin, what is now Blood Alley Square was simply an alleyway between Water Street and Cordova Street.

Atkin surmises that the misconception originated from an article in Vancouver World, the city’s daily newspaper during Vancouver’s 12th anniversary, when an old-timer drew a map of the early town. On the map, Water Street was mistakenly labeled Carrall Street, and vice versa. Atkin explains that at the time, there was a butcher named George Black at the corner of Water and Carrall Street, and so the butcher that was supposed to be located at the edge of the creek suddenly ended up on Carrall Street.

Like Atkin, tour guide Ali Butcher has never come across any record of a butcher shop in Blood Alley during his research. Butcher is part of the Tour Guys, a group that aims to show a different side of Vancouver to the public through free, interactive walking tours. He clarifies that Blood Alley is actually called Blood Alley Square, and the connected alleyway is called Trounce Alley.

Butcher explains that Blood Alley Square was part of Gastown’s rebranding and revitalization in the 1970s, along with the addition of the fake cobblestones and the steam clock.

“They thought that Blood Alley sounded like a cool, folksy, Wild West name,” he says.

Tunnels Under Chinatown?

Chinatown’s history is rich with stories of opium dens and gambling. Around the turn of the 20th century, police and health officials were always after the Chinese for drugs and gambling, Atkin says. However, opium was legal in Canada until 1908 and the ‘gambling dens’ were actually mahjong game parlours.

During his research, Butcher discovered that there were tunnels under the post office and separately under other buildings, but no network of tunnels running through the city. However, the basements of buildings in early Chinatown used to be connected, and Butcher speculates that this is how the tunnel rumours started. Although it is not well documented, illegal activities likely took place in the tunnels, Butcher explains. When the police showed up, the patrons would pack up their things, go downstairs and escape through the alleyways behind Pender Street, says Butcher.

Then and Now

As to why these myths persist, Butcher suspects that people like to hold on to the stories of whiskey-running and smuggling of contraband during prohibition.

“It’s romantic. People like to hark back to the early Gastown days and it was a debaucherous place,” he says.

Atkin stresses the importance of learning about the city’s real history because it impacts what we do today. Citing the Downtown Eastside as an example, Atkin says that the current concerns about its gentrification stem from a perception that it’s always been a poor neighbourhood, even though it was once a vibrant part of downtown that was associated with the resource industry.

“If you look at the development of neighborhoods, and you understand how neighborhoods actually develop, then I think you have a better sense of how they can continue to develop,” he explains.

Butcher hopes that there will be more of an interest in the city’s human histories and says that some of Gastown’s real history is actually more interesting than mythical butcher shops.