British Columbia

Century-old wood used to pave early Vancouver splintering in heat

Hidden below the streets of downtown Vancouver, under decades of asphalt, there's a layer of history that reminds us how the City of Glass used to be built of wood — and paved with it too.

After a hot dry summer and 100 years of traffic, some remnants of Vancouver's early days need repair

Wood blocks, likely cedar laid a century ago, are exposed and splintering in the heat at Hastings St. and Dunlevy Ave. in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. (Mael Thebault/CBC)

UPDATE: The city repairs described below have been completed.

Hidden below the streets of downtown Vancouver, under decades of asphalt, there's a layer of history that reminds us how the City of Glass used to be built of wood — and paved with it too.

Cedar and Douglas fir, dipped in creosote or tar, were used to line core Vancouver streets in the city's early days.

Workers repairing wood block paving at Pender and Main in downtown Vancouver in 1914. (City of Vancouer Archives)

Now, some of that wood — exposed after 100 years under hoofs, feet and tires — is splintering in the hot, dry weather and in need of repair.

The wood block paving exposed at Hastings St. and Dunlevy Ave. in East Vancouver is likely a century old, providing a glimpse into the city's early days as a lumber town. (Mael Thebault/CBC)

But what looks like just another piece of summer roadwork is actually a fascinating window to a time in Vancouver when a skyscraper was 13 storeys and thousand-year old trees still grew in city limits.

"The forest resources here were just absolutely impossible to imagine," said civic historian John Atkin.

"The vista is so hard to comprehend."

Men cutting down a large tree, possibly in Stanley Park, in the early 1900s. (Major Matthews Collection/City of Vancouver Archives)

'Slaughtered giants'

Viewed from 2018, a time when far-flung stands of old growth are tourist attractions, it's almost obscene to imagine the lumber cleared then from what's now the city centre.

Oxen hauled trees out of Kitsilano and the West End, dragging what a poetic 1912 correspondent for The Globe called "slaughtered giants of the ancient forest."

A team of oxen hauling logs in Kitsilano, circa 1890, past what looks like a giant Douglas fir. (Major Matthews Collection/City of Vancouver Archives)

At first, huge planks were carved from those legendary trees to cover the city's streets, said Atkin, with Main Street (then Westminster) covered in boards that were each nearly a metre wide. 

Then, end-grain wood blocks came into vogue, dipped in preservative and set like cobblestones in sand with a thin coating to protect the wood.

"Such a prepared surface of wood has greater endurance in resisting the mechanical forces of street traffic than the hardest paving-stones," wrote The New York Times in a 1868 editorial praising the wood block for Manhattan streets.

"There is no near approach to its excellence by any other kind of pavement in use here, and nothing superior elsewhere."

As early as 1890, a city engineer detailed a proposal to pay $3,960 for 198,000 cedar woodblocks to cover two blocks of Main, which would last 12 years.

Later that decade, a preserved map in the city archives shows the early extent of wood block paving in what was then a young city with mostly dirt roads.

A map from 1898, annotated the following year, shows in blue which streets of Vancouver's business district had wood block paving at the time. The streets marked in red were constructed with bitumen. (City of Vancouver Archives)

The very core — including Granville in front of the first Hotel Vancouver — was bitumen, but just outside of that was wood.

"An incredibly efficient road surface," said Atkin about the wood blocks, especially in a city surrounded by lumber.

For decades, despite "newfangled ways of making roads, the woodblock was still the best and most long-lasting road surface possible," he said. 

Douglas fir wood block paving covered in creosote on Granville Street in downtown Vancouver circa 1912, with the post office clock tower in the background. (Alfred Fraser/City of Vancouver Archives)

Over time, the wood stretched east, covering flat streets, said Atkin, while bricks and granite were used on hills so horses' hooves could get a grip.

"Almost all the streets east of Main Street ... to almost Commercial Drive, if you dug down on most of them you'd actually hit the wooden layer."

Wood block paving was still used until the early 1920s, when concrete and then asphalt took over, said Atkin.

But the blocks themselves have lasted underfoot much longer — precisely because they always had a protective coating, even before they were paved over.

"Wood blocks are kind of cool and everybody wants to see them, but they were never meant to be seen," he said.

"It was never meant to be exposed, and that's the biggest mistake."

Wood block pavement and streetcar track on Granville Street in downtown Vancouver circa 1912. (Major Matthews Collection/City of Vancouver Archives)

Time to pave over

The patch of wood blocks needing repair is on Dunlevy Ave. at Hastings St., and has been exposed for at least a year and a half, if not longer.

Tightly-packed blocks have given way to loose and splintering chunks of wood. They may still have a whiff of cedar, though it's hard to be sure thanks to long-ago chemical preservatives and a hundred years of traffic.

The final straw? "Hot dry temperatures in the last few weeks," according to the city.

(Mael Thebault/CBC)

Vancouver isn't explicit about its plans, but is looking for "options to repair the road" without damaging the rest of the wood.

"As part of repairs, the remaining wood blocks will be paved over to prevent any public safety issues from exposed damaged wood," the city said in a statement.

So, this particular window to the past will be closing, sealed again underfoot.

Even before Vancouver was incorporated in 1886, the Hastings Mill processed local lumber on Burrard Inlet at the foot of Dunlevy Ave., where the Port of Vancouver is now. (City of Vancouver Archives)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lisa Johnson

Senior writer and editor

Lisa Johnson is a senior writer and editor at CBC News. She helped create CBC Radio's What On Earth which won the 2021CJF Award for Climate Solutions Reporting. She has reported for CBC on TV, radio and online for more than 15 years with a specialty in science, nature, and the environment. Get in touch at Lisa.Johnson@cbc.ca or through Twitter at @lisasj.

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