Vancouver is known around the world for its outrageous real estate prices and equally ridiculous liquor laws, so it seems somehow fitting that Canada’s third-largest city first began after a squatter decided to open an unlicensed saloon in the middle of nowhere.
Apart from the First Nations village of Xwayxway in what is now Stanley Park, the downtown peninsula was still virtually uninhabited in pre-Confederation days, save for a handful of shack-dwelling workers at Stamp’s Mill, a sawmill on the southern shore of Burrard Inlet that first opened in June 1867.
This changed soon after the arrival three months later of a chubby Yorkshireman by the name of John “Gassy Jack” Deighton, who showed up unexpectedly one day in a dugout canoe that also contained his aboriginal wife, mother-in-law, a couple of chickens, a dog and, most importantly, a giant cask of whiskey.
Deighton, like most new arrivals to the Pacific Northwest, was originally drawn here because there was gold in them there hills. When prospecting didn’t pan out as hoped, he became a riverboat captain on the Fraser and later the owner of the Globe Saloon in New Westminster, which was then the fast-growing colony of British Columbia’s capital city.
Deighton suffered from an undiagnosed health problem that caused painful swelling in his legs, and the story goes that he made the unwise decision of leaving the Globe in the care of a friend while he travelled to Harrison Hot Springs in search of a cure. Upon his return, he found most of his stock had been given away for free and opted to flee town in order to avoid creditors.
Starting fresh next to a sawmill – where workers were unable to procure an adult beverage – seemed as good a bet as any, and it didn’t hurt that there was yet another dry mill town, Moodyville, conveniently located just across the water.
After pulling ashore, Deighton announced he’d give free whiskey to anyone who would build him a new joint, and 24 hours later a ramshackle Globe Saloon version 2.0 opened its doors for thirsty customers near what is today Maple Tree Square.
The rest is history. Easy access to alcohol at the Globe soon attracted a rough and ready crowd from around the globe, many of them runaway sailors or criminals escaping the law. It wasn’t a pretty place – reeking of animal dung and skunk cabbage, and with streets ankle-deep in mud and spilled blood – but it eventually attracted a growing community known as “Gastown” in its colourful founder’s honour.
(It’s worth pointing out that Gassy Jack earned his nickname for his talkative and boastful nature rather than for gastro-intestinal reasons. Based on historical accounts, he comes across as a mix of Shakespeare’s Falstaff and a less murderous version of Al Swearengen, the owner of the Gem Saloon immortalized by Ian McShane in the HBO series Deadwood.)
The makeshift town eventually drew the government’s attention, and on March 1, 1870, Gastown was officially incorporated as the town of Granville, itself named in honour of a colonial secretary rather than a boozy gasbag. Gassy Jack purchased a plot of land on the corner of Carrall and Water Streets and built a two-storey hotel he called Deighton House, where he died four years later at the age of 44.
It’s unlikely Gassy Jack ever sold beer in either of his establishments given that he passed away shortly before breweries such as Columbia Brewery on nearby Powell Street, Cedar Cottage Brewery at Knight and Kingsway, and the Stanley Park Brewery first opened their doors.
But if ever there was an historic local figure worthy of having a new craft beer named in his honour, ideally whiskey-flavoured, surely it’s Gassy Jack Deighton.