In honour of the 36th annual Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF), I wanted to share the earliest known film footage of Vancouver. It was shot 110 years ago on May 7, 1907 by Seattle filmmaker William Harbeck. Using a hand-cranked 35mm film camera mounted to the front of a streetcar, Harbeck was able to capture the then 21-year-old city and its inhabitants.
Among the streets travelled were Granville (with a glimpse of the old CPR station), West Hastings, Carrall, West Cordova, Cambie, Davie, and Robson. Advance notice of the film route was reported in the daily newspapers, resulting in the high turnout of citizens visible in the film. A reporter from the Daily Province who covered the event noted “many prominent citizens were suddenly stricken with kinetoscopitis* yesterday”. This could also explain the cavalier attitude of those citizens crossing the street in front of the moving streetcar!
Though the picture quality of this film is not as good as a still image, moving images capture something more elusive. They allow the viewer to be immersed in the subject and have the real sense of being there. Films like this would have been a very popular attraction in Nickelodeons in the early days of film exhibition, in which scenes were filmed from the front of a moving vehicle, often a railway train. Harbeck made his living creating and screening films like this in North America and Europe. It was on the voyage back from a tour of Europe that he met his untimely death.
William Harbeck died on the Titanic when it sank on its maiden voyage in 1912. His Parisian mistress Henriette Yrois was thought to have perished with him. When Harbeck’s wife Catherine Harbeck traveled from Toledo, Ohio to Halifax to identify his body they turned her away not believing she was his real wife (having believed the woman travelling with William Harbeck was). When Catherine was able to provide proof of their marriage, she transported William Harbeck’s body back to Toledo for burial. Henriette Yrois’s body was never recovered.
How the film was discovered and identified is an interesting tale in itself. The footage was obtained by the National Film & Sound Archive in Australia from the estate of Harry Davidson in the early 1980s. Davidson was an avid film collector who made frequent film scavenging trips throughout Australia. It is not known how or when Davidson obtained the Harbeck footage. The film was originally thought to depict Hobart, Australia because it included a title frame that said “Hobart in 1906”. When archivists in Australia determined that the footage was not filmed in Australia they sent the nitrate original to the Library of Congress in Washington because they thought it depicted an American city. Staff at the Library of Congress noticed that traffic was travelling on the “wrong-side” of the street to be an American city, so the film was sent to the Library and Archives of Canada. After learning about the existence of the film depicting early Vancouver (and Victoria) at an Association of Moving Images Archivists conference in 1994, local CBC archivist Colin Preston lobbied hard to get a copy of the film sent out west. The Harbeck film first screened at VIFF in 1996, introduced by film historian Colin Browne.
To mark the 100th anniversary of the film, a group of historians and enthusiasts from the Vancouver Historical Society set about to create a documentary about Vancouver, then and now. City Reflections re-creates the streetcar footage of the original film, showing the differences between Granville Street in 1907 and 2007. Initially, the group wanted to film the “now” footage in May of 2007. But the date was moved up to Sunday April 23, 2006 because of the impending construction of the Canada Line on Granville Street. You can purchase a DVD copy of the Vancouver Historical Society film through various outlets or you can borrow a copy from the Vancouver Public Library.
* The Kinetoscope was an early motion picture exhibition device.