CITY BRIEFS: On The Origins Of The Iconic Gastown Corner Of Carrall St. & Cordova St.

by Ellen Johnston | Vancouver is a city that, by and large, fits squarely into a uniform street grid. Unless you were raised in a cul-de-sac (we have few of them here), we all grew up at or near the corner of one street and another. Corners are a pillar of urban existence, a way of telling your friends where you live and how they should find you. But how often do we think about what these corners really mean, or what our streets tell us about our very own city? Not very much, I’d bet.

We all know that Vancouver began in Gastown. We’ve learned the story of Gassy Jack and how his boozy ambitions became the origins of the city we live in now. But what about the byways of his new city? When we think of Gastown, several street names come to mind: Water, Carrall, Cordova, and Hastings, to name just a few. The raison d’etre of the first and last are obvious, but what about those two in the middle? Are Carrall and Cordova place names? Are they names belonging to city founders? Are they named after early explorers of the region? What’s the deal?

One of the coolest resources we have for learning more about our city streets is a book called Street Names of Vancouver by Elizabeth Walker. Available online through the Vancouver Public Library, it provides historical information on all avenues, streets, roads, boulevards, terraces and the like. To learn more about the corner of Carrall and Cordova, one need only to look at the index and read the corresponding pages.

Page 20 tells us that Carrall was named after Dr. Robert William Weir Carrall, who lived from 1837 to 1879. He was a doctor (trained at Trinity and McGill) who went down south during the American Civil War to toil as a surgeon on the – phew! – Union side. He was most notably a politician and delegate to Ottawa, where he was sent in 1870 to discuss the terms of British Columbia’s union with Canada. He described himself as “a patriotic Canadian, descended from a race of patriotic Canadians – one of the oldest families in Canada.” One of his biggest fans was Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister. Carrall was also a bit of a softy, who complained how his position in Ottawa caused him to be “worked to death socially – Dinners or Dances every night, and all the next day the anguish of having lost my heart which I invariably do from one to four times every night, oh! why was I created with such susceptibilities? or why on earth [are] the girls so sweet!!!” He remained unmarried until a few months before his death. His new wife (previously widowed) was his former school sweetie. Aw…

Cordova, on the other hand, has foreign origins and is far older.

As pages 27 and 28 reveal, Cordova Street was named after Cordova Channel, a name found on 19th century maps. But where’s Cordova Channel? It no longer exists, or, to be more precise, its name has changed. It’s the original name of Esquimalt Harbour on Vancouver Island. It was given the name “Cordova” in 1790 by Sub-Lieutenant Manuel Quimper of the Spanish Navy. The Cordova in question was the contemporary Viceroy of Mexico, Don Antonio Bucareli y Cordova. To make things even more complicated, Cordova Street used to only be called Cordova west of Carrall, the very corner we have been discussing. Prior to 1897, East Cordova Street was known as Oppenheimer Street, named after the city’s second mayor, David Oppenheimer. Also known as the father of Vancouver, Oppenheimer was of German-Jewish origin, and had come to Vancouver via New Orleans and California.

By examining one little corner of our city, an intersection many of us walk past every day, so much can be learned about our city’s beginnings. Three continents are tied up on that corner. So are at least two religions, two different centuries, and two different countries we could have, in alternate situations, become a part of. For a city that so often relies upon its newness, it’s a lovely reminder that there is history all around us.

What are the origins of your corner? Find out here.

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Above all, Ellen Johnston considers herself a wanderer, whether she be tramping through the rain soaked streets of Vancouver and attempting to pry loose the layers of our urban fabric, couch-surfing across America, or getting lost in the souks of Marrakech. Since wandering is sadly not a full time gig, she also fills her days with the study of African dance and drumming, writing, piano, and running her own cookie company, Cookie Elf. She grew up in Vancouver, studied in Philadelphia and London, and hopes to see even more of this great big world in the future.

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