Today is the 75th anniversary of the opening of the First Avenue Viaduct, an event that rescued and re-invented what was then a failing Commercial Drive suburb and to link it firmly once and for all to the growing city of Vancouver. The story of Charles Smith and the First Avenue Viaduct is the veritable creation story of the modern Drive, a story without which East Vancouver’s history would have been markedly different.
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The boom for building in Grandview was in the decade before the First World War, and by 1914, the neighbourhood was filling out and thriving. Unfortunately, the impact of the War and the business downturns immediately after, left the Drive without much opportunity for further development and expansion. These difficulties were exacerbated a decade later by the economic disruption of the Great Depression which had a devastating effect on the people and households in Grandview. Hundreds of lots in the district were surrendered to the city for failure to pay taxes. With the vast number of empty lots and the consequent lack of any need to provide reasonable transportation to those sections, the City had not felt it necessary to spend any of their limited resources on grading, paving or servicing many of the streets running east of Victoria Drive.
As the economic conditions of the Depression were slowly alleviated, the eastside was being left behind in the recovery. For example, while almost fourteen hundred houses and apartments were built in the west side of Vancouver in 1935, less than three hundred were constructed east of Ontario Street that year. Most of the houses in Grandview were already considered older stock and many were run down and dilapidated, causing locals to campaign often about what they called the “slumification” of East Vancouver.
A City Engineer had contemptuously described Grandview in these years as the City’s “back door”: it wasn’t that important in the scheme of things and could be allowed to become shabby in a way that a front door never would be. The Highland Echo was no doubt accurate when it editorialized that westside and downtown interests, including the daily metropolitan newspapers, saw Grandview as an unpleasant sort of place inhabited by an unpleasant sort of people, namely the working classes. By 1935, Grandview had become identified, in one newspaper’s words, as “the Cinderella in the family of Vancouver suburbs.”
Part of the problem stemmed from the urban planning consequences of Grandview’s geography. Grandview and Commercial Drive sit on the high ground just east of the then-undeveloped False Creek Flats. Trapped behind this barrier, Commercial Drive was cut off in a material way from the developing city that seemed so close.
Motivated partly by the need to detour around the Flats, City planners had developed the primary east-west routes to and from downtown Vancouver to be north of Grandview along Hastings Street and south of Grandview along Broadway. Traffic coming along Kingsway was also prevented from visiting the district because Commercial essentially still ended at Clark Park, leaving no direct road connection from Kingsway to the Drive. This configuration left Commercial Drive stuck in the middle of nowhere, and it seemed quite possible to some that the suburb might simply disappear as an independent business centre.
Smith was an Australian who landed in Vancouver in 1907. He arrived in steerage and with a tourist landing permit, but within two years he held many thousands of dollars’ worth of property on Commercial Drive. Between 1909 and his early death in 1948, there was little of importance that went on around the Drive that Charles Smith did not have a part in. As a realtor, building manager, legal advisor and insurance agent, Smith was the consummate insider and he covered all the big deals.
Smith’s Grand Plan included a major new east-west thoroughfare right across Vancouver with First & Commercial as a primary intersection. He proposed that the newly constructed Lougheed Highway bringing traffic from the east and the south be linked to First Avenue at Boundary Road. The traffic would then be carried through the centre of Commercial Drive’s shopping district, and onto a viaduct or bridge over the False Creek Flats from First & Clark to Terminal Avenue, and thence down to Main Street. From there, he suggested another viaduct that would take this traffic downtown to Georgia Street. The Fraser Valley would thus be linked through Commercial Drive and Vancouver to the new Lions Gate Bridge by an almost straight thoroughfare.
At the same time, Commercial Drive would be extended south to connect with Kingsway in an attempt to divert some traffic away from an already clogged Main Street and, not incidentally, to divert that traffic from downtown to Commercial’s retail interests. If such a plan could be achieved then riches indeed would flow to the merchants of Commercial Drive.
However, looking back from today it is difficult to understand just how much a leap of the imagination was needed for this vision. The very idea of First Avenue as a major east-west thoroughfare was a fanciful idea in the nineteen-twenties and early thirties. The First Avenue of those years was an unimpressive roadway at best: From its intersection with Commercial, it traveled five blocks west down the steep hill to Clark Drive, where it simply stopped: It had nowhere else to go, with the cliffs and the Flats in the way. Gravel-topped and with grass verges where the sidewalks should be, it could have been a country lane. Traveling east from Commercial, First Avenue wasn’t fully graded, it was narrower than standard, and travel east beyond Victoria Drive was very uncomfortable over a series of short, sharp hills all the way to Rupert Street.
There were few cars on that route and the intersection with Commercial had no traffic control of any kind; it didn’t need any so long as you watched out for the streetcars. It took a strong dose of imagination – and probably a pro-Commercial Drive bent — to see First & Commercial as a thriving urban centre, let alone as the hub of a miles’ long highway corridor linking the eastern borders of the metropolis with downtown Vancouver.
The First Avenue Bridge or viaduct was the key component of Smith’s Grand Plan to free Commercial Drive from its transportation trap. The viaduct would make it easy for traffic to cross the False Creek Flats and access Commercial from First Avenue, which itself would become a thoroughfare from Commercial to Main. Crucially, once First Avenue had been thus established at its western end, pressure could be bought to extend it eastward toward Boundary Road and the Lougheed Highway.
The history of this project fed directly into the narrative of the neglected suburb: Commercial Drive merchants, following Smith’s lead, had demanded the viaduct for years without any satisfaction, and this had bred resentment. The target of all that resentment tended to be City Council. However, it has to be said that Vancouver City Council had on three separate occasions put all the money needed for the First Avenue Bridge to the electorate as part of City Council’s overall plans for the following year.
And on all three occasions – in 1930, 31 and 32 – the bylaws had been defeated by the voters. Apprehensive for the future in troubled financial times, and not seeing any advantage for themselves, the majority of voters elsewhere in the city had pulled tight the drawstrings on the public purse and denied Grandview its desires.
Whenever an occasion arose, speakers from the eastside continued to harp on the terrible conditions that, they said, were the result of a cumulative process of deterioration due entirely to neglect by the civic authorities. By mid-1938 it had been said so often that the Vancouver News Herald, at least, seems to have bought into the story. They wrote that “The people of Grandview have been very patient, and repeated defeats would have daunted less courageous people”.
The abolition of the Vancouver City ward system in 1935 removed the most obvious political avenue for a local party of municipal discontent. But the group of leaders that emerged on the Drive in the 1930s and 40s were in general independent merchants and salaried professionals who were far more interested in commerce than they were in ideology. In fact, they were stridently agnostic when it came to party politics. A small group of businessmen with definite plans for the future gathered around Charlie Smith, “Pete” Brown of Brown Bakeries and Alf Higgins of the Commercial Drive Garage. Their nominations got Brown elected president of the Chamber of Commerce in November 1936, along, of course, with Higgins and Smith. And their renewed agitation about the slowness of the Lougheed Highway construction, for example, was already being noticed by the Province newspaper in April 1937. More directly, they were keen to see progress on the First Avenue Viaduct.
When the flamboyant lawyer and monetary theorist Gerry McGeer was elected Mayor of Vancouver at the end of 1934, a deputation from Commercial Drive led by Charles Smith took pains to visit the new mayor and discuss their issues, most notably the First Avenue Bridge. Smith and his allies were careful to pitch their arguments to include benefits to sections other than Grandview. For example, they claimed that such an artery as they proposed along First Avenue would be of tremendous assistance in helping to solve the daily problem of incoming and outgoing commuter traffic which had already resulted in what everyone agreed was a serious aggravation of traffic conditions on Kingsway, Broadway and Main Streets, with a consequent high accident rate at the points where those thoroughfares converge. But it would not have been missed by anyone hearing the proposal that the area most benefited by it was Commercial Drive.
In early 1936, McGeer came to Grandview and gave a rousing speech confirming his assurances about the viaduct, and a Council committee was struck straightaway. The only problem, of course, was funding. Under the circumstances of the Depression, and after three failed plebiscites, no funds from general revenues could be expected. No matter. Mayor McGeer was sure his baby bonds could be stretched to fit the need.
Baby bonds were a controversial municipal financing measure that McGeer was pushing through to pay for the new City Hall and for other civic work projects. At the time of McGeer’s visit to Grandview, provincial authority for the bonds had not yet been granted; but that spring “baby bonds” were approved in Victoria, and the Mayor’s enthusiasm for the viaduct cleared away all other delays.
The preliminary surveys and test holes were completed that summer and contracts were signed with the Dominion Construction Company in January 1937. The lump sum bid for the work was $208,000. Substantive construction work began that March and the building would take a year to complete.
In anticipation of the new traffic from the Bridge, the City Board of Works approved $5,500 in improvements to First Avenue from Clark Drive to Commercial, and the widening of First Avenue by three feet between Commercial and Victoria at an additional cost of $1,000.
Charles Smith’s history with the Town Planning Commission in the 1920s, and his negotiations with Mayor McGeer, along with whatever motives crossed the mercurial mind of the Mayor himself, probably had most to do with getting the Bridge built. However, in a mighty gesture of self-congratulation, the Grandview Chamber of Commerce hosted 250 residents and friends at a banquet in the Masonic Hall on First Avenue. Guests included Reeve Solomon Mussallem of Haney and Reeve J.B. Leyland of West Vancouver. These two symbolized the two ends of the string that the Grand Plan’s boosters saw linking Lougheed Highway with the brand new Lions Gate Bridge. City Council gave $3,000 to help celebrate the opening of the viaduct which took place on Dominion Day 1938, and tens of thousands thronged to witness the opening of the bridge and the subsequent revelry. There was a parade of course, which stretched twelve blocks and included huge animal balloons that bounced along. Bands included contingents from the American Legionnaires and the Kitsilano Boys Band.
When the parade arrived at the central span of the bridge, the dignitaries disembarked and at 9:45am, Mayor Miller cut the twisted strands of blue and yellow ribbon with a special set of golden scissors presented to him by Charles Bentall of the Dominion Construction Company. There were cheers all around. Alderman John Bennet declared the day to be “the dawning of a new era for Grandview and the city. It is the realization of a dream of twenty-five years of a thriving community,” he said. Many in the crowd held placards proclaiming “This Is Grandview’s Great Day – Watch Grandview Grow.” The crowds stayed throughout the day, enjoying the carnival games that lined the bridge. In the evening, at 8pm, the crowd sang “O Canada” and the dancing began. Fun was had until the rain started about ten-thirty. This was Vancouver after all.
There were differing views as to the purpose of the First Avenue Bridge, and they depended on where you were standing. Downtown and on the west side, the Bridge was seen as a way for people on Commercial Drive to have direct access to Vancouver’s shopping centres. They also saw it as an exit from the city to the Fraser Valley: a “valuable new artery,” as Mayor Miller called it. On Commercial, however, it was seen as making the Drive an easy destination for the growing numbers of Vancouver’s car-driving shoppers. The Echo prophesied that quote once traffic has discovered this new convenient route more vehicles will cross at First Avenue & Commercial in a day than crossed it in a week before endquote. In addition, realtors were sure there would be a general increase in property values as a result of the tremendous amount of home building they expected to take place.
The immediate success of the First Avenue Bridge was confirmed as early as February 1940 when a survey from the Town Planning Commission showed that in one two-hour period 565 vehicles had used First Avenue east of Clark Drive. In 1937, three years earlier, a similar survey had shown only 17 vehicles on that same stretch. In the hindsight of just a few years’ use, it became clear that routes to and from downtown Vancouver and the westside had changed significantly to take advantage of the improved connection the bridge afforded.
It is hard to imagine today Vancouver traffic without the First Avenue connection. And that the building of the Viaduct turned First and Commercial into a well-known and popular intersection is demonstrably clear. Happy anniversay Viaduct!