A Search for Lost Souls

Gastown’s bars are packed full of spirits; bourbon and gin flows like the Fraser River – but there are some other spirits haunting the back alleys and bawdy houses of historic Vancouver. Who better to guide us through the murky past of Gastown than someone who lived, and died through it? We met George, born in the 19th Century, in a spooky park opposite a foreboding-looking church. The wind howled and the rain beat down as George held up his lantern and started to tell us about his life. George wasn’t a figment of my imagination, but rather the creative character of Will Woods, a history buff and British business consultant turned actor/tour guide.

Will runs Forbidden Vancouver, a company that specializes in walking tours exploring the dark Prohibition-era underbelly of Vancouver’s Gastown and Chinatown areas. During October Will also ran the spooky Lost Souls of Gastown tour, which is where I met ‘George’.

George took us into the Victorian Hotel, built in 1898 and reportedly Vancouver’s oldest, and told us about his adventures in the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush.

As we huddled inside the parlor foyer we heard about legendary showgirl Klondike Kate and her tragic love affair with swindling theatre-magnate Alexander Pantages. Will encourages audience participation and manages to involve walkers by asking us to hold his lantern, read out letters and stand in for reenactments, but without making anyone feel uncomfortable.

Wandering the back alleys of Gastown, we heard more about George’s story – he took us to the spot near Vancouver’s oldest shopping ‘mall’ (Le Magasin) where his blacksmith foundry had been and told the terrifying story of his escape from the Great Fire in 1886. Deeper down Water Street we heard about bawdy house madam Birdie Stewart in her emerald dress and the strange story of John Bray  – who was shot in the head three times, but managed to live for two weeks before lead poisoning sent him insane and finally killed him.

George also debunked some more modern myths about Gastown for us – the not-so-historic origins of the Steam Clock, the less than savory sexual proclivities of Gassy Jack and the mysterious renaming of Trounce Street to Blood Alley. Those 70s town planners have a lot to answer for.

Huddled in a dark corner in Gaoler’s Mews George told us the tragic tale of his wife Elsie and her encounter with smallpox – although George is a fictional character, Will has painstakingly researched all of the historical details. He painted a vivid picture of life in 19th Century Vancouver – a world of gold seekers, outfitters and shady characters – whilst providing photos to help our imagination along and using modern day buildings to give us an idea of scale when talking about trees that towered over the forested area that is now downtown.

After a magical evening of storytelling, charmingly brought to life by George, we ended our tour with the revelation of who killed John Bray… and finally put the Lost Souls of Gastown to rest.