Letting off steam in Vancouver's historic 'village'

There's something immensely satisfying about Vancouver's "village within a city." You feel it as you wander down the attractive brick-paved streets and sidewalks and as you pause beneath the young maples in Maple Tree Square. The many cul-de-sacs, arcades, and courtyards with their unusual street lighting are part of the charm of Gastown, as are the Victorian buildings and what may be the world's only steam-driven clock standing conspicuously in a corner of the main street.

Being first-time visitors we paused to read the inscription plates at the base of this huge grandfather clocks and listened to the slightly off-key chimes that bring back memories of Westminster's Big Ben.

The live steam winds the weights and blows the whistles once on the hour. The chimes sound each quarter hour.

The clock weighs over two tons and the component parts cost $42,000.

Close by, a statue of Jack Deighton, the city's founding father, stands as if on guard.

It seemed perfectly fitting when, as we descended a few steps to a sunken courtyard, we came upon an artist sitting at her easel and painting from memory, a landscape scene from the surrounding mountains. "Seventeen dollars," she replied when we asked the price of the smallest of her works. Her oil paintings were propped up all around her, competing in color with the rich green from overhanging trees, the blue sky, and the rich red-pink of the pavement stones. She talked to the little groups of interested spectators as she continued to paint. She's from Holland, she said, and painting is her living -- and her love.

At the back of the courtyard there is a shop that specializes in exquisitely handfinished tables and wall clocks. A newsprint cutting, also a handwritten note explains that these items are crafted from the sliced burls of California redwoods -- the burls being growths from the section of the tree that grows underground, directly above the root system.

There are handcrafted treasures everywhere, from tiny copper wire figures in amazingly realistic poses to handwoven and handknitted garments. The price ranges suit all picketbooks.

There is also, we found, a great variety of eating places, and family-priced meals are not hard to find. You can have anything from a spaghetti dinner to a full-course meal, a hamburger to a grilled ham and cheese sandwich, all with courteous and friendly service. We chose the Spaghetti Factory, partly for the novelty and partly because of the tempting aroma of tomato sauce that hung in the air around Water Street.

Had we arrived earlier, before the crowds began to gather, we might have had our dinner served in the old streetcar that dominates the center of the room. This is no mere model, we were assured, but the genuine article, built by the B.C. Electric Railway Ccompany in 1910. It traveled between Main and Cambie Streets, totaling thousands of miles and rested for 20 years before finally being located in the Spaghetti Factory at 53 Water Street.

But there is more to Gastown than its interesting eating houses, quaint little shops, malls and courtyards, and its fascinating steam clock -- there is its history.

As the cradle of Vancouver, Gastown began with nothing more than a cluster of waterfront shanties and a lumber mill. Then in 1867, an ex-Yorkshireman, "Gassy" Jack Deighton decided to build a saloon-hotel here on the banks of Burran Inlet. So popular was this establishment that the town was dubbed Gastown in Deighton's honor. Later, the name was changed to Granville and in 1886, it was amalgamated with Hastings Township and renamed Vancouver. Pride in the new town was short-lived, however, for on Sunday, June 13, 1886, Vancouver was burnt to the ground, in what later was to be called "The Great Fire."

Over the years the town sprang up again, eventually to become the beautiful city of Vancouver as we know it today. But the original area, bounded by Cambie Street to the west, Columbia to the east, Hastings to the south, and the waterfront to the north, once again became known as Gastown.

Thanks to recent imaginative and successful urban renewal, many of the city's early structures have been renovated and restored.

Because this area has been designated a historic city, shops are allowed to remain open on Sunday, an exception to the general rule of Sunday closing in Canada, but a source of pleasure to the many visitors who, like ourselves, delight in the distinctive qualities of Gastown.

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