Prohibition City: A Walk Through Vancouver's Dry Past

“Friends, gather ‘round,” he says. He’s got a story to tell us. On this dark and drizzly October evening, Will Woods, of Forbidden Vancouver’s walking tours, was guiding our group through downtown Vancouver and a gloomy era of Vancouver’s past: Prohibition.

Will Woods, of Forbidden Vancouver’s walking tours, guiding our group through downtown Vancouver and a gloomy era of Vancouver’s past: Prohibition.

Will Woods, of Forbidden Vancouver’s walking tours, guiding our group through downtown Vancouver and a gloomy era of Vancouver’s past: Prohibition.

We had gathered at the Holy Rosary Cathedral—where “they served more than Holy Communion” during Prohibition, he said—and made our way to Victory Square. Woods, dressed for the part in a long beige trench coat and dark grey fedora, looks like he might have stepped out of the early twentieth century to tell us about how British Columbians actually voted for Prohibition in October of 1916, exactly one hundred years ago.

We gather around Woods at the granite cenotaph at Victory Square. This, the city’s memorial dedicated to those who fought and died in the World Wars and the centerpiece of Vancouver’s Remembrance Day ceremonies, Woods says, is an appropriate if unlikely place to talk about the dawn of prohibition here in BC.

Yukon Adventure 1898, Vancouver B.C. (Vancouver Archives)

Yukon Adventure 1898, Vancouver B.C. (Vancouver Archives)

In 1898, Vancouver had about 60 saloons and was a hard-drinking town. People were passing through here on their way to the Yukon to search for gold during the great gold rush. Of the 100 000 who went, only 4000 actually found gold. With those odds, no wonder they were driven to drink. 

The Temperance movement started in the southern United States and made its way up here around that time. They were concerned about the effects of alcohol—and the sexual promiscuity that often accompanied it—on American and Canadian families. When the First World War started, they linked the sacrifice of the movement to the sacrifice of war.

Woods dramatizes a typical argument made around that time: “When our young boys are overseas fighting for their lives and for the Dominion of Canada, how can we, in good conscience, indulge ourselves in liquor and waste our precise time in saloons? We must prohibit liquor so that every last drop of energy is dedicated to winning this terrible war!”

Theses speeches worked. In October 1916, the population of British Columbia voted for Prohibition. It was never forced upon people; we chose it. Saloons were closed the following year.

We keep walking. As we walk, the irony of frequent whiffs of marijuana—still a prohibited substance in Canada, though a common aroma in Vancouver—is not lost on us.

Woods leads us to a dark alley in Gastown. The brick walls are well preserved, setting this area apart from the modern glass highrises elsewhere in the city and reminding passers-by of our past. 

He sets the scene for us: If we were here one hundred or so years ago, this was the centre of town. Nearby was the courthouse at Victory Square, City Hall at Main Street, and Woodward’s Department Store around the corner. Here, we’d likely see women with big elaborate hats and long dresses collecting their goods from the backs of stores, delivery boys on bicycles—otherwise it would look pretty similar to what it is today. 

But if we were in this alley during Prohibition, Woods says, we might have seen one or more “blind pigs”. Blind pigs, more commonly known by their American nickname speakeasies, sprung up around the city. He says they were “like the most rundown, disgusting speakeasy we could have imagined.”

They would have existed hidden in basements and alleyways, just like the one we were in. To get inside, we would have to walk up to an innocuous doorway—Woods acts it out and walks to a door—and give a secret knock and password. “Shenanigans!” he whispers. Then we’d see a little grate in the door open and a pair of eyes peek out to inspect the potential visitor. I can’t imagine Woods would pass the test; in this outfit, he looks more like a not-so-undercover detective than a blind pig patron.

But if the knocker did pass the look-over, the door would swing open and we’d walk down a set of stairs to a dark room lit by candles. “There’s no windows,” Wood continues, “because they wouldn’t want anyone looking it, least of all the police. Men sitting around on ramshackle furniture, drinking, playing cards, and stepping over someone passed out on the floor.” Added to the grizzly atmosphere, Woods says that some “unscrupulous” blind pig owners would serve concoctions with industrial liquids like turpentine instead of alcohol, potentially blinding or even killing drinkers. Rough.

The tour continues. We walk through Chinatown’s Shanghai Alley, where Woods tells us about prostitution at its many brothels. He tells the story of the 1907 riot, which created the city’s bylaw to ban guns. He also describes the gritty opium dens that inspired the Federal Opium Act of 1908. It seems as though Vancouver has had a few vices.

Prohibition ended in 1921 after a second vote. People had realized that Prohibition just wasn’t working the way they thought it would—bootlegging and corruption were abound—and men returning from World War I just weren’t interested in adhering to a ban. So, with a $5 annual permit, you could now buy alcohol from a BC-owned liquor store and consume it at your home.

It wasn’t difficult to imagine that era in Vancouver; the province still has tight control over alcohol sales. Only in 2014 did the province allow beer and wine to be sold in grocery stores. And prior to that, we couldn’t have happy hours at bars and restaurants around Vancouver because “discounted” drinks were forbidden. No surprise, really, that we’ve been nicknamed the “No Fun City”.

One hundred years after the start of Vancouver’s short-lived Prohibition, the city is once again looking at changing its liquor laws. Provincial law stipulates that cities can designate certain areas “as a place where liquor may be consumed,” but, according to the BC government, no city has ever used that provision. Vancouver has been surveying residents’ opinions on our antiquated liquor laws and ideas for bringing them into the 21st century. Maybe soon we’ll finally be able to (openly) enjoy a glass of wine at our beach picnics, or stroll down Robson Street with shopping bags in one hand and a beer can in the other.

View of liquor stills captured during Prohibition (Vancouver Archives)

View of liquor stills captured during Prohibition (Vancouver Archives)

We cross Hastings Street and pass Hotel Rainier, one of the city’s first beer parlours. We stroll through Gastown, named for our famed saloon owner, Gassy Jack, whose statue graces the corner of Carrall and Water streets. Then we arrive at the location of the old Grand Hotel, now a home furnishing store. To finish our tour, Woods recites a poem about its shady owner, Tommy Roberts, who got loggers drunk and took all their hard-earned money. 

And with that, most of the group heads to a pub to enjoy a beer—of course.

These nearly 2-hour walking tours can be booked online at Forbidden Vancouver for $25 ($22 for seniors/students). Offered daily from April-September.

I received this tour for free with my writer's group.