Island Heritage

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From Industry to Artistry

Talk about a transformation. In the late 1970s, Granville Island began to change. From a declining 37-acre industrial wasteland in Vancouver's False Creek, to one of the most successful urban redevelopments in North America.

1886: In the Beginning

The small mill town of Granville was renamed Vancouver in 1886 with the arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). In the late 19th century, False Creek was more than twice the size it is today. Its tidal flats included two sandbars over which spanned the original and rickety wooden Granville Street bridge (seen here). Those two sandbars would eventually become Granville Island. Local First Nations used the sandbars' natural corral-like formation for fishing. However, there was a problem with the new settlers. They wanted either water deep enough to navigate or dry land to buy, sell and develop. What ensued in the wild-west atmosphere of turn-of-the-century Vancouver was a series of disputes, land grabs, conspiracies and entrepreneurial schemes. But no one could agree on a plan, and so the flats lay undeveloped for another 20 years.

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The Early 20th Century: Industrial Boom

In 1909, a second Granville Street Bridge was built to span the Creek. This one made of steel. And in 1915, the Vancouver Harbour Commission approved a 35-acre reclamation project for the Island. Almost a million cubic yards of fill was dredged from False Creek to create the spreading pancake under the Granville Street Bridge. It was initially christened "Industrial Island," but the name that eventually stuck came down from the bridge overhead. Total cost for the reclamation in 1915: $342,000. The first tenants of Granville Island served the forest, mining, construction and shipping sectors.

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B.C. Equipment Ltd. built a wood-framed machine shop, clad in corrugated tin, at the Island's west end. (Today the same structure houses part of the Granville Island Public Market.) By 1923, virtually every lot on the Island was occupied by similar corrugated-tin factories making chain, barrels, wire rope, nails, saws, paint, cement and all manner of industrial machinery. At its height in 1930, most of the 1,200 workers employed on the Island arrived at work by streetcar. There was a special stop in the middle of the Granville Street Bridge from where they descended several flights of stairs to the Island below.

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Of course, the boom ended with the onset of the Great Depression. Several sawmills around False Creek shut down, and a shantytown emerged. Living on floats and piles, the squatters remained until the 1950s, when a typhoid scare and a grisly murder prompted the city to evict them.

The War Years: Survival of the Fittest

The secondary industries on Granville Island survived the Depression by lobbying for lower rents, and withholding civic taxes on the grounds that the city had no jurisdiction over federal property. The ensuing court case went all the way the House of Lords in London, the highest court of appeal at the time. The tenants lost, but by then the winds of war were blowing in Europe, and the industrial markets on which Granville Island's factories depended were well on the mend. Demand for their products soared, and Granville Island entered its second heyday. The Island was considered so vital to the war effort that in 1942, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, special identification cards were issued to workers to prevent saboteurs from infiltrating it.

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The End of an Era: Asphalt to Asphalt, Rust to Rust

In the postwar period, demand for heavy industrial output declined. The sawmills and factories were becoming oily, dirty firetraps. Once a fertile fishing ground, False Creek had become a toxic sewer. Officials began entertaining a new reclamation plan to fill in the remainder of the Creek to create more industrial land and turn Granville Island into a land-locked plot. The Creek was saved by the hefty $50-million price tag estimated to fulfill the reclamation plan. Just six acres were reclaimed along the Island's south channel. Nonetheless, the Island was in serious decline. Fire struck factory after factory, and their owners either relocated or called it quits. Trucks replaced barges and trains, and the Island's cramped, inner-city location no longer looked attractive to industry. After lengthy discussions, evictions, and arguments, city officials finally set the course for the future: transform the site into a people-friendly place with various uses, from parkland to housing to public exhibition space.

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The Island Today: Reclamation Reformation

Walking Granville Island today, you can see the traces of its origins. Around some of the trees you can see the sandy soil deposited for millennia by the streams draining into False Creek. Railway track can still be seen amongst the cobblestone streets and the industrial heritage of the Island is stamped on every building.

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Even some old tenants still thrive: a concrete factory, Ocean Construction Ltd. has been on Johnston St. for more than 90 years. And Micon Industries, a drill bit manufacturer, moved into its Anderson St. location in the 1960s.

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In the narrow lots and buildings, you can see the logic of early Twentieth-Century industrial land use; the 50-60-foot-wide lots allowed the tenants frontage to the water at one end and to the Island's rail network, running roughly along the course of today's streets, at the other.

The absence of curbs and sidewalks responded to the need for unobstructed passage for trucks, trolleys and forklifts.

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Granville Island now sustains a thriving, healthy ecosystem. Nature has regenerated itself, with the help of the Government of Canada, the City of Vancouver and private developers. Thanks to the efforts of several visionary people, the dream for a unique urban oasis is a thriving reality, and will continue evolving and shaping itself into the future.