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March 6, 1945

If you were here on March 6, 1945—exactly 60 years ago today—you will remember the waterfront explosion of the 10,000-ton freighter Greenhill Park, easily the most spectacular and disastrous event in the port's history. Four explosions wracked the ship and blew a gaping hole in her side. Eight longshoremen were killed, 19 other workers were injured, seven firemen ended up in hospital and hundreds of windows in downtown Vancouver, some as far west as Thurlow and as far north as Dunsmuir, were blown out. Whole office blocks facing Burrard Inlet had scarcely a pane of glass intact.

The war against Japan was in its final stages and some people thought the Japanese had begun to bomb the city.

A 1,500-page report released two months after the blast concluded the explosion had resulted from “improper stowage of combustible, dangerous and explosive material . . . and the ignition thereof by a lighted match.”

In June of 1946 the Greenhill Park, repaired, sailed away from Vancouver as the S.S. Phaex II under the new ownership of a Greek company. By 1967, as the Lagos Michigan, she was sold to Formosan shipbreakers for scrap.

March 7, 1913

Pauline Johnson was ill in 1912 with breast cancer, a patient at the Bute Street Hospital. Her illness was noted in newspapers all across Canada, because she was our most famous poet. The country had never seen (or heard) anyone like her before—her father was a Mohawk chief—and she was an immediate star. “To attract crowds,” says a web site devoted to her, “she recited the first half of her program in a ball gown. For the second half she recited her 'Indian' poems in a costume which she made herself from buckskin, Mohawk metal work, rabbit pelts, a hunting knife, her grandfather's Huron scalp and another scalp which she bought from someone in the American mid-west.”

In 1909, after 17 years of touring, she retired and came to live in Vancouver.
By 1912 she was in the hospital—and in financial difficulty—when the Governor General, the Duke of Connaught, came to visit. He wanted to reminisce about the day in 1869 when he had been made an honorary chief of the Six Nations at its Ontario reserve. (She had been at that ceremony.) The prospective visit disturbed her, because her dressing gown was shabby and she couldn't afford a better one. Friends chipped in to buy her a new one.

Few read her poetry today, but Johnson's retelling of local Indian legends has lasted and her image is an enduring icon. She died at age 51 on March 7, 1913—92 years ago today.

March 12, 1921

The opening of the Capitol Theatre at 820 Granville Street on March 12, 1921 — 86 years ago today — was big news. The Capitol was a movie palace, and a big one: 2,500 seats, in a day when movies were still silent. It was also, say old timers, a very beautiful theatre, thanks to architect Thomas Lamb. To add even more glamor to the opening Famous Players brought in one of the biggest movie stars of the day, Wallace Reid. The capacity crowd was thrilled when Reid burst through a paper screen on which his image was being projected to appear live on stage. Then a bit of buffoonery followed. Reid was smoking a cigarette—not allowed in the theatre. Vancouver mayor Robert Gale came storming on stage, grabbed the cigarette from Reid and stubbed it out. The gag? Gale himself was smoking.

The big Capitol Symphony Orchestra (accompanied by two live canaries), led by William Raven, played during Reid’s movie The Love Special. Reid played a locomotive engineer, seeking the love of co-star Agnes Ayres.

The original Capitol was gutted and reshaped to become, in 1977, a six-screen multiplex theatre. It closed for good in April, 2005 and is to be replaced by condos.

March 13, 1929

Vancouver mayor W.H. Malkin, standing amid a crowd of onlookers at the corner of Burrard and Hastings Streets at 9:30 on the morning of March 13, 1929, blew a shrill blast on a golden whistle, a signal for a huge steam shovel to clank into action. The big machine took a bite out of the ground and the construction of the Marine Building was under way. The crowd—most of them from The Vancouver Board of Trade—applauded warmly.

That momentous event, 77 years ago today, would give us a building that has been a city icon ever since. It was the tallest building in Canada west of Toronto, a symbol of the feverish optimism about Vancouver’s future: “Less than six months ago,” The Vancouver Sun wrote in its Page One story, “Capt. F.C. Johnson, president of G.A. Stimson & Co., was so impressed with the future prospects of the city that he paid $300,000 for the site . . .”

That optimism extended to the building itself: the architects, McCarter & Nairne, were told, again and again, to enlarge it. The final design, their fourth, presented an “imposing total”, the Sun said, of 134,000 square feet of office space.

The building opened in October, 1930, bringing genuine beauty to the city’s downtown.

March 14, 1958

Vancouver's main post office opened March 14, 1958—47 years ago today. The building looks rather stolid, but in this case looks are deceptive: the joint is jumping, and it jumps 24 hours a day. More than a thousand people work in these million-plus square feet, trucks roll in and out constantly, conveyor belts (three kilometres of them) rumble, letter-sorting gizmos pluck and shuffle, processing a couple of million items a day (six million a day at Christmas), and we learn from Canada Post's web site that in the month that ends March 17 there will have been 306,366 separate letter-carrier walks in Vancouver alone.

The building cost $13 million, and was at the time the largest welded-steel structure in the world. They put a helicopter landing pad on the roof, but used it just twice before they decided helicopter mail delivery was too expensive. They built a tunnel with a conveyor belt leading all the way to the CPR station, but they hardly ever used that, either. Trucks and planes were faster.

So the tunnel is obsolete . . . or maybe not: In 1996 Canada Post's lease on it was renewed. Says the city, “Some economic or utility use for the tunnel may materialize.”

March 20, 1925

The biggest local story of the mid-1920s? No contest: the murder of Janet Smith. Still unsolved, her killing in July, 1924 and the events that grew out of it made Page One of The Vancouver Sun every day—every single day—for months. She was a Scotland-born nursemaid, 22, taking care of the infant child of F.L. Baker, a socially prominent exporter of pharmaceutical drugs. The Baker home was at 3851 Osler Avenue in Shaughnessy.

It took Edward Starkins a whole book (Who Killed Janet Smith?) to tell the story, which involved incompetent investigation, drug smuggling (and not the pharmaceutical kind), rumors of orgies, a political coverup going right up to the attorney-general’s office . . . and racism.

On March 20, 1925—81 years ago today—vigilantes dressed in the hooded robes of the Ku Klux Klan kidnapped the Baker’s Chinese houseboy, Wong Foon Sing, and kept him prisoner for six weeks. They beat him harshly (his eardrum was ruptured), trying to force a confession from him. They finally let him go, dumping him out on the street, when they realized he knew nothing of the crime. The men were later jailed.

The kidnapping of Wong was just one bizarre element in a story that had dozens more.

March 21, 1985

Can it really be 20 years ago today that Rick Hansen began his Man in Motion journey? Rick's goal: to push himself around the world in his wheelchair 24,901.55 miles, equal to the world's circumference. The reason: to raise money for spinal cord research.

Rick had been grievously injured in June of 1973 when a truck he'd hitched a ride on overturned. He was a paraplegic at 15, a kid with, in his own words, “three obsessions: fishing, hunting—and sports. Always sports. If you could throw it, hit it, bounce it, chase it or run with it, I wanted to play it. And usually I could do it pretty well.”

A long, painful (and sometimes angry and self-pitying) stretch of rehab followed, then Rick got into wheelchair sports. He was mentored by Stan Stronge, to whom he pays special respect in his autobiography—written with Jim Taylor, it's a splendid book.

And then he met Terry Fox. Terry's heroic 1980 Marathon of Hope—and the millions it raised for cancer research—inspired Rick. Rick's journey ended May 22, 1987 to the cheers of thousands at Oakridge, where it had started 26 months earlier. Today, the Rick Hansen Foundation has funneled $158 million into research on spinal cord injury.

March 26, 1915

Winning the Stanley Cup for Vancouver wasn’t a big deal in 1915. When our Millionaires won the Cup March 26, 1915 — 92 years ago today — the story was buried on Page 7 of The Vancouver Sun, with no reference on the front page.

Our hunch is a repeat win for Vancouver would now make the front page.

The star of the three-game sweep against the Ottawa Senators was the Millionaires’ Fred “Cyclone” Taylor, a zippy gent who had once played for Ottawa. Cyclone was a particular target of the Ottawa team, and had to be helped off the ice after a crushing hit in Game 2. It didn’t slow him down much: he scored two more goals in Game 3, bringing his series total to six. (Barney Stanley did pretty well for the Millionaires, too, scoring three goals in the second period of that third game.)

One of the rules back then was curious: when a player was penalized and sent off, another player could take his place. The teams — who played all three games at the Denman Arena — were playing under “eastern rules,” which included that bizarre provision.

It’s been more than ninety years since the Stanley Cup was here. We’re due.

March 27, 1993

The next time you take your kids for a ride on the Parker Carousel at Burnaby’s Village Museum you might find it interesting to know that merry-go-rounds have a violent history. They began in mediaeval times as training machines for knights in battle. They sat on planks arranged in a circle around a centrepost. As they were spun around (by animal or human power), the knights would try to thrust their lances through a small stationary ring that represented the head of their opponent in a jousting match.

The non-violent Parker Carousel was built in 1912 in Kansas, and delighted young riders in many different American cities until May of 1936 when it was bought by Happyland at the PNE. It operated there until Happyland was demolished in 1957. Then it went into a small pavilion at Playland and was there until that was demolished in 1972. For the next 17 years, the Museum’s web site tells us, the carousel was operated outdoors and was put away in the winter.

In 1989 Burnaby bought the big beauty (for $350,000) and put it into its own pavilion as a centennial project. It went into operation at the Village Museum March 27, 1993 — 13 years ago today. Its interesting history is here.

March 28, 1964

It's just after midnight on March 28, 1964—41 years ago today—and people in Port Alberni on Vancouver Island, listening to radio reports of a major earthquake in Alaska, are bracing for a tsunami heading their way. The Alaska quake had a magnitude of 9.2, strongest in North America's recorded history (felt over 1.3 million square kilometres), lasted more than three minutes, and caused enormous damage, especially in Anchorage. More than a hundred people were killed in the state, many more to the giant waves than to collapsing buildings.

Four hours later the first wave of the tsunami came surging up the narrow 40-kilometre-long Alberni Inlet—it cuts more than halfway across the island—and hit the town of 19,000 hard. There was extensive flooding all along the inlet. But a second wave was coming, and it was bigger and more dangerous. The narrowness of the inlet meant the height of the water was magnified. When the second wave hit it smashed down like a fist onto Port Alberni, damaging nearly 400 homes. More than 50 of them were destroyed beyond repair. Luckily, because of the warning, no lives were lost. But damage was extensive on the BC coast.

And hours later 11 people died under the tsunami when it hit Crescent City, California.

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