The Dry Past - Vancouver under Prohibition

 

 

 

“You might have seen a blind pig here,” says Lenard, leader of the Forbidden Tour which probes Vancouver’s less respectable past.

We’re standing at the top of Market Alley, an unsavoury back street strung with electrical cables. What he’s talking about isn’t an animal, but a nickname for the illegal drinking dens which flourished here a century ago.

The Prohibition era in 1920s USA is well known, but Vancouver got there first – the Canadian city banned alcoholic drinks between 1917 and 1921.

The result was the speakeasy and gangster activity you might expect, all of which make a great tale as our group walks the streets between the Downtown and Gastown.

Lenard, dressed in gangster gear of black suit, black tie and black hat, starts us out in an earlier alcoholic age when the Klondike Gold Rush brought thirsty prospectors through town.

We pause opposite the attractive Victorian Hotel, a restored relic of an era awash with saloons serving whisky, gin and rum. The average North American drank three times as much then as now, says our guide, and we wonder how they got anything done.

The tour focuses as much on period highlights as it does on Prohibition, as Lenard points out grand architectural landmarks such as the Permanent Building (once a bank), the Dominion Building (once the tallest commercial building in the British Empire), and the World Building (with then-scandalous nude sculptures on its facade).

At a stop by the Cenotaph, we learn that 1898 Vancouver had 60 saloons serving a population of 20,000; but the anti-alcohol Temperance movement was on the rise. The women of the movement protested by praying and singing hymns outside these bars, hoping to shame men into returning to their families. 

When British Columbia went dry in October 1917, the Mob moved in with their blind pigs and bathtub gin.

There were ways to obtain alcohol legally during this period, says Lenard. You could take your chances with dangerously adulterated industrial alcohol; ask your doctor to prescribe it as medicine; or see if your church would sell you a bottle of communion wine on the sly.

Even with these options, there was plenty of corruption. We pause by the gate to Chinatown to hear about Walter Findlay. Though an anti-alcohol campaigner and appointed Prohibition Commissioner, he led a double life as a major bootlegger with a warehouse packed with illicit whisky.

In Chinatown we learn of other vices, including the smoking of opium in local dens. One parking lot is pointed out as the former site of an opium factory, damaged in the terrible anti-Asian riots of 1907.

In Gastown, we turn to the aftermath of the Prohibition era. Though the ban was overturned in 1921, the provincial government maintained strict controls on the sale of alcoholic beverages.

Outside the former Rainier Hotel, Lenard tells us about the “beer parlours” invented by the government, which allowed no music, no standing, no games and no women. The aim being, of course, to make drinking as boring as possible.

 

 

Luckily, 21st century Vancouver is more relaxed about the devil’s brew, and there are plenty of pleasant places to drink in the heart of Gastown. That’s where Lenard ends the tour, after reciting an amusing poem outside the former Grand Hotel.

It’s been fun. Now it’s time for a nightcap.

The Forbidden Tour runs nightly. Fee C$28, book via forbiddenvancouver.ca.

Tim Richards visited Vancouver courtesy of Destination Canada (destinationcanada.com) and Tourism Vancouver (tourismvancouver.com).

You can get Vancouver included as a stopover on our Discoverer round the world

 

Published by Stuart Lodge

Underground and underappreciated New York

 

 

In what’s now an expensive part of Lower Manhattan, David Whitley gets much more than be bargained for.

Sometimes, the most enjoyable moments in travel are when what you’re expecting turns out to be something else. Granted, these can often be the least enjoyable moments in travel too, but when serendipity strikes in your favour, it’s really quite wonderful.

What had sounded interesting about the tour was the chance to wander through the catacombs of the Basilica of St Patrick’s Old Cathedral. I mean, who knew there were catacombs to wander around in Manhattan, right?

And, as it turns out, the catacombs are moderately interesting. They’re not the ancient, dusty, spooky things that the word “catacombs” might evoke – more subterranean corridors. Included down here are the impressively large vault of General Thomas Eckert, whose desk the Emancipation Proclamation was drawn on, and the tomb of the Delmonicos. The latter are generally regarded as bringing the a la carte restaurant to the United States, and the Delmonico steak – something New Yorkers will still ask for by name.

This absolutely falls in the “moderately interesting” category, and you’d have to be really geekily fascinated by the individuals in question to push it to any higher level than that. What ends up being unexpectedly fascinating is what comes before getting down into the catacombs.

The Basilica is in what’s now known as Nolita, one of the most expensive areas in Manhattan to buy or rent property. To say it has not always been like this is a considerable understatement. In the 1830s, this was the North End of the Five Points, an area so densely populated and crime-ridden that Charles Dickens called it more dangerous than the London slums.

 

 

The first group of immigrants to settle here were the Irish – as the name of the Basilica would suggest. Most of the names on the gravestones in the surrounding cemetery – which predates the church – are Irish. But by the middle of the 20th century, it was a predominantly Italian area. And the Italian names can be seen on little post box-style niches that became popular after the Catholic Church permitted cremation in 1863.

Perhaps more unusual are the thick, tall walls around the cemetery, and these date back to the gangs of the Five Points, which included some pretty brutal nativists who wanted the immigrants out. They burned down several Catholic churches, and St Patrick’s was constantly guarded in a bid to stop it meeting the same fate. It eventually did – but at the hands of a stove fire rather than malevolent arsonists.

Extraordinary characters are unveiled along the way. There’s a bust of ‘Dagger’ John Hughes, the first Archbishop of the New York diocese, who’d have probably risen further in the church were it not for his notorious sharp tongue.

Then there’s the tomb of John Dubois, built into the church steps. His theory was that people walked all over him in life, so they may as well in death too.

And, in the north cemetery, there’s the grave of Pierre Toussaint, who was born as a slave in Santo Domingo (now Haiti). His owners brought him to New York, where he became the most sought-after hairdresser in the city, bought his freedom, became incredibly rich and then the church’s chief financier. He’s on the second stage of the track to sainthood – the Church is just waiting for sufficient miracles to occur that are related to him.

The range of backgrounds is fascinating – and the congregation at the Basilica these days is heavily Latin American-skewed – and the whole place becomes a microcosm of the greater New York story. It’s a city where waves of people have arrived, been fought by hostile groups already there, then replaced by another wave from somewhere else. It’ll probably be like that for a few more centuries yet, irrespective of who ends up in the catacombs.

David went on the Tommy’s New York Catacombs and Candlelight Tour 

by David Whitley   

 

 

 

 

You can get the USA included as a stopover on a Globehopper round the world or a Navigator round the world