The Age of the Searchlight

The late 1920s and 1930s was the age of the searchlight in Vancouver.

Port P1153.2 – Mr. E.C. Dawe, Point Atkinson Lighthouse Keeper, with his light. 1951.

Searchlights were not a new thing. They had been in use in 19th century Europe. Indeed, they were not new to Vancouver, either. Searchlight technology was in use in B.C. coastal applications from before Vancouver’s incorporation — as lighthouses.

The popularity of the searchlight during this time was probably due to a number of factors. Improved light technology and the ‘reach’ of searchlights was certainly one.

But it seems to me that the single most important factor behind the popularity of the searchlight at this time was the currency of Art Deco (aka Style Moderne) design.

One of the first things to enter my mind at the mention of searchlights is the very deco-ish visual (and soundtrack) that accompanies movies made by 20th Century Studios. If you need a reminder of what I’m talking about, click on this link.


Van Sc P114 – The Woodward’s Department Store searchlight atop the tower. ca 1938.

One of the first institutions in Vancouver to make use of a searchlight was a department store — Woodward’s. In 1927, the store installed a searchlight atop its building at Abbott and Hastings.

Puggy [P. A. Woodward] . . . had a giant tower built on the roof of the Store. It stood seventy-five feet high, held a searchlight forty-eight inches in diameter and threw out a two-million candlepower beam which revolved six times each minute and spread its rays far over the Lower Mainland across to Vancouver Island. For many years, the Beacon Tower was a landmark to the people of Vancouver.

The Woodwards: A family story of ventures and traditions.
Douglas E. Harker. 1976: Mitchell Press.

The purpose of this light was advertising. Woodward’s searchlight seemed to proclaim, boldly: “Look at Woodward’s searchlight! Isn’t it time you returned here to shop?”

In 1938, in response to an order from the federal Department of Transport, the Woodward’s light was extinguished. It was believed that pilots who were unfamiliar with Vancouver might confuse the Woodward’s searchlight with the airport landing strip. The searchlight was replaced with a giant “W” (Vancouver Sun, 2 June 1938).

The giant W removed from its perch above Woodward’s for condo development. .Arlen Redekop / PNG.

Canadian Diamond Jubilee

Pete Triance, Superintendant, Grouse Resort, with his light. Vancouver Sun. 4 July 1927.

As part of the 1927 Canadian Diamond Jubilee celebration (marking 60 years since Confederation), a searchlight was installed atop Grouse Mountain. The light shone on various parts of the city, including City Hall, from July 1 for a number of days that year. According to the caption beneath the accompanying photo from the Sun, the light was co-owned by the City of Vancouver and other municipalities in the Greater Vancouver area (Sun, 4 July 1927).

This searchlight served a function similar to that of Woodward’s. It was a form of advertising, celebrating a civic occasion.

There was another event associated with the Diamond Jubilee at which a searchlight was involved. On the day of the Jubilee (Dominion Day), there was a fireworks display over English Bay. As part of that, the H.M.C.S. Patrician “added to the entertainment by playing its searchlight over the water.” (Sun, 4 July 1927)

Hudson’s Bay Co. / Vancouver Airport

CVA 99-2493 – Hudson’s Bay Co. / Airport searchlight. 1930. Stuart Thomson.

A searchlight was installed by a major competitor of Woodward’s, Hudson’s Bay Co. on the roof of its store at Georgia and Granville in 1930. In this case, the searchlight was to serve the brand new city airport by shining a light from downtown, over Shaughnessy Heights, and onto the landing strip at the airport on Sea Island. The searchlight on HBC apparently had the same strength as the one on Woodward’s and the one that had been atop Grouse Mountain in 1927 — a two-million candlepower beam. Indeed, it is likely that the light on HBC was the same light as had been on Grouse (Sun, 4 July 1927).

According to local press reports, the searchlight was to be situated 60-feet above the roofline of the department store. But looking at the photo above, I don’t see how that is possible (unless the photo was taken early in the installation and that it was raised significantly higher, later — perhaps after aldermanic and HBC bigwigs had skedaddled).

I don’t know how long the HBC/Airport searchlight was in use. It seems doubtful to me, however, that it would have continued to operate far into the WW2 period, due to wartime blackout precautions in the City.

Searchlights as Metaphors

VPL 80816A Colliers Motors opening of new showroom, 450 West Georgia Street, night photograph with searchlights, 1949. Art Jones.

Searchlights were popular in this period not only as devices, but also as metaphors. A search through the local press from the later ’20s and ’30s reveals that the term was regularly used in church sermon titles and product ads.

Baptist preachers seemed regularly to reach for “searchlights” when crafting sermon titles. Mount Pleasant Baptist, for example, in 1928 had a sermon series on “Russellism [Jehovah’s Witnesses] Under the Searchlight”, and Rev. Elbert Paul of First Baptist, in 1936, delivered a sermon titled — opaquely, in my opinion — “A Searchlight of Selfishness”.

The Province newspaper in 1929 advertised its ‘lost and found’ service in their classified ads section with the headline: “Like High Powered Searchlights”.

CVA 1184-1615 – View of the P.N.E. at night showing the exhibition buildings, rides and a large searchlight, 1960. Jack Lindsay.

A term often used in this period as a synonym for searchlight was “beacon”. The Beacon Theatre (formerly the second Pantages at 20 West Hastings) was so named in 1930. There was also a local publication in the 1930s called “The Beacon”; I gather that this was a religious pub of some sort, since the editor’s name was Rev. Duncan McDougall (it seems he was as a Presbyterian minister).

This entry was posted in Art Grice, Art Jones, Jack Lindsay, stuart thomson and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Age of the Searchlight

  1. Peter Findlay says:

    Great memories, thanks. When I was a kid in the 1960s, big mobile searchlights were brought in for special occasions. When the PNE was on, you could always see them sweeping the skies. Car dealers would use them also, like BOWMAC on Broadway. (With the historic sign that’s been covered up.)

    When I worked at Woodwards in the 70s (like almost everyone else in my generation) the monthly newsletter was still called “The Beacon”. Isn’t it true that the beacon tower on top of Woodward’s was supposed to imitate the Eiffel Tower?

  2. mdm says:

    Thanks for the affirmation, Peter. You are right about the title of the newsletter. I’m a Woodie’s food floor alumnus, but had forgotten about that! You are also right about the attempt at an Eiffel Tower replica. Personally, I don’t think their attempt was particularly successful, though.

  3. Terry Biddlecombe says:

    It seems hard to find a searchlight now in the 21st Century. But as a youngster born in tge late 50’s I recall them well through the 1960’s and 70’s in particular. Any “opening” that was worth reporting would have searchlights on location, car dealerships in particular. My father worked for Woodwards and frequently mentioned how the downtown searchlight eventually was changed to the “Big W” that can now be found on display at ground level since being replaced by a newer model. Thanks for the reminder of the past!

    • mdm says:

      Thanks for commenting!

    • Steve Cartmell says:

      Yes Terry – you bet. Growing up as well in Vancouver in the 50S & 60S they were regularly used by many types of business including prominent nightclubs of the day like Isy’s, The Cave, Oil Can Harry’s and for the opening of Baceda’s on Hastings mid 70s

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