King George VI and Queen Elizabeth greeting veterans during their 1939 tour of Canada. Prime Minister Mackenzie King is seen at far left. (photo:
King George VI and Queen Elizabeth greeting veterans during their
1939 tour of Canada. Prime Minister Mackenzie King is seen at far left.


A note to readers: This is a first draft of the 1939 chapter proposed for the book. By the time the book appears in 2009 it may be much altered.

1939 (Sample Chapter)

The certainty of war in Europe in 1939 had an early effect, even in Vancouver, some 5,000 miles away from Berlin. The Page 1 headline in The Vancouver Sun for January 13 read: TWO GUNS TO BE PLACED AT FIRST NARROWS

A royal tour of Canada in May was another indication war was brewing. The timing of the tour was deliberate: it served, said one commentator, “as a gentle reminder to English-speaking Canadians of their ties to the motherland and their imperial duty.” King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (later to be known as the Queen Mum) went by train from one end of the country to the other. Crowds were huge and adoring everywhere . . . some of the people came from hundreds of miles away. The royal couple travelled west on the CPR. The King was so impressed with the huge and handsome Hudson locomotive pulling their CPR train (# 2850) that the railway felt emboldened to ask if they might designate it—and others of the same class—as “Royal Hudsons.” Done.

Towns and cities all across the country, thrilled with the first visit to Canada by a reigning monarch, decorated their buildings, issued souvenirs and trotted out local dignitaries to give speeches. A striking photograph of West Hastings Street shows the Spencer Department Store festooned with flags and welcoming messages. A Province headline gives the tone: THE GREATEST DAY IN THE CITY'S WHOLE HISTORY.

The Hotel Vancouver (photo:  
The Hotel Vancouver

While they were here, the royal couple stayed overnight at the brand-new Hotel Vancouver, which had opened May 24. On May 26 the King and Queen officially opened the Lions Gate Bridge, which had opened to traffic the previous November. The next day a Chinatown street dance celebrated their visit.

They travelled to Victoria and back on the Prince Robert, built in 1930 for the CNR's Vancouver-to-Alaska cruise service. Immediately after they left for eastern Canada (on CNR tracks) work began on converting the Prince Robert to an armed merchant cruiser. (Incidentally, the King endeared himself forever to the locals with a comment before leaving: “I think Vancouver is the place to live.”)

On August 24 Hitler occupied Czechoslovakia. Local militia in North Vancouver were ordered to stand by guns at the First Narrows in North Vancouver. Then, on September 1, the German army invaded Poland. The Second World War had begun.

Britain and France declared war on Germany September 3 and Canada followed suit exactly one week later. On the same day the city's German-speaking citizens pledged their loyalty to Canada at a mass meeting in Moose Hall. And Japanese residents in Richmond began to raise money for our National Defence Fund.

Vancouver's harbor was put under control of the Royal Canadian Navy. All shipping passing into the harbor now had to stop and report to naval launches. Granville Island, the industrial heart of the city, began working around the clock, producing defence equipment such as anti torpedo nets, minesweeping equipment and rigging ropes for the merchant fleet. And, for the first time, women were hired at the factories. The federal government took over control of the airport, and began to enlarge it.

The converted Prince Robert had adventure ahead that would prove even more exciting than ferrying the King and Queen across the Strait of Georgia: she would seize the German freighter Weser off Manzanillo September 25, 1940 and bring her to Esquimalt as a prize of war. That made news right across Canada. (There had been some tense moments aboard the Robert: one of the crew overheard their German prisoners hatching a plot to capture the Canadian ship. The guard was doubled and a machine gun was put in place.) Back at Esquimalt the Weser was reconditioned, renamed the Vancouver Island and put into regular service. She would be torpedoed in 1941 in an Atlantic convoy.

The Empress of Japan II, a trans-Pacific liner owned and operated by Canadian Pacific, and sailing out of Vancouver since late 1930, was requisitioned as a troop ship. Her name was changed to Empress of Scotland.

Now the pace quickened: the first contingent of the Canadian Active Service Force left for Europe in early December. (The second contingent would leave January 2, 1940.) Newspapers were not allowed to reveal the point of departure. A few days later, Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, spoke to the world in a broadcast from London. “The first contingent of the Canadian Expeditionary Force,” he said, “safely escorted across the Atlantic by the main battle fleet, was disembarked at a British port.” Churchill revealed the progress of the Canadian soldiers in the course of his report on the December 17 sinking of the German battleship Graf Spee.

  B-29 Boeing Superfortress (photo: Wikipedia)
  B-29 Boeing Superfortress
[Photo: Wikipedia]

On the same day as Churchill's broadcast the Boeing plant on Sea Island went into operation making Cansos and PBY Catalinas (“flying boats,” used for off-shore air patrols) and later the midsections of the B 29 superfortress aircraft. When it opened the plant employed 175 people. At the peak of production in 1945 there would be 7,000. “When people were interested in working for Boeing's Sea Island activities during the war,” one former worker recalls, “they first had to be interviewed at Boeing's on West Georgia Street. If hired, you were fingerprinted for your identification card and told to go buy coveralls, flat shoes or a sensible-type of oxford shoes. Women had to wear kerchiefs to keep their hair from becoming tangled in machinery. Boeing did not pay for any of these.”

Some of the wartime changes were gentler events: in October a committee of prominent men from the lower mainland approached Surrey council, and successfully petitioned to rename the Peace Arch Highway. The new name: the King George VI Highway. And Queen Elizabeth was not forgotten: a beautiful park encircling the highest point in the city was named for her. Once a rock quarry, and sitting atop an extinct volcano, Queen Elizabeth Park was turned into a beauty spot, a splendid explosion of color, with flowers, shrubs, rare trees and more.

Nazi aggression brought at least one good result to B.C.: even before their invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Nazis had caused a great exodus—political leaders, business people, professionals and intellectuals, all escaped, knowing what was to come. Among those who came to Vancouver: brothers Theodor, Otto, Leon and Walter Koerner. The latter two would make an especially valuable contribution to local life as forestry company executives and philanthropists.

The Depression was over. “With the outbreak of war in 1939,” Patricia Roy wrote in 1980, “Vancouver, along with the rest of British Columbia, began to enjoy a period of prosperity that has lasted, with minor interruptions, through the 1970s.”

The European war obviously affected Vancouver, but it did not have a convulsive effect. It would not be until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 that the city—right across the water from Japan—would feel itself truly at war.

City Hall

James Lyle Telford, 50, became mayor of Vancouver, succeeding George Miller. “A newcomer to the civic political arena,” Donna Jean McKinnon wrote in The Greater Vancouver Book, “Lyle Telford was, however, no stranger to politics, having represented the CCF in the provincial legislature. In this election he offered 'help for the forgotten man,' tapping into the frustration of the voters after nearly a decade of poverty. Once elected, Telford resigned from the CCF because he felt civic office should be free of party politics. Despite his obvious working class following, Telford won the mayoralty with fewer than 2,000 votes in a campaign with six other candidates.” Born in Valens, Ontario Telford, an M.D., had come to BC in 1913. Soon after his arrival he gained recognition for his support of labor and socialism in the province. He hosted his own radio program three nights a week. He was a maverick, once opening a birth control clinic for the purpose of “better marriages, wanted children, freedom for women and race improvement.” He operated the clinic until 1935, with a nurse in attendance, in a private office in the Marine Building. Then it would move from one location to another until 1956. Dr. Telford organized CCF clubs throughout the province and published his own monthly paper The Challenge.

Physical changes

The Hotel Vancouver, its completion delayed by the Depression, finally opened, more than a decade after construction had started. It was a huge and handsome structure. Architectural historian Harold Kalman wrote that it was “inspired by the picturesque castles of France and Scotland . . . catering to our fantasies of palatial living,” with its gargoyles, Renaissance detail, and fine relief sculpture. The hotel was started by the CNR, which had originally planned to call it the British Columbian. But then, in a complicated arrangement that would make a long (and likely uninteresting) chapter of its own, the CNR and the CPR—usually rivals—entered into a joint management contract in which the CPR's Hotel Vancouver, the 1916 beauty two blocks east, would be closed and its name transferred to the new hotel.

Another landmark—a pair, actually—emerged this year. On January 23 sculptor Charles Marega's lions were installed at the south approach to Lions Grate Bridge. Marega was unhappy with the work: he had wanted the lions to be of bronze, but budget restrictions forced him to use concrete. Just two months after his most famous work was installed Marega died. It was March 25. He had just finished teaching a class at the Vancouver School of Art and collapsed while putting on his coat to go home. He was 68. “No one,” historian Peggy Imredy has written, “has left such an enduring and visible record of his life in Vancouver. As was said at his funeral, 'There is no need to build him a monument—because of his sculpture he will never be forgotten'.” Among Marega's other work: the Joe Fortes fountain, the Edward VII fountain by the Art Gallery, the busts of Burrard and Vancouver on the Burrard Street Bridge, the statue of Vancouver at city hall and the bust of David Oppenheimer near the Parks Board offices.

We got our first public aquarium this year. The old English Bay bathhouse had been converted into a dark, muggy little facility in which the star attraction was Oscar, the Octopus. We're not sure why, but UBC president Leonard Klinck presided at the opening. The aquarium manager was an American named Ivar Haglund, who would later move to Seattle and open a restaurant—which later became a chain—called Ivar's Acres of Clams. This first aquarium would close in 1956.

Out at UBC itself, students provided nearly $80,000 to build the university's first student union building, a memorial to the late Dean of Applied Science, Reginald W. Brock and his wife. They had both been killed in a 1935 airplane accident. Brock Memorial Hall originally housed a main lounge, snack bar, Alma Mater Society offices, club rooms and a big committee room.

St. Vincent's Hospital, which had started operations under the Sisters of Charity August 12, 1938 was blessed and officially opened July 19 this year by his Excellency Archbishop William Mark Duke.

The Depression had knocked the stuffing out of local real estate prices: “Glen Brae,” the spectacular William Lamont Tate mansion at 1690 Matthews, had been appraised in 1920 at $75,000. It sold this year for $7,500. Today, it's the children's hospice Canuck Place.

This was a year of glamor in Coquitlam. A movie stunt man named Karl Jacobs opened Steelhead Lodge, a secluded getaway for Hollywood stars. Some of the present streets in the same neighborhood were named for famous visitors: Flynn Crescent, Gable Street, Novak Drive. In their 2004 book Backstage Vancouver Greg Potter and Red Robinson tell how Jacobs “built a road into the property, carrying paving stones from the river by hand and clearing the land himself before beginning construction on the living quarters.”

Clark Gable golfing in Vancouver (photo:  
Clark Gable golfing in Vancouver

Jacobs' wife Clara (née Guiol), Mexican-born, had been an actress in Hollywood in the 1920s. She wrote a memoir about the Steelhead years: “I remember Clark Gable coming up,” she remembered. “He and my brother liked to fish and catch rattlesnakes. Gable played the piano and I played the guitar and we had lots of fun. Gable was so nice and he always came by himself, no girlfriends. He just came to fish for steelhead and pike in the Coquitlam River . . . Roy Rogers showed me how to twirl a rope . . . Once, we all went on a boat from Vancouver with John Wayne and some girls. Steelhead Lodge was a retreat for a lot of those stars.”

Karl died in 1964 and Clara sold the property.

(Rattlesnakes? In Coquitlam?)

One of the odder railway stories in B.C. history happened this year. First, you need to know that one local result of the Depression was that Grouse Mountain had become home to a small colony of squatters. They built a small village of log cabins up there—nearly 100 of them—and that little settlement, as the economy improved over time, began turning into what the locals called “Ski Village.” Enter a fellow named Kent Ford, who proposed a sprocket railway from Mosquito Creek up to the village. Ford's proposal ran into a vexing problem: with exquisitely inconvenient timing, the Second World War started after construction had begun and Ford was unable to get enough steel. He must have been a formidable optimist: without even pausing for breath he continued to build his railway—with one track of steel, the other of wood. It didn't work.

Curiously enough, an attempt nearly 30 years earlier to build a railway up Grouse had foundered for exactly the same reason: a lack of steel because of a world war.

Social Notes From All Over

The spread of venereal disease in the city prompted police chief W.W. Foster to launch another crackdown by his “morality squad.” The “absolute suppression of prostitution” was to be undertaken immediately. And Deputy Chief Grundy of the VPD was reported to have been demoted in a 'shakeup' of the force. Later in the year D. Mackay became chief constable, succeeding Foster.

1939 was a big year for local Scots. “More than 700 Scots crowded into the Commodore,” wrote Kevin Griffin in The Greater Vancouver Book, “for the annual feast [Robert Burns Night] where they heard the haggis—a sheep's stomach stuffed with minced mutton, oatmeal and spices—piped into the hall and addressed with the words of Burns: 'Fair fa' your honest sonsie face/Great chieftain o' the pudden race . . .' Behind the head table stood a statue of Burns flanked by the Union Jack and the flag of St. Andrew.”

The Harlem Globetrotters came to Vancouver this year. (The Sun byline on that story: Pat Slattery, who would become locally well known in future years for his articles on men's fashion.)

The Van Tan nudist club was founded by Ray Connett, “the Father of Canadian Nudism.” That was newsworthy, because it was the first such club in the lower mainland and, in fact, in Canada.


March 1, 1939 marked the official inauguration of airmail service Montreal-Toronto-Vancouver, and the first transcontinental passenger air service (Vancouver to Montreal) was inaugurated April 1 by Trans-Canada Airlines, with ceremonies at Sea Island.

The first charters granted to a credit union in British Columbia, journalist Bruce Constantineau writes, were in June, 1939 to the Powell River Credit Union (still around under that name) and the Amalgamated Civil Servants Credit Union of Vancouver. The already-existing Common Good Credit Unit, formed in 1936, was third. In 1938, British Columbians had lobbied government to set up credit union legislation and the University of British Columbia's Extension department organized study groups and courses on credit unions. “Along with the university,” Constantineau wrote, “fishing co-ops, religious groups, employee groups and even the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (the CCF) worked hard to promote credit unions. With the BC Credit Union Act of 1939, credit unions, which had been sprouting up in many communities, could apply to be legally registered. The Act allowed for the formation of both community-based credit unions, formed on community ties, as well as closed-bond credit unions, formed along employment lines and not open to the general public. It was a rule that a common bond, such as occupation, had to unite the members of a credit union.”

The Army & Navy Store on West Hastings was in the news. Samuel Joseph Cohen had opened the original store at 44 West Hastings back in 1919, selling ends of lines, overstocked inventory and bankruptcy close outs. This year they would move to 300 West Hastings; they've been there ever since.

Vancouver welcomed its first dial telephones December 2, 1939.

The B.C. Electric Railway ended its daily milk run for Fraser Valley farmers.


Fred Begg, auto dealer, died May 11 in Vancouver. “From 1904 to 1906,” Constance Brissenden wrote, “with his brother Frank he operated a garage on Hastings. They soon opened Begg Motor Co., Vancouver's first auto dealership. Fred was president of the Vancouver Motor Dealers Association when he died. His wife, Ethel Mae, later willed $375,000 for medical purposes. As a result the Vancouver Preventorium, which housed young TB cases, was rebuilt and renamed the F.B. Begg Memorial Preventorium.”

A link to the city's earliest settlers was snapped with the death of Ruth Morton December 14. She had arrived in 1884 to marry John Morton, one of the 'Three Greenhorns,' becoming the first white woman to settle in the area. Their first home was on English Bay. The Ruth Morton Memorial Baptist Church was named for her.

He wasn't connected directly to Vancouver, but every Canadian was aware of the death November 12 of Dr. Norman Bethune. He died from blood poisoning in China. He had cut himself while operating on a Chinese soldier, and the wound became infected. Bethune had been in Vancouver in August 1937, speaking for the Canadian Blood Transfusion Service.


B.C.'s Premier Duff Pattullo, in Ottawa, told the federal government B.C. wouldn't object to the “infiltration” of a small number of European refugees into Canada “if they can be readily absorbed.” He was, said the Sun in a January 11 story, definitely opposed to any large movement.

On November 21 a 50th anniversary banquet was held to celebrate craft unionism in the Lower Mainland.

The wonderfully named Hedley S. Hipwell was elected president of the Kiwanis Club for 1939.

A vehicle testing station opened in Vancouver March 6. Mayor Telford drove the first car through.

Radio telephones were installed in Vancouver's police cars August 3.

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