YOU SHOULD KNOW: The Fishy History Of 611 Alexander On The Downtown Eastside

Nestled near the end of Railtown’s industrial promenade, the modern steel and glass elevator installation at 611 Alexander suggests the building hasn’t been in place for more than a few decades. Its contemporary facade, however, is deceptive; this wasn’t always a design and commerce center – it used to produce cans of fish. In 1913, the American Can Company acquired independent company Cliff & Sons, and thirteen years later a 363,000 square-foot plant was built at the intersection of Alexander and Princess. Architect and engineer Carl G. Preis designed the building, in additional to several other North American locations including Portland and Montreal. Featuring large windows and typically corporate-style design, it was, for many years, one of the largest reinforced concrete structures in the city. To build the tin can processing plant, rows of homes and popular brothels – indicated sometimes by madams’ names printed on the front tiles – were demolished. The busy Red Light District which encompassed the 500 and 600-block of Alexander would eventually move west into Chinatown and, later, to East Georgia, leaving this area to develop in its proximity to the port.

The site attracted workers from across the city, including newly landed immigrants taking root in the Strathcona North neighbourhood (perhaps because the clatter of punch presses was heard for blocks throughout the nightshift). During the Great Depression, the sprawling industrial landscape featured development nearby of shanties and dilapidated sheds housing out of luck WWI veterans and other poor on the site of the old Hastings Sawmill. These were described as the “’Jungles’ of 1931”, and contemporary reports by city archivist Major James Skitt Matthews indicate that at one point the population rose to two hundred and forty men. A July 1931 edition of the Vancouver Sun features a glimpse into the conditions of these sites.

In wartime, women accounted for half the work force at the ACC, where incredibly loud machinery necessitated the use of signals, lip-reading, and carefully observed routines. Earplugs were eventually deemed mandatory in later years (go figure). At its height, the ACC produced over 350 million cans annually, primarily related to fishing. The company did more than just can BC salmon though: apple sauce tins and beer cans were also part of production. It also built the canning materials for other local industries, including the Gulf of Georgia Cannery in Richmond.

By 1975 the number of labourers had dwindled to just over 300, due to advances in technology and the export of canning production to Ontario and Quebec. In 1988, the building was repurposed. Celebrated BC architect Bruno Freschi (of Expo ’86 fame) transformed the site into office and studios: a “chic design centre” where, according to historian Harold Kalman, the old and new was “mated”, as it were, as a reimagined commercial and artistic space. Currently housing the SFU School for the Contemporary Arts, Anne Star Textile Agency, and Artizia’s head offices (among others), this unique building continues to play a role in the city’s vibrant commercial industries. Legend has it that sometimes at night, when the moon is full, the old punch presses can still be heard, softly clacking away. Just kidding.


There are 4 comments

  1. American Can did not can fish or anything else. they manufactured empty tin cans and sold them to canning companies.

  2. “The busy Red Light Dis­trict which encom­passed the 500 and 600-block of Alexan­der would even­tu­al­ly move west into Chi­na­town and, later, to East Geor­gia, leav­ing this area to devel­op in its prox­im­i­ty to the port.”

    Just a small correction on an otherwise interesting article. Alexander Street was the red light district from 1911 to 1918 and was the place the prostitutes moved to after Chinatown and East Georgia/Main Street areas were shut down by the police. The bulk of the brothels were on the south side of the street. Many of rhe buildings remain today.

  3. lots of history in those walls- i started work there in 1971 till plant closure in 1986 or so then operations moved to #6 rd and river road richmond- onex then ball corporation- richmond plant down sized in 2000 – final plant closure a few yrs later- at alexander st plant i worked on the top floor where all the manufacturing took place. lots of noise & vibration in the bones . lead dust . we supplied all the fish cans for the pacific coast fisheries . rodgers golden syrup- fraser valley milk, sunrype, labatt’s , pepsi, fraser valley foods, oil cans for chevron shell anti freeze canada safeway’s – empress foods- very good company to work for. was like one BIG family! husband/wives worked there along with their sons daughters. in it’s hayday 750-800 workers were employed there

  4. Bill Reid, the artist and CBC announcer, did some of his early engraving work on the cans there in the 1950s.

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