The Dry Past - Vancouver under Prohibition

 

 

 

“You might have seen a blind pig here,” says Lenard, leader of the Forbidden Tour which probes Vancouver’s less respectable past.

We’re standing at the top of Market Alley, an unsavoury back street strung with electrical cables. What he’s talking about isn’t an animal, but a nickname for the illegal drinking dens which flourished here a century ago.

The Prohibition era in 1920s USA is well known, but Vancouver got there first – the Canadian city banned alcoholic drinks between 1917 and 1921.

The result was the speakeasy and gangster activity you might expect, all of which make a great tale as our group walks the streets between the Downtown and Gastown.

Lenard, dressed in gangster gear of black suit, black tie and black hat, starts us out in an earlier alcoholic age when the Klondike Gold Rush brought thirsty prospectors through town.

We pause opposite the attractive Victorian Hotel, a restored relic of an era awash with saloons serving whisky, gin and rum. The average North American drank three times as much then as now, says our guide, and we wonder how they got anything done.

The tour focuses as much on period highlights as it does on Prohibition, as Lenard points out grand architectural landmarks such as the Permanent Building (once a bank), the Dominion Building (once the tallest commercial building in the British Empire), and the World Building (with then-scandalous nude sculptures on its facade).

At a stop by the Cenotaph, we learn that 1898 Vancouver had 60 saloons serving a population of 20,000; but the anti-alcohol Temperance movement was on the rise. The women of the movement protested by praying and singing hymns outside these bars, hoping to shame men into returning to their families. 

When British Columbia went dry in October 1917, the Mob moved in with their blind pigs and bathtub gin.

There were ways to obtain alcohol legally during this period, says Lenard. You could take your chances with dangerously adulterated industrial alcohol; ask your doctor to prescribe it as medicine; or see if your church would sell you a bottle of communion wine on the sly.

Even with these options, there was plenty of corruption. We pause by the gate to Chinatown to hear about Walter Findlay. Though an anti-alcohol campaigner and appointed Prohibition Commissioner, he led a double life as a major bootlegger with a warehouse packed with illicit whisky.

In Chinatown we learn of other vices, including the smoking of opium in local dens. One parking lot is pointed out as the former site of an opium factory, damaged in the terrible anti-Asian riots of 1907.

In Gastown, we turn to the aftermath of the Prohibition era. Though the ban was overturned in 1921, the provincial government maintained strict controls on the sale of alcoholic beverages.

Outside the former Rainier Hotel, Lenard tells us about the “beer parlours” invented by the government, which allowed no music, no standing, no games and no women. The aim being, of course, to make drinking as boring as possible.

 

 

Luckily, 21st century Vancouver is more relaxed about the devil’s brew, and there are plenty of pleasant places to drink in the heart of Gastown. That’s where Lenard ends the tour, after reciting an amusing poem outside the former Grand Hotel.

It’s been fun. Now it’s time for a nightcap.

The Forbidden Tour runs nightly. Fee C$28, book via forbiddenvancouver.ca.

Tim Richards visited Vancouver courtesy of Destination Canada (destinationcanada.com) and Tourism Vancouver (tourismvancouver.com).

You can get Vancouver included as a stopover on our Discoverer round the world

 

Published by Stuart Lodge