My Vancouver : The Lions Gate Bridge

The Lions Gate Bridge under construction - 1938

It is a hot summer evening.  Tired of being stuck inside a steamy condo all day, I decide to take a walk down to my local pub.  I sit down at the bar, and order a pint of Guinness.  When the bartender finishes pouring it and sets it down in front of me, I pick it up, hold it, and think about … the Lions Gate Bridge.  Wait, what?  Yes, that’s right, I think of the Lions Gate Bridge whenever I drink my favourite beer, Guinness.  That’s because I know the story of how this dark stout from half-way across the world has an important connection to this city, and one of its most famous landmarks.

In order to understand this connection, we have to go all the way back to the year 1927.  Vancouver at that time was in the midst of a major brouhaha over a debate that has pretty much been a recurrent theme in our history – development vs. conservation.  Yes, even back then, there were those who felt that Vancouver’s urban sprawl was taking away from what made this city already the envy of the Commonwealth, its green space and beautiful environment.  So, increasingly, they fought to put the brakes on its explosive growth.  In 1927, the issue came to a divisive head over the proposal by a developer, one Alfred Taylor, to build a new bridge over the First Narrows of the Burrard Inlet.  Taylor owned the rights to build the bridge, so he needed to build it soon to make good on his investment.   He also had ambitions to open up the North Shore – at that time only sparsely populated – to development.  He saw that this area of the Lower Mainland had huge potential as a major future suburb. However, critics of the proposed new bridge were numerous and vocal – for one, they argued that a perfectly good bridge already existed in the Second Narrows Bridge; but most of all they objected to the idea of building a road through their beloved Stanley Park.  Indeed, this was a tough sell for Taylor and his supporters; the project would require that a huge swath of the park’s forest be cut down.  It was hard to justify such a drastic measure, especially when it was all going to be for a bridge to, what was then, nowhere.

Taylor knew that, if he ever wanted people to get behind a new bridge project, he would have to find a way to develop the North Shore first – once there were enough people there, a bridge would not only be more popular, it would be necessary.  But the problem was, he just didn’t have the resources to purchase and build on the land.  And so we come to the Guinness family, makers of that foamy, dark porter I love so much.  Taylor was the man who approached these wealthy brewing magnates, and convinced them that purchasing land in Vancouver’s North Shore would be a great and lucrative investment opportunity.  He must have been persuasive, because in 1932 the Guinness family, sure enough, negotiated a deal with the municipality of West Vancouver to purchase 4,700 acres of land at a cost of $75,000.  In exchange for such a low price, the Guinnesses had to agree to also build all the infrastructure for a new community – a school, water pipes, roads, even a gold course!  West Vancouver’s few residents of the time voted 98% in favour of the new deal, and the Guinness deal instantly put the area on the development map.

Just as Taylor had hoped, the Guinness purchase and development caused the North Shore’s population to grow almost immediately.  At about the same time, there also happened to be another stroke of good luck to those wanting a new bridge.  In 1931, a developer named Dan Sewell opened up a hugely popular resort called Whytecliff Lodge.  People from Vancouver – and all over North America – flocked to the area to take advantage of the lodge’s excellent fishing.  And so, between the Guinness development and Sewell’s wildly popular resort, it wasn’t long before voices were raised once again, demanding a new bridge be built over the First Narrows.  In 1933, a second plebiscite was held over the question; there were, once again, many detractors who worried more than ever about the necessity of cutting through Stanley Park.  However, the voices in favour carried the day this time – there was a real need for it now, they argued, and besides, a make-work project like the building of a bridge was a very inviting idea to Depression-ravaged Vancouverites. So, this time, voters approved the new bridge.

The Guinness family had sweetened the proposal when they offered to pay for the project out of their own money – they would make the money back by charging a toll.  Work began on the First Narrows Bridge (its official name) in March of 1937, and the design called for a suspension bridge modelled on the recently-opened Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.  The Golden Gate Bridge was the sensation of its time, with a bold new suspension design that engineers were eager to imitate.  The designers of the Lions Gate Bridge (as the First Narrows Bridge was more popularly called) wanted their new bridge to do for Vancouver what the Golden Gate had done for San Francisco.  Like their American counterparts, they gave the Lions Gate Bridge a combination of cantilever and suspension elements.  Take a look at the bridge from the North Shore the next time you get a chance.  This hybrid design made for much stronger bridges, able to span much longer distances – the cantilevers give strength to the base, but the use of suspension cables allows the Lions Gate Bridge to use fewer cantilevers than were usually needed.  In order to maximize the beautiful view from on top of the bridge, and allow boats to pass under, the designers also decided against the use of trusses, which had been a standard bridge element up to that time.  This was a bold move that many worried would make the bridge too weak.  However, time has proven it to be a sound design.  It also makes travelling over the bridge today an amazing experience.  Now that walkways have been installed, you really owe it to yourself to take a trip over the bridge on foot, and take in what is one of the best views in the city.  Especially looking to the west, the sparkling water and the green landscape which frames it make for a sight that is guaranteed to brighten even the most dismal day.

Opened in November of 1938, the Lions Gate Bridge accelerated the boom in West Vancouver’s population.  As traffic grew, the original two lanes became 3, controlled by an alternating-lane system, which we still have today.   The Guinness family continued to charge a toll of 25 cents to go over the bridge right up until 1955, when they sold the bridge to the provincial government for just under $6 million – almost exactly what it had cost them to build it.  In 1986, in one last symbolic gift to the city of Vancouver, the Guinness family donated the lights that now adorn the bridge and make night-time driving possible.  This was the last connection of this family to the Lions Gate Bridge’s history, one that began in the 1930s and continued for close to 50 years – the fitting final chapter a fascinating and long story, of a growing port town and its rocky but continual growth into one of the world’s great cities.

Each week, local historian Patrick Anderson looks at the history of Vancouver’s greatest landmarks and neighbourhoods.