Inside Vancouver’s Hidden Past – The Secret History of the Lions Gate Bridge…

The Lions Gate bridge in 1940. A little less traffic than usually seen these days. CVA 586-462

The following article was contributed by Will Woods as part of our Inside Vancouver’s Hidden Past series.

“Victory belongs to the most persevering” [Napoleon Bonaparte]

This week I took my first summer stroll round the Stanley Park seawall, passing of course beneath the giant frame of the Lions Gate bridge. The air cools under the bridge and even on the sunniest of days it is gloomy and dark under there. A very different feeling to the bridge deck, with its tremendous views of downtown and the North Shore.

To many Vancouverites the Lions Gate Bridge feels part of the fabric of the city. A major artery connecting downtown and the North Shore. It is one of our city’s most famous landmarks.

Yet the existence of the Lions Gate Bridge is due in large part to the determination and entrepreneurial spirit of one man – Alfred “AJT” Taylor.

Born 1887 in Victoria, Taylor was an engineering contractor by trade. By the ‘roaring twenties’ Taylor was one of Vancouver’s up-and-coming entrepreneurs, with business interests throughout BC in mining and construction. Closer to home, he became convinced that real estate gold lay on the forested slopes of West Vancouver.

Back then West Van was a fairly remote and unpopulated place with only 3,000 residents. Since there was no bridge over Burrard Inlet’s ‘first narrows’, getting to Vancouver proper from West Van meant taking a ferry or a long drive via the second narrows.

“The Empress” passes through the First Narrows in 1930. No bridge in those days! CVA 260-277

Taylor knew that if a bridge were built over the first narrows then suddenly West Vancouver would become a very desirable place to live. Commute times to downtown Vancouver would fall to minutes, rather than hours. He skillfully secured the provincial franchise for the bridge and immediately set about the political campaigning necessary to win public support.

Taylor had some heavyweight opposition. The Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) had extensive land-holdings in downtown Vancouver and upscale Shaughnessy. The CPR was worried that any plan to develop West Vancouver would mean these prestigious land-holdings becoming devalued. They were prepared to fight, lobbying the City of Vancouver hard to turn-down the proposal.

Ultimately it would go to a vote. Taylor vs. the CPR. In 1927 a plebiscite was put to the citizens of Vancouver on Taylor`s bridge proposal. Interestingly, Vancouverites turned down Taylor`s plans. The reason? A reluctance to build a road through the city’s most prized asset, Stanley Park.

But Taylor was nothing if not determined. After moving to London to lick his wounds and consider his next move, he quickly used his considerable powers of persuasion to convince the wealthy Guinness family to become his financial backers (yes, the same family whose company makes the beer!).

On his way to build the Lions Gate it appears...

Taylor formed a company, British Pacific Properties Ltd., that was bankrolled by the Guinness family. With his provincial franchise for the bridge, and now some serious financial muscle, he was ready for a second assault on the first narrows.

Moving back to Vancouver in 1930 he found the Great Depression was starting to take its toll on BC. With the Municipality of West Vancouver in serious financial trouble, he made them an offer. $75,000 for 4,700 acres of land. Equating to $18.75 an acre. In return Taylor’s company promised to contribute around $1M of improvements to the municipality, such as building water mains and installing electric cabling.

(Incidentally, a single acre of land in West Vancouver today will set you back around $3M – $5M.)

Unemployed Vancouver men line-up for food during the Great Depression, 1931. Re N4.1

Given their parlous financial state the Municipality of West Vancouver gladly accepted Taylor’s low-ball offer and a big piece of Taylor’s puzzle fell into place. The Great Depression also helped another piece of the puzzle move into position. Keeping Stanley Park pristine didn’t feel so important when people were losing their jobs and homes. Any proposal for a large scale construction project that would create jobs and drive further development suddenly got a much warmer reception.

Taylor personally financed a second plebiscite in 1933 and this time he got the result he wanted. Vancouver’s electorate overwhelmingly supported the project, passing it by 2-1 margin.

Perhaps inevitably the battle was not yet over for Taylor. Four more years of wrangling with the federal government followed his plebiscite win. Undoubtedly the CPR had a hand in dissuading the feds from approving the project, but legitimate concerns about the impact of the bridge construction on the shipping lane beneath it were also wrestled over.

Stanley Park is ‘reconfigured’ to include the Causeway, 1937. VPL: 19129

Finally Prime Minister William Lyon MacKenzie King officially approved the project in 1936 and work began on March 31, 1937. Amazingly the shipping lane through Burrard Inlet only closed for one single hour during the entire construction of the bridge, at 4.50am on May 2, 1938. (Beat that Port Mann bridge workers!).

On Nov 12, 1938 the Lions Gate bridge opened and the rest, as they say, is history.

Alfred Taylor died in New York City aged 57 in 1945. According to his wishes, he was cremated and his ashes scattered from the Lions Gate Bridge. Next time you stroll under the Lions Gate on a walk round the Stanley Park seawall, spare a thought for one of city’s most driven entrepreneurs – the man who built the Lions Gate bridge.

Will Woods is founder and Chief Storyteller at Forbidden Vancouver (www.forbiddenvancouver.ca

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14 Responses to Inside Vancouver’s Hidden Past – The Secret History of the Lions Gate Bridge…

  1. stephen

    thanks will,

    thanks for your background info about the lion gate bridge. i was visiting vancouver and did come by this bridge but had never known about it. it’s a nice write up and story of alfred taylor.

    the only thing i feel missing is what happens to the west vancouver after the bridge is built. i believe there’s no gold there but that does help people commute.

    • Hi Stephen,

      Thanks for your comments. You know that’s a good point you raise regarding “what happened to West Van”. Deserving of a blog in of itself I would say!

      Will

      • This is a good question and one for local historian and history blogger Eve Lazarus I think. They were created by famed Vancouver and Victoria sculptor Charles Marega, but the methods used I do not know!

        • Hi Will: I knew the lions were by Charles Marega, but not how they were made. Turns out to be a pretty sad story — this is an except from a letter he wrote shortly before his death. The full story is at http://www.vancouverhistory.ca/archives_marega.htm – and well worth the read.

          “Thank God I have work now. I am modelling a lion for Vancouver’s suspension bridge. I had much trouble to get the work. The engineer is from Montreal and wanted the lion to be modelled in Montreal. But the president of the bridge committee, who is a long friend of mine, and his wife, who was a good friend of Mama’s, finally assigned the work to me. I would have preferred the lions to be in bronze or stone—but it has to be cheap, so they will be done in concrete, which annoys me, as I could have otherwise have made both lions from one model. However, I have to content myself to get work at all.”

          http://evelazarus.com/blog/

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  5. Kathy

    Hi Will,

    Nice article. If you’re interested in more detail, feel free to read my MA thesis which should be out at UBC. It’s about the decision to build the bridge and includes research from the provincial and federal archives.

    Great article are reminds me of a great story about early suburbanization.

    Cheers!

    Kathy

    • Hi Kathy,

      Thanks for your post! I am interested to hear you did your masters thesis on the bridge – it must have been a great project – it carries so much history! Next time I am over at UBC I will certainly look it up. In the meantime, do check out our website at forbiddenvancouver.ca – we have several history blogs and of course info about our tour season.

      Thanks again

      Will

  6. Rob Lister

    My Grandfather John Anderson ,was Alfred Taylor’s business partner ,and Financial Director of the British Pacific Properties .There is a road named after him Anderson Crescent off Taylor Way in West Van . He was involved in the
    Suitcase incident . Grandparents and mom moved to the UK and lived in Wimbeldon with Mr Taylor whilst negotiating the
    Finances from the Guiness family .
    John Anderson was the Financial brain behind the entire project as well as Taylor’s other businesses.
    My Granpa was also the first Financial Secretary of The Capalano Golf Course and lived in a house adjacent to the 13 th fairway

  7. In the capital, Madrid, there are about a dozen self storage facilities, including Espacio Plus with over 6,000 square metres of space, and Low Box.es with 4,500 square metres. Low Boxes are currently offering a 20% discount on self storage prices for the first year of use.

  8. Trish

    Where did the Lions come from. Are they poured cement or carved

  9. Tommy

    I guess the pyramids have the potential to be “victorious”

  10. I think a followup article on the development of the British Properties would be significant. This should include some historical pictures of the development in its early days and information on the Guiness strategy, which was to lease property instead of selling it freehold.
    As well, the history should include the local partners who did well or not so well from the project and timeframes for the construction including the part played by BC forestry companies.

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