Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on Canadian coastal histories, which considers intersections of nature and culture along the saline shores of the land and tidewaters currently known as Canada, the country with the world’s longest coastline. Guest-edited by Sara Spike
This post is also part of a series based on presentations that would have taken place at the 2020 Canadian Historical Association Annual Meeting at Western University in London, Ontario (June 1-3).
On the morning of May 28, 1913, members of the Vancouver Police Department were searching the waterfront for a murderer.
A sergeant had found the body of Constable James Archibald in a brush-covered vacant lot one block inland from the Vancouver waterfront at nine o’clock that morning. Archibald had missed a scheduled check-in and his fellow officers had been looking for him since dawn. They first searched the vacant lot for any identifying articles and then moved on to the shoreline itself.
Two days into the Archibald investigation, the Coroner’s Jury made recommendations for physical alterations to the area that the officer patrolled and where he died: “We, the jurymen, recommend that the city officials see that all the lots have the brush cleared off them; also the waterfront cleared of shacks.” This response to Archibald’s murder affirmed an association between cleaning up the unruly landscape of the waterfront district and clearing out undesirable residents.
The city’s waterfront was an industrial landscape to which vacant lots were as essential as warehouses. They were evidence that the land had been cleared for settlement and provided room for industry to grow. A 1898 bird’s-eye-view map of Vancouver pointedly featured a busy Burrard Inlet with green, empty lots scattered among the neat, then-imaginary streets beyond. To the chagrin of the city’s loftier residents, the waterfront lots also gave Vancouver’s many houseless, labouring men a place to sleep. A brush-covered lot provided more shelter—from the rain and policemen’s eyes both—than the street.
The jury’s recommendation that the waterfront “be cleared of shacks” referred to the homes built on floating log platforms on the tide flats beside the Hastings Shingle Mill. In quick succession, constables had gone from searching the vacant lot for evidence of Archibald’s killers to the shore immediately north of it to identify and arrest likely suspects. In one floating cabin, they came upon John “Blackie” Seymour, the man who was to be their star witness, asleep in bed.
Neither the officers nor reporters covering the case ever offered an explanation for why the Vancouver Police prioritized the floating homes as the first place to look for suspects. None, it seemed, was needed. It appeared obvious to those involved that the waterfront was where one went to find suspicious figures—itinerant, poor, and frequently nonwhite or of dubious ethnic origin.
As the investigation unfurled, newspapers fixated on the brush populating the vacant lot on Powell Street’s 1300 block running behind the dockyards of the Hastings Shingle Mill. The Daily Province was the first paper to publish an account of the discovery of Archibald’s body. Photographs of the murdered officer and the street dominated the front page, accompanying a hand-drawn map of the location of the body in heavy brush in relation to the home of witnesses Jessie and Frederick George Wooton and the shingle mill office, broken into that same night. “CONSTABLE IS DONE TO DEATH ON A VACANT LOT,” proclaimed the headline.
The contents of the article gave a sensational bent to the story: After spotting men leaving the burglarized mill office while on his beat, Archibald called to them to stop and followed them into the lot, where he “met a terrible death. … Twenty feet from the sidewalk the low bushes grow thick, and it is there that the men must have lain in wait for their victim as he came crashing through the shrubbery after them.” The article quoted Inspector Donald McIntosh, who described vacant lots as “a perfect hiding-place for any criminal.” Three bullets from a .38 Colt revolver may have killed the constable, but the brush was to blame.
Concerned parties presented the brush in vacant lots and the homes on the tide flats as interconnected matters of public health and safety. “Brush covered vacant lots are a menace in more ways than one,” argued Coroner Jeffs as he addressed the jury in response to witness statements at the coroner’s inquest:
They harbor refuse and breed flies, and flies are responsible for more deaths than most people believe. The people who are so low down as to live in these floating shacks on the waterfront are no use to Vancouver. They should be cleared out just as the brush should be cleared from vacant lots.
The coroner’s declaration indicated that the call to “clean up” the physical environment of the urban waterfront and its adjacent streets was never a neutral proposition but instead one that targeted waterfront residents—predominantly poor, working-class, and often immigrants—for criminalization and prosecution by rhetorically equating them with the landscape of the docklands itself.
Like the flattened portrait of criminality such appeals made of the people living at the waterfront, the dialogue about the dangerous brush homogenized the intricate ecology of vacant lots. The ground had been left fallow in the years since the streets were laid and lots surveyed, allowing alder trees to take root. Native to the coastal Pacific Northwest, alders grow in moist settings near waterways and, with the exception of rarer tall varieties, grow in thickets, small and shrub-like in size with multiple, interlocking trunks. In Archibald’s native Scotland, alder woods—often dark and swampy—held associations with hiding, secrecy, and death. The green dyes extracted from alder leaves associated them with faeries and outlaws like Robin Hood. Common understory plants in British Columbian alder complexes that might have populated the lot include fireweed, black huckleberry, thimbleberry, and numerous grasses and herbs. One can only imagine Archibald’s thoughts as he entered the dark lot.
Vancouver’s busy waterfront made it a city of connected waters and mobile peoples. Increased global connectivity facilitated by steamships and a northern transcontinental railway had made the city into Canada’s most important Pacific port. In 1911, approximately eighty-five percent of Vancouver residents had moved there from provinces and countries beyond British Columbia. Vancouver residents responded to their own hypermobility and the rapidity of change at the turn of the twentieth century with anxiety and by characterizing the urban waterfront as physically and morally suspect. The Archibald case and ensuing trials were emblematic. The trials and news coverage drew public scrutiny to the landscape and its occupants, equating the one with the other.