Vancouver Travel Planner, Student and Tourist Guide

A Brief History of Vancouver

Vancouver, Canada, has a diverse history that includes the original settlement by coastal indians, exploration by Europeans, the establishment of Gastown, Stanley Park, active immigration and the present day building boom.

Totem pole in Ambelside Park, West vancouver
Totem pole in Ambelside Park, West vancouver

First Nations

Before the European explorers came to what is now known as Vancouver, the area was mostly densely-forested and inhabited by First Nations People and wildlife. With the moutainous North Shore backdrop of what we refer to today as Mount Seymour, Grouse Mountain and Cypress Mountain, Vancouver offered a temperate climate, plentiful food sources and a coastal location to the natives lining the shores of the Burrard Inlet.

According to archaeological evidence, Coastal Indians had settled the Vancouver area by 500 BC. The Museum of Anthropology on the Univeristy of British Columbia endowment lands as well as the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, BC, have impressive exhibits and carry archaeological artifacts, chronicalling this important heritage.

West Coast Native arts and crafts can be found throughout the West Coast, and Vancouver souvenir shops, art galleries, specialty shops, and public markets carry works made by local artisits, world-renowned and considered synonymous with Canada – in particular the West Coast.

European Exploration

British Explorer Captain James Cook first arrived in 1778 and several Spanish explorers came through the area in 1791, but never came ashore. The city’s real transformation began in 1792, when Captain George Vancouver of Britain sailed on the HMS Discovery into Burrard Inlet and in consultation with Spaniard Dionisio Alcala Galiano – who had already mapped some areas - began to chart the West Coast waters.

From this time onward, the Vancouver area saw more Britons coming, including Simon Fraser – namesake of Simon Fraser University – who was sent to the area in 1808 to set up trading posts.


Settlers continued to flow in from abroad, and they thrived on fish, lumber, fur and farming. It was in 1858 when gold was discoverd on the Fraser River and within mere weeks, almost 30.000 Americans rushed to the area to take advantage of this discovery. It was at this time that the British declared the mainland a colony, in order to stave off an takeover by the Americans and to maintain control of the prosperous gold. In 1859, New Westminster was incorporated as the capital city of BC. It is now still an active area, with the beautiful New Westminster Quay and Public Market as one of the area attractions, easily accessible by the Sky Train from downtown Vancouver.

As the population grew, people moved outward to settle in regions we know now as Vancouver suburbs Burnaby and Delta. The first newspaper was founded in 1861, and the first hospital was built in 1862. In 1865, the first telegraph lines reached here, and the first message to travel along its wires announced the assassination of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln. Other amenities arising included a basic postal system and a stage coachline for transportation.

Extensive logging cleared a lot of the area, and Vancouver city was founded as a sawmill settlement called Granville in the 1870s. The city was incorporated in 1886 with a population of 1000, and was then renamed after Captain Vancouver.

Canada was confederated in 1867 – Canada Day is a national holiday celebrated every July 1st – and the sweeping effects of this change were felt almost immediately in Vancouver. One of the pivotal moments in the history of the city was the extension of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1884. The railroad now reached clear across the country and brought thousands of people to the area to do business and settle. Rapid development began, and the population grew from 400 to 13,000 in four years.


Gastown started as a village founded by John Deighton, a talkative man with vision for the area who was determined to make good use of the thriving industries. The name Gastown comes from the nickname Mr. Deighton acquired as a result of his vociferous ways: Gassy Jack. With his vision of potential of the area, he opened a saloon and attracted the thirsty millworks and prospectors, and soon shops and services began popping up in this village-like area. Still today, Gastown shops and services are a popular stop – along with its steamclock – for the many Vancouver tours available to tourists and residents alike.

The Great Fire of 1886

Two months after Vancouver was incorporated, a fire swept through the city, with high winds contributing to the destruction of the downtown area within only 20 minutes. But on that same day, with only a few buildings remaining, the Vancouverites began to rebuild their city. After the fire, the military reserve was moved into Stanley Park and has remained a verdant landmark in Vancouver.

With the opening of the Panama Canal, travel, import and exports to and from Europe were made much easier, helping the activity at the Port of Vancouver and putting Vancouver on the map one of the best year-round harbours. Today it boasts an active cruise ship terminal, with cruises to Alaska and the Americas.

Vancouver continued to enjoy healthy growth and by 1928, there was a population of 150,000 in this growing city.

The Great Depression

Like everywhere else, the Great Depression had its effect on Vancouver, but some growth continued in the 1930’s, including creation of the Vancouver Art Gallery and the erection of the art-deco Vancouver City Hall.

The 1950s saw rapid growth and prosperity, including the extensive development of suburban Vancouver. The population rose to 800,000 by 1961. The 1960s saw many additions to the city's physical and cultural portfolio: the B.C. Lion's won the Canadian Football League's Grey Cup, the Vancouver Canucks debuted in the National Hockey League, and Simon Fraser University, the Second Narrows Bridge, 401 Freeway, and the world-class Whistler/Blackcomb Ski Resort were built.

This young cosmopolitan city has a brief but exciting history. The city has become the third largest in the country, with an international reputation as one of the best places in the world to live and visit.


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