British Columbia·Feature

Unique collection of rare artifacts reveals Vancouver's history

Major James Matthews was Vancouver's first archivist and one of the first memory-keepers of the city's early history. His collection offers a glimpse of Vancouver's formative years.

Artifacts more than a century old paint a picture of the city's formative years

(Peter Scobie/CBC)

Pieces of people's lives, memories and experiences currently on display at the Museum of Vancouver are offering a rare century-old glimpse into the city's past.

The objects are part of the Major James Matthews collection, and they present a snapshot of what Vancouver was like before it was even incorporated.

(Peter Scobie/CBC)

Anyone who likes to dig into the history of Vancouver will no doubt come across his name: Major Matthews was the city's first archivist and one of the most prolific memory-keepers.

The senior curator of the Museum of Vancouver, Viviane Gosselin, is very familiar with his collection and his special way of collecting it.

"He was very much an innovative historian in that he was not just focusing on military and political history, but was interested in listening to ordinary people's experience of early Vancouver," she said.

And by soliciting information from these ordinary people over the course of decades, he grew a massive collection of photographs and artifacts that offers a unique glimpse into Vancouver history.

(City of Vancouver Archives)

On June 13, 1886, a massive portion of the recently incorporated Vancouver was burnt to the ground.

A small crew of Canadian Pacific Railway men were using fire to clear a portion of land between Hamilton and Granville Streets when a sudden blast of wind pushed the fire into nearby wooden buildings.

About 1,000 buildings were destroyed in less than 45 minutes.

(Peter Scobie/CBC)
(Peter Scobie/CBC)

The Major Matthews collection has a number of relics from this fire including a girl's shirt that strangely survived the inferno and a piece of melted metal.

Even the bell at the St. James Church was reported to have melted into slag due to the heat.

(City of Vancouver Archives)

On May 23, 1914 a Japanese steamship named the Komagata Maru arrived in Vancouver's Coal Harbour carrying 376 passengers from Punjab, India.

Passengers were not allowed to disembark, and eventually the ship was forced to return. Both B.C. and Canada have since apologized for their handling of the affair.

(Peter Scobie/CBC)

During the incident, as officials were trying to board the ship, a brick was thrown as a sign of resistance. It landed on the deck of one of the police boats and was later added to the Matthews collection.

(Peter Scobie/CBC)

Early European settlers would often carve their names into trees to leave their mark on their surroundings.

This wood carving was later cut from the tree and offered to Major Matthews. 

Donald McGillivray carved his name on a huge cedar tree near Hope in 1881, during the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

He was an engineer who worked on many bridge projects, including the Cambie and Granville Bridges.

(Peter Scobie/CBC)

For those who live or work in downtown, Lauchlan Hamilton likely put their street on the map.

He was the CPR land commissioner who surveyed much of Vancouver and named many of its streets — including, unsurprisingly, Hamilton Street.

Hamilton wasn't solely known for his city planning. He was also a talented painter who would use watercolours to paint landscapes of the areas before development had taken place.

His paint kit is part of the Matthews collection.

(Peter Scobie/CBC)

These and other artifacts are currently on display at the Museum of Vancouver as part of the All Together Now exhibit that runs until Jan. 8, 2017.