Siwash Rock Beside the Stanley Park Seawall: Facts and History

Last updated on January 4th, 2022

The Siwash Rock is a 32-million-year-old sea stack.

The Siwash Rock is a famous sea stack beside the Stanley Park seawall in Vancouver, British Columbia. It’s very noticeable not only because of its appearance but also because it’s so close to the popular path on top of the seawall. People get an excellent view of the 32-million-year-old sea stack as they travel along the path and have the opportunity to take some great photographs.

Formation of a Sea Stack

A sea stack (or simply a stack) is an ocean landform formed due to wave erosion. Wind may also contribute to the stack’s formation. The stack has the shape of a steep column. The rock joining the stack to the mainland has eroded and collapsed, leaving the column standing alone.

An additional factor is responsible for the formation of the sea stack known as Siwash Rock. Stanley Park predominantly contains sedimentary rock (sandstone) that erodes relatively easily. Around 32 million years ago, a volcanic dike formed in the rock where the sea stack is now located. A volcanic dike is a more-or-less vertical passageway that allows the movement of hot magma from deeper in the Earth to the Earth’s surface. When the magma in the Stanley Park dike cooled and solidified, it formed an igneous rock called basalt. Basalt is far more resistant to erosion than sedimentary rock. When the nearby sedimentary rock eroded and collapsed, the basalt in the dike didn’t. Instead, it formed the sea stack known today as Siwash Rock.

Siwash Rock as it existed in 1889 or 1890 before the seawall was created (Public domain photo from the City of Vancouver Archives)

Location of Siwash Rock

Stanley Park is located on a peninsula that juts out into Burrard Inlet. The seawall path is flat and suitable for walkers, runners, cyclists, inline skaters, and wheelchair users. It’s approximately nine kilometres long, depending on the starting and ending points. It connects with other paths at its beginning and end. It’s possible to travel for along the complete route for a long time if someone wishes to do this. Siwash Rock is located between the First Narrows Bridge and Third Beach and is between fifty and sixty feet high. An iconic Douglas fir grows near its tip.

In the first and last part of the seawall path, it’s quite easy to leave the wall and travel back into the park. People who have mobility problems or who are not in the best of physical shape should be aware that the middle section of the path is located between the ocean and steep cliffs. The only way to leave the path at this point is to continue on beyond the cliffs or to turn around and retrace one’s steps. It may be comforting to know that the path is wide enough for the passage of an emergency vehicle.

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The Siwash Rock and the seawall

A Special Douglas Fir

For many years, the rock had a single Douglas fir growing from its tip. The plant died after a very dry summer in 1965, which disappointed many people. It’s illegal for the public to climb the rock, but occasionally people try. This activity is thought to have contributed to the death of the iconic tree. The rock and the tree that was growing in such an unusual location were an important symbol of Vancouver.

Park staff planted new trees. Some survived and grew where the old one once thrived. They are relatively young trees, so it will be interesting to see how many continue to grow in the limited space available. In the right habitat, Douglas firs can live for 500 to 1,000 years or more. It’s good to see that today the rock once again has greenery near its tip

The Siwash Rock with its iconic tree on the top

A Legend About the Rock’s Origin

A plaque on the sea wall beside Siwash Rock and a First Nations legend recounted in a book describe the significance of the rock to the earlier people living in the area. The First Nations are the indigenous people of British Columbia. The Squamish are the First Nations people that live and own land in the area near Stanley Park.

The plaque tells us that the stack is “an impenetrable monument to Skalsh the Unselfish”. Skalsh was a legendary chief. According to the plaque, Skalsh was turned to stone by Q’uas the Transformer as a reward for his unselfishness.

Pauline Johnson

Another story about the rock’s origin is told in a book by a famous poet and performer named E. Pauline Johnson (Emily Pauline Johnson). She is also known simply as Pauline Johnson and by her Indian name of Tekahionwake. She lived from 1861 (or 1862, according to some reports) to 1913. In her book, she says that she was told the tale by a First Nations friend. Pauline’s father was a Mohawk chief and her mother was English.

Johnson’s book is called Legends of Vancouver and was published in 1911. Her story is not the same as the one on the plaque, but like that tale it tells us that a man was turned to stone as a reward for thinking of other people instead of himself.

Emily Pauline Johnson, circa 1895 (Cochran, Library and Archives Canada, public domain license)

Another Legend About the Origin

Pauline tells the story of a chief who lived thousands of years ago. The young chief was widely admired in the area where he lived. When the chief’s wife was close to giving birth, the couple entered the ocean to wash themselves, which was an important pre-birth ritual. The woman then went into the forest of Stanley Park to deliver her child. The chief continued to swim in the ocean, determined to clean himself completely. His tribe believed that the father’s cleanliness was of the utmost importance because it could give the child the best start in life as a result of “vicarious purity”.

As the chief swam, a huge canoe carrying four giant men approached him. They told him that they were agents of Sagalie Tyee, or God, and that he must get out of their way and go ashore. The chief refused and said “I dare anything for the cleanliness and purity of my coming child. I dare even the Sagalie Tyee Himself, but my child must be born to a spotless life.”

The men were amazed at the chief’s bravery and determination. As they decided what to do, the cry of a newborn baby was heard. The tallest of the giant men then told the chief that as a reward for his unselfishness he would never die but would live on where all could see him “as an indestructible monument to Clean Fatherhood.” When the chief stepped on shore, he became the Siwash Rock. The giant men also changed the chief’s wife and child to rocks in the forest so that they would never die and would remain near the chief.

Changing the Name of the Sea Stack

Some people would like the stack’s name to be changed to Slhx̱í7lsh, which means “standing man” in the Squamish language. They feel that the present name lacks respect. The word “Siwash” was once jargon used at Hudson’s Bay ports to refer to indigenous people. As far as I know, the last proposal for a name change was made in 2017. At the moment, the name of Siwash Rock hasn’t been altered.

The science, legends, and significance of Siwash Rock are intriguing. It’s an attractive sea stack to see and photograph, and the walk along the seawall to the rock’s location is very enjoyable. I find it awesome to think about the great age of the stack every time I visit it.

Note to Readers

Pauline Johnson’s Legends of Vancouver can be read at the University of Pennsylvania website. I think they are interesting stories that are worth reading.

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