When Imperial Was King


CVA 389-85: “Description in Progress”

The striking image above is one of the photographs in the City of Vancouver Archives which is categorized as “Description in Progress”(1). I assume that the label is meant to indicate that the site of the photograph (and/or the period in which it was made) was not immediately obvious to the person cataloguing the image.

I think I can at least begin to respond to those questions: I believe the image is of a construction worker inside a partially built coal oil storage tank built at the SE corner of Smithe and Cambie (in Yaletown); and that the image was taken circa 1900-10.(2) J.S. Matthews, Vancouver’s first archivist and an employee of Imperial Oil in the early years of the 20th century, had this to say on the subject:

CVA 389-44 "Description in Progress"

CVA 389-44 “Description in Progress”

At the time [circa 1902] the Imperial Oil Company Limited were doing an enormous coal oil business, both cases and barrels – wood barrels, for it was before days of steel barrels and tank wagons and bulk deliveries of petroleum products – and these [wood barrels] were shipped in very large quantities by rail and steamer, for at that time British Columbia was largely dependent upon kerosene for interior lighting; the gasoline engine for generating electric power for small plants was not unknown, but very rare; practically all farms, and all small towns, canneries, etc. used coal oil. [Imperial Oil] had a complete monopoly of the petroleum business in the whole of British Columbia – such opposition as they had was on lubricating oils and greases, and their only warehouse west of [the town of] Nelson was at Vancouver, corner Smythe and Cambie, where they had one storage tank for coal oil, about 30 feet high, 30 feet diameter; no storage at all for gasoline – an odd barrel was received from the east now and again….The delivery of the kerosene oil was made from the warehouse to the wharf and freight shed of the C.P.R. by gooseneck wagon carrying about 75 cases (80 lbs each) and drawn by two horses over a macadam road (Cambie). The shoreline of False Creek came very close to the Imperial Oil Company Limited’’s warehouse——less than 100 yards from Smythe Street. (Early Vancouver, Vol. 2, 347)

The pink square on the excerpt from Goad’s Atlas (below) shows the Imperial Oil property (later, also the site of Vancouver’s – and Canada’s – first gasoline filling station); there is a high-rise condo on the site today. You can see, if you look a look to the left on the map, that the downtown recreation park mentioned in The Hamilton St. Shuffle (posted a few weeks ago) was just a couple of blocks away (at least, it was by 1912, when Goad’s was published), and the Vancouver Milling and Grain Co. – home of Royal Standard Flour – is across Cambie from the Imperial Oil site (the milling company is visible in the next photo shown below; the view is from Imperial Oil, looking west to the rear of the milling operation).

Goad's Atlas: Vancouver (1912)

Goad’s Atlas: Vancouver (1912)


CVA 389-110 “Description in Progress”

The barrels in the image above (and mentioned in J.S. Matthews’ account) may well have been produced just a few blocks away at one of the False Creek cooperages (e.g., Sweeney’s). (If you are curious to have another perspective on the mill above, see this earlier-posted image.

And, finally, an example of what I’m assuming was an Imperial Oil horse-drawn “gooseneck wagon” appears below.

CVA 389-82

CVA 389-82 “Description in Progress”

(1) All photographs in this post are so classified.

(2) I have no idea who the photographer was of any of the images in this post. But I’d venture to guess that the photographer of the first image, at least, was a professional.

If you are aware of anything in this post (or any of my others) which you can prove as inaccurate, please comment and let me know. In this post, in particular, I’m very conscious that a number of my assertions are closer to educated deductions than they are to facts.


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One Response to When Imperial Was King

  1. Curtis Emde says:

    Excellent work, M. Your research does Vancouver a tremendous service (the city should be paying you!)

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