When we view historic sites or monuments there often exists a sort of disconnection between the audience and the object. In Vancouver, most of our monuments to the past are static (the Cenotaph at Victory Square comes to mind) and our historic buildings often serve new, modern purposes. We enjoy these sites and connect to their history by looking at them, often ceremoniously, but not necessarily engaging with them.
The Stanley Park Seawall, however, is one of those interesting historic spots that we actually use — it is literally built into the landscape of the city. Folks walk, ride, and roll across it nearly every day of the year, and it while remains so closely tied to popular perceptions of Vancouver, it’s easy to forget that it wasn’t always there. The promenade is a seemingly ever-expanding piece of local history that simultaneously acts as a recreational site as well as an interactive monument to those who built it. At the forefront of these efforts was one James “Jimmy” Cunningham.
The Scotland-born Cunningham arrived in Canada in 1910, and a few years later began working on his first job in Stanley Park, the Brockton Point Lighthouse. That landmark was completed in 1914 under Cunningham’s direction, and in 1917 work began building a wall out towards Prospect Point to protect the integrity of the federally owned park’s foreshore. The concept for a protective “sea wall” is often credited to Park Board Superintendent W.S. Rawlings.
The work was arduous and required low tide conditions, as even small storms could interfere with their process. Cunningham worked on a tight budget under direction from the Parks Board and gathered materials from wherever they could be found in the city. Eve Lazarus notes in her research that many of the stones and fill materials were taken from the beach itself and supplemented by rocks from a granite quarry on Nelson Island. Sections of the wall also feature discarded unmarked headstone bases from Mountain View Cemetery and blocks from defunct streetcar lines.
During the inter-war period and into the Great Depression the wall was one of the many federally sanctioned projects designated to make work for the huge number of unemployed men in the city. Years later in the 1950s, the HMCS Discovery Navy Reserve on Deadman’s Island also pitched in, sending its men to work on the wall as punishment duty.
Cunningham’s legacy is one of immense importance to the story of the Seawall, given that he devoted much of his adult life to its completion. He could often be found lifting and cementing 99lb stones by hand as it was finished, section by section. In 1931 the Parks Board designated him as a master stonemason, a distinction he would carry well beyond his “retirement” in 1955. After he had officially left his post, Cunningham continued to visit the worksites and oversaw hundreds of men completing the remaining construction until his death in 1963 at age 85. His ashes, along with his wife Elisabeth’s, were interred in an unmarked space along the wall. A memorial plaque near Siwash Rock serves as an official tribute to his 32 years of dedication to the project.
The wall’s current iteration, a 22km pedestrian path spanning from Coal Harbour to Kits Beach, is the result of multiple stages of short-term financial support. The first phase of the 8.8km Stanley Park loop was finished in 1971 to much fanfare (except cyclists, who were initially banned from riding the wall) followed by an official opening in 1980 to celebrate the completion of the paved section extending from Second to Third Beach. Locals will recall the massive windstorm in 2006 that caused significant damage to the park and the Seawall. Upkeep and restoration has become an integral part of maintaining the local attraction. The Southeast False Creek Seawall, which connects the park to Athlete’s Village and Granville Island, opened in 2008.
The Seawall is of course one of the city’s most prominent tourist attractions and is at times more than a little hectic to navigate, but it nonetheless deserves great attention as a piece of civic history and engineering. Take a moment to admire its finer details on your next stroll. Just watch out for those tandem bikes…