A Short History of the Burrard Inlet Line
This post focuses on the history of colonial settlement of Vancouver, however we respectfully acknowledge that Vancouver is part of the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territories of the Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations, whose settlement of the Strathcona neighbourhood is less well-documented.
It is often said that Canada was built around railways and railways built the communities. This is not the case for Strathcona’s Burrard Inlet Rail Line. The BI Line was built in the middle of a thriving residential community that predated its existence by over a decade.
In 1867, colonial settlement of Vancouver began in the neighbourhood now known as Gastown. The Great Vancouver Fire of 1886 destroyed nearly all of the settlement but it was quickly rebuilt. Also in 1886, the first CPR transcontinental train arrived in Vancouver, and Vancouver was incorporated as a city.
As settlement expanded outwards from Gastown, the neighbourhood now known as Strathcona was settled from west to east. Vancouver’s oldest school, Lord Strathcona Elementary, was founded 700m west of the future BI Line in 1891. As shown this 1891 map of Vancouver, settlement had reached an area that is now bisected by the BI Line. This map shows original street names: Glen Drive was previously called Boundary, East Pender Street was formerly Princess, Keefer Street was formerly Harris, and Union Street was formerly Barnard. This map also shows the original alignment of Raymur Avenue, which was changed in the 1960s.
Several of the homes adjacent to the BI Line were built between 1899 and 1904. Around 1901, construction of Admiral Seymour Elementary School began 65 m east of the future BI Line. It opened in 1907 and remains in use to this day, with an enrollment catchment area that is still bisected by the BI Line. The buildings at Admiral Seymour Elementary initially also served as the classrooms of Britannia Secondary School, which moved to a new building further east in 1910.
Between 1888 and 1908, the estimated population of Vancouver exploded from 8,007 to 79,513. By 1909, the city’s eastward expansion along East Pender Street had reached Semlin Drive, 1.3 km east of the BI Line.
The start of construction of the BI Line was announced in the Vancouver Daily World newspaper on April 23, 1909 with the headline “Work Begun on Spur to Inlet”. Residents of East Pender, Keefer, Harris (now East Georgia), and Union streets saw their blocks cut in two by the new railway spur, as shown in this 1912 map.
The BI Line is on an extremely narrow right-of-way, around one quarter to one-half of the width of a typical single-track right-of-way in Canada.,
The southern end of the BI Line was below the high tide line at the time of construction, part of a vast tidal flat in the eastern end of False Creek that was a rich source of food for First Nations. Around 1916, the area that is now Glen Yard was created by filling in these tidal flats.
According to the City of Vancouver, the BI line “divided Strathcona and isolated this part of the neighbourhood… and contributed in part to the conversion of many properties to industrial use.” The area surrounding the BI Line today contains a mixture of heritage homes that predate the BI Line, and newer industrial and residential buildings.