Gastown and Gassy Jack in Vancouver: History and Attractions

Gastown is a unique and interesting area in downtown Vancouver. It’s a historically important part of the city as well as a tourist attraction. It’s the oldest neighbourhood in Vancouver and the site where the core area of the city was created. Gastown has modern street decorations created in a vintage style and is known for its cobbled streets, interesting shops and eateries, photogenic street lamps, a steam clock, and the statue of Gassy Jack, or John Deighton. Unless otherwise stated, I took the photos in this post. I live near Vancouver and often visit Gastown.


A view of Gastown with the Harbour Centre and the Vancouver Lookout in the background

John Deighton (1830-1875) is traditionally said to have founded Gastown in 1867. He was known as “gassy” because he was very talkative. He was born in England and is often described as an adventurer. He participated in a gold rush (without much success) and worked as a steamboat pilot.

When Deighton discovered a suitable patch of land beside Burrard Inlet, one of his first acts was to build a saloon with the aid of workers at the nearby Hastings Sawmill. He told the workers that he would give them all the whisky they could drink if they helped him create the saloon. The building was erected within twenty-four hours.

The sawmill workers and sailors visiting the area were Deighton’s main customers. New buildings were erected around his Globe Saloon and a community soon developed in the area. The community was at first known as Gastown after John Deighton’s love of storytelling. In 1870, government representatives explored the area and renamed it Granville. The name honoured Lord Granville, the Secretary of State for the Colonies. British Columbia didn’t become part of Canada until July 20th, 1871.


A lovely view of a Gastown lamp (Photo by Xicotencatl, CC BY-SA 4.0 license)

Granville was eventually renamed Vancouver and officially became a city on April 6th, 1886.  Captain George Vancouver was a member of the Royal Navy and is famous for charting the coast of the Pacific Northwest region of North America, which includes British Columbia.

Very soon after its official creation, the new city faced a disaster. A major fire occurred in Vancouver on June 13th, 1886. It quickly destroyed the wooden buildings that formed most of the city. These buildings included John Deighton’s saloon. Sadly, it also destroyed human lives. The fire was such an important event that it’s referred to as the Great Fire. The fire was spread by wind from a small fire that was deliberately lit to clear brush.

Vancouver was quickly rebuilt after the fire and continued to grow. The buildings in Gastown are old, but due to the fire they don’t represent Deighton’s community. They do represent the location of the community that stemmed from his popular tavern, though.

Steam Clock

The steam clock in Gastown

Today many of the buildings in the Gastown area have been refurbished, though the designers have been careful to maintain a particular style while doing so. The area is known for its boutiques, souvenir stores, art galleries, coffee shops, restaurants, music venues, and technology firms as well as its outdoor attractions. It’s an enjoyable place to explore and photograph.


A view of the internal mechanism of the steam clock

The Gastown “steam” clock is actually powered by electricity, although it includes a small steam engine as part of its mechanism. The steam comes from an underground pipe. Moving weights are also part of the clock’s mechanism and can be seen in the photo above. The clock was built as a tourist attraction and has been very successful in meeting that goal. I often find it hard to photograph the clock because there’s a group of people around it.

The clock was built by Raymond Saunders in 1977. It releases puffs of steam every quarter of an hour and at the same time produces a sound from its whistles. It also marks each hour with the correct number of toots from a whistle. You can see the steam in my first photo of the clock.

Gassy Jack

The Gassy Jack statue

The bronze statue of Gassy Jack was created by Vern Simpson in 1970. The statue is standing on a whisky barrel. It’s placed at a relatively open area where several main roads intersect (Water, Powell, Alexander, and Carrall Streets). The area is known as Maple Tree Square and is believed to be the approximate location where the Globe Saloon was built.

The photo below provides a wonderful look at history. It shows Maple Tree Square in 1886 just before the Great Fire. The maple tree was a popular gathering place for local people (or at least for the men in the community, as the photo suggests). Unfortunately, the tree no longer exists. Maple trees can live for a hundred years or more, depending on the species.


Maple Tree Square in Gastown in 1886 (Public domain image from the City of Vancouver Archives)

The Gastown area was in a bad state in the 1970s and was scheduled for demolition. History fans and local residents objected and the area was revitalized. It’s very popular today. Visitors to Vancouver should be aware that if they walk beyond Maple Tree Square, they may discover an area that hasn’t been revitalized and is home to people who need help in one form or another. The area is known as the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood. Government representatives and social agencies are helping people in the neighbourhood, but the problems there are proving difficult to solve.

It’s a shame that businesses and people in Gastown are doing well and just a short distance away they aren’t. The situation is sad, but it certainly doesn’t mean that tourists and residents should avoid Gastown. The area is a great place for visitors, including Maple Tree Square. Visitors may not want to walk much further to the east after they’ve explored the square and its immediate vicinity, though.

It’s perfectly feasible for someone with normal mobility to walk through the downtown section of Vancouver to Gastown. The area is located near the Waterfront Skytrain Station. If a person turns to the left as they leave the main station entrance, they’ll soon reach Gastown. I always enjoy a walk through the area. It’s well worth visiting.

Vancouver’s Waterfront Station and the Angel of Victory Statue

The Waterfront Station in downtown Vancouver is a historic landmark as well as a transit hub. It’s an impressive building that was once one of Canada’s famous and sometimes opulent railway hotels. The hotels were built by the Canadian Pacific and Canadian National Railways as a place for their passengers to stay.

The station is not the only attraction in the area today. The Angel of Victory statue located in front of the Waterfront Station is a moving reminder of lives lost in the First and Second World War. Other attractions are located in close vicinity to the station.

Waterfront Station

Waterfront Station as seen from a pedestrian bridge over the road

The Historic Hotel

The station is located in front of Burrard Inlet, which is always an interesting place to view. Railway tracks are located between the station and the water, as can be seen in the photo from the City of Vancouver archives below. The building housing the station was created by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) for people who had arrived in the city in the company’s trains and could afford the cost of staying in the hotel. A station platform was once located behind the hotel for the convenience of visitors.

The hotel was designed to be impressive for visitors and an important landmark in the burgeoning city. The red brick building with its neoclassical white columns and its ornamentation was and still is greatly admired. It was opened on August 1st, 1914. World War 1 started on July 28th of that year.

Today the Canadian Pacific Railway ships goods instead of transporting passengers. People can still travel to and from Vancouver in a train by using Via Rail. This company has a station close to the downtown area. The station is located next to a SkyTrain station, allowing travellers to quickly reach the downtown core. SkyTrain is Greater Vancouver’s LRT (light rapid transit) system.

Historical Station

The station and steamships in 1923; public domain photo from the Vancouver Archives

Inside the Waterfront Station

Waterfront Station is a busy area. Different SkyTrain lines, a train for commuters known as the West Coast Express, and the SeaBus that transports foot passengers over Burrard Inlet are available for travellers. A helicopter pad is located very near to the station and connects to it via a short walkway. Buses stop outside the station.

The station contains stores and restaurants on the lowest floor as well as ticket machines. The interior of the public area is spacious and has a high ceiling, as shown in the photo below. It was once the waiting hall for people with tickets for CPR trains. The area looks as though it has been painted and decorated quite recently, but some paintings on a wall are older. They show landscapes that travellers on a CPR train may have seen in an earlier time. They were painted by Adelaide Langford in 1916. She was the wife of a CPR executive.

The upper floors of the station contain business offices and storage rooms. The area is said to be haunted by more than one ghost. This could be an interesting idea to explore, depending on one’s point of views about the reality of spectres.

Interior Station

Part of the interior of the station; public domain photo by Daderot

Attractions to the West of the Station

Waterfront Station is a convenient dropping-off point for people planning to explore the attractions of the waterfront, the city’s downtown section, or a section of the city known as Gastown. Walking to the right as a person leaves the front of  the station will take the traveller to the pier at Canada Place, the Digital Orca sculpture, the Olympic Cauldron, five giant sails, and an attractive waterfront walking and cycling path. (The links go to previous posts that I’ve written.) The walking path travels beside the inlet as well as a float plane terminus, marinas, and other sights worth seeing.

If the traveller goes far enough along the walking path they’ll reach Stanley Park, which is a lovely place to explore. The journey takes around forty minutes, though it could take considerably shorter or longer depending on walking speed. The seaside trail continues through and beyond the park. Travelling the whole length of the 28 km trail is a worthy and enjoyable goal for someone in good physical shape and with time to spare, but exploring specific sections is fun, too. The official name of the trail is the Seaside Greenway. 

Since the greenway loops around the perimeter of Stanley Park, which is located on a peninsula, it’s possible to take shortcuts back to the start in some areas. Some planning is needed if anyone is doing more than a casual walk or bike ride. Bikes are allowed on SkyTrain under certain conditions and the buses have bike racks. 

Waterfron Perspective2

The station as seen from another perspective; photo by Wpcpey, CC BY-SA 4.0 license

Attractions to the South and East

Travelling a short distance to the south of the station (that is, straight ahead from its front entrance) will take a person to the downtown core of the city and its attractions. It’s easy to identify directions in Vancouver as long as the North Shore Mountains are visible on the far side of the inlet.

Travelling to the left of the entrance will take a person to a historic area of the city known as Gastown. The area has cobbled streets, interesting vintage lampposts, a steam clock, and a statue of Gassy Jack, or John Leighton. He was called “gassy” due to his talkative nature.

Leighton created a tavern beside Burrard Inlet in 1867. The tavern attracted loggers, fishermen, and other people who frequented or visited the area. The community grew as buildings were erected near the tavern. Eventually the area became the city of Vancouver. Today Gastown is known for its eateries, stores, and art galleries in addition to its architecture and street attractions. Special events sometimes take place in its streets.


The Angel of Victory

The Angel of Victory Statue

The Angel of Victory Statue is located in front of the extreme east end of the station, as shown in the photo above. The statue is positioned approximately where Gastown begins. It depicts an angel carrying a dead soldier to heaven. At one time she was holding a small wreath in her raised hand, but at some point the wreath was broken. Now the angel holds just a few leaves in her hand.

The statue was created by Coeur de Lion MacCarthy (1881-1979) and was installed in 1921. His father was Hamilton Plantagenet MacCarthy. Interesting names seemed to have run in the family. Coeur de Lion was born in London in the UK but spent most of his life in Toronto. He created many war memorials.

The statue is made in bronze and is one of an originally identical trio. The other two angels are located in Winnipeg and Montreal. All of the statues honour CPR employees who were killed in the wars. The writing on the Vancouver plaque was added after the second world war.


The plaque at the base of the statue

Waterfront Station is a great place to start a tour and a good place to aim for if a visitor arrives in downtown Vancouver at another location. There are multiple SkyTrain stations, bus stops, taxi stops, and car parkades downtown, so there are many different ways to reach the city centre.  A camera is an excellent accessory for a visitor or explorer in Vancouver at any time of the year.