The majority of the working dock lands are now closed off to the curious public. The closed-off part is the middle part of the dock lands extending east of Canada Place to near Second Narrows bridge near Burnaby. Beyond either side you can still get north of the tracks to the seaside, but it isn’t quite the same.
Before 2001 – before the terrorists won, or before the corporate-military alliance took over – whichever you choose, you could ride through the industrial dock lands. It was weird just how free and open it was – you could go anywhere (except the working areas like the container yards) even (or especially) in the dead of night.
In the decades before that – before the second war, children used to play among the trains and docks below Wall Street, and many of them lived in squatter’s house between the tracks and the ocean.
Pre-9/11 you could cycle around Ballantyne pier and stop at the now-closed-due-to-lack-of-traffic Cannery Seafood House and watch seals in the water.
Before 9/11 you could risk your life navigating the rail tracks at Roger’s Sugar while loaded semis hammered past on the way to the container yards.
The Docks Bypass (5.8 km/3.6 mi):
We once had a watchman make way for us to cycle out to the end of one of the grain elevator piers at the stroke of midnight. Why? Well perhaps because it was a signed municipal street. Now the large middle section of the dock lands is “private.” Did the terrorists win? No. The terrorists thought they could take away our rights and freedoms, but we showed them.
Post-9/11 you aren’t supposed to go in there now, except on business. That was our experience when we rode in to take photos of Gastown from Portside around 2009, and a few years before that when we paused for a late night break at Ballantyne, having just come across the overpass. In each case a car pulled up after a few minutes and we were chased off.
For those who like to poke about, explore interesting places and connect with the marine industrial heritage of the city, this closed-off part was the best part of the tour.
It’s not all bad, though, because the detour you have to take through the blocks south of the closed docklands is almost as interesting in itself. One of our first revelations on riding through Gastown and then continuing east was that it only ended in name and tourist shops. There are a lot of architecturally and historically intriguing industrial blocks in between the western and eastern access points, and always-pleasant prostitutes are friendly city ambassadors ready with a cheerful greeting even in the darkest hours of the night.
Be wary of traffic on the bypass routes. Powell Street is especially hazardous where it splits into east and west roads, and road surfaces can be chewed up by the truck traffic. Our outlined route avoids Powell Street, but is otherwise only a suggestion. There are lots of different routes to explore.
Sometimes getting lost has the best outcome. When we go riding with friends new to the city, we like them to take the lead sometimes because however we try, we have a hard time getting lost and when you know where you’re going, that’s usually where you end up.
Riding On: Adjoining Seaside Routes
East: Having taken the docks bypass to the east, you arrive near the Pacific National Exhibition grounds and Second Narrows bridge. A short remaining section of seaside is reached off of McGill Street. New Brighton Park is a municipal park on the waterfront with a heated pool, great views, and picnic grounds.
West: Taking the bypass to the west you reach the Main Street overpass to East Waterfront Road. Head on over the overpass to get to the Portside/Crab Park seaside with further access to the rest to the seawall via Coal Harbour and Stanley Park.
Like all northwestern cities, Vancouver is still a young city, and evidence of her early days – of logging, fishing, and the pioneering rush of people and industry up the coast and to the interior – are still standing or at least still have a footprint, but are heading into their last years, and could well disappear in the next building boom.
Significant labour and working class history is imbued in this inter-lying area of the working docks. Much of that grunge still remains, now overlain with a patina of sketchiness. Each vacant lot, each clump of bushes and discarded building materials is evidence of a previous rough purpose.
Once a hub of the mostly male blue-collar workforce working on the docks, in the local plants, and just passing through on the way to up-coast logging camps, and canneries and ships duties, the remaining hotels, dormitory-style apartments, union buildings and streetcar tracks are monuments to a tougher and often difficult time.
This is old industrial Vancouver, site of the first sawmills and industries in the nineteenth century, and then of the expansion of the marine and related industries in the twentieth century. On the dock men worked in cold dangerous environments without safety equipment or regulation. Accidents, injuries, overwork, bad conditions, low pay, poor job security, bullying bosses, class divisions, resentment over employer’s WWI profiteering from labour’s war efforts combined with a vision of a better form of labour all contributed to leftist sentiments and labour unrest.
On the employer’s and government’s side there was fear that an organised labour force could cripple the economy and present a new power. The government especially feared the labour movement was the spearhead of global Bolshevism. Consequently both the employers and the government were determined to fight this infiltration.
Labour unrest along the waterfront in the first few decades of the twentieth century led up to a strike of 1400 workers in October 1923 that was put down by 350 armed company men. Scab labour was billeted on a nearby CPR ship. With incomplete support from workers, the union collapsed and was replaced with a puppet union controlled by the employers.
However, this union soon became defiant and a series of lockouts and strikes ranged up and down the coast in the mid-thirties. In 1935 about a thousand union supporters marched down to Ballantyne Pier at the foot of Heatley Street where ships were being unloaded by non-union workers.
The crowd was met by hundreds of armed police and attempting to force their way through the police cordon, the crowd was attacked and a battle ensued with strikers and supporters chased through the residential streets of Strathcona to the south by armed police and reinforcements.