We acknowledge that we live and work on unceded Indigenous territories and we thank the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations for their hospitality.


Historical Atlas of Vancouver and the Lower Fraser Valley

By Derek Hayes

Review By Sally Hermansen

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 150 Summer 2006  | p. 123-6

The cover of this atlas is engaging [1]. The muted grey, black, and red jacket offers an intriguing bird’s-eye view of Vancouver in 1912, looking west from New Westminster to Stanley Park. The heavy antique white pages within continue the muted theme, providing a sense of visual depth, narrative, and beauty through the display of map after map, interspersed with photos and text.

In a traditional sense, “an atlas is a communication device that speaks primarily through maps … a collection of carefully selected maps with a related theme, or a set of themes on a related region … and atlases, like other books, tell a story.”[2] This atlas, along with the rest of Hayes’s award-winning atlases (including historical atlases of British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest, Canada; the North Pacific Ocean; the Arctic; and North American Exploration),[3] certainly meets this definition; the theme is historical, the region is Vancouver and the Lower Fraser Valley, the story is a visual and textual narrative of “how things were, and how things might have been” (description on the back cover of the atlas).

The atlas has an introduction and fifty-six sections consistently laid out in chronological order, beginning with the Spanish carta of 1791, which labels Point Grey as Ys de Langara, and ending with a stunning, borderless 1997 satellite image of British Columbia’s Lower Fraser Valley and neighbouring Washington State. The section titles are intriguing. They include: “A River Not Columbia,” “Setting a Southern Boundary,” “The City That Never Was,” “Filling in False Creek,” “Reclaiming Sumas Lake,” “A Bridge at Lions Gate,” and “A Valley Inundated.” The atlas ends with the “Map Catalogue,” “Illustration Credits,” “Further Reading,” and an “Index.” It lives up to the spatial reach of its title as many sections deal with the North Shore and the Fraser Valley.

Visually and cartographically, the book is simply beautiful: the clear, sharp detail of the scanned historic maps and photographs, the layout, the text fonts, and the soft colours of the pages. Hayes’s engaging descriptions of each map and his accompanying narratives are well researched and achieve a fine balance between detail and summary – often with subtle references to many additional readings. His appealing delivery of facts is sometimes enhanced with lyricism and humour.

Hayes’s now recognizable signature style of atlas craft beautifully integrates a range of material. A good example is provided by the first section, which is entitled “S’ólh Téméxw – Our Land,” where Hayes describes the First Nations of the Fraser Valley in approximately 375 words, supplemented with maps depicting First Nations houses and villages, photographs of people and lodgings, an artistic rendering of a bird’s-eye view of Burrard Inlet around 1792, and a map from the Sto:lo Coast Salish Historical Atlas [4] depicting historical settlements (there are no maps dating from before European settlement). It could be argued that the First Nations deserve more than three pages. However, Hayes does mention the First Nations in following sections, and he refers readers to the Sto:lo Coast Salish Historical Atlas, which provides a detailed visual history of First Nations people. The “Further Reading” section also includes an assessment of First Nations in the 1800s.

Hayes is sensitive to the social theorists’ criticisms that maps are biased social constructions (as suggested in B. Harley’s essay “Deconstructing the Map”). [5] In the introduction to the atlas, Hayes succinctly summarizes these thoughts: “To some people maps have a bad reputation, as they are seen as instruments of colonization or artifacts that usurp land ownership from native peoples. There is no doubt that the surveying of boundaries and the defining of ownership tends to legitimate this process. But maps also uniquely show human geography as it was at the time, and are thus a very special historical record … We need to be aware of these prejudices from the past as they often help account for actions, but this does not mean that the documents themselves should be disregarded” (6).

The atlas is full of interesting examples of how things were and how things might have been: in 1845, James Polk was elected president of the United States on the slogan “Fifty- Four Forty or Fight,” conveying his insistence that the southern boundary of Pacific Canada should be at fiftyfour degrees, forty minutes north, not a continuation of the forty-ninth parallel (which then ended at the Rocky Mountains); Langley is the “City That Never Was” as depicted in an 1858 map of the proposed capital city of British Columbia; there is a coal seam in Coal Harbour; and False Creek was aptly named by an explorer’s realization that the inlet went nowhere.

An example of Hayes’s ability to draw us into the story and to thread events through time is seen in the section “Exploring the Valley.” Here, he summarizes J. Fannin’s arrival from Ontario as an “Overlander” and his subsequent report on exploration of the Fraser Valley in 1873, during which he visited Sumas Prairie and found it “excellent in root crops but subject to overflow” (36) and recommended dyking, which, according to Hayes, began six years later. Fannin’s account provides insight into the environmental history of place and “an invaluable snapshot of the Fraser Valley” (36). Hayes then refers us to page 110 and the section “Reclaiming Sumas Lake,” where, with visually effective comparison maps and photographs, he takes us through the conversion of Sumas Lake into twelve thousand hectares of agricultural land, adding a note about the downside of the drainage to the ecosystem.

In the section “A Railway and a City’s Birth” (between 1886 and the late 1890s), Hayes devotes eighteen maps, seven photos and two posters, and ten pages of text to the establishment of the West End of Vancouver – the railway city that was to be called Liverpool (the former Granville townsite). These maps depict a forest, a fire, a grid development, and speculation; they also give various views of the False Creek tidal flats and the bridge across them (now Main Street) before this area of False Creek was fil led in (1916). Hayes talks us through this fascinating time of surveying, street naming, and development: “with his survey, Hamilton created the paint-bynumbers template, imposed on a blank canvas of forest, stumps and debris. It would be many more years before the canvas was fully painted, as thousands of individual settlers cleared their land and built their houses” (53).

Skipping ahead towards the end of the atlas, and later in the twentieth century, Hayes covers the building and controversy of many projects, such as “The Granville Bridge,” “George Massey’s Tunnel,” and “The Freeway Fight.” The section entitled “Managing Growth” describes and visualizes the Greater Vancouver Regional District’s (gvrd’s) first Livable Region Strategic Plan, a hand-drawn bird’s-eye-view 1975 map that can be compared to the current (1996) map. 

There is only one unfortunate map in the atlas. The very last, and truly ugly, map is a printout from the City of Vancouver’s geographic information system (gis). Many municipalities in the GVRD provide publicly accessible GIS maps that are cartographically acceptable, unlike those from the City of Vancouver (see the City of North Vancouver or Surrey for better examples).

Derek Hayes was educated as a geographer at the University of Hull and the University of British Columbia; he worked for a time as a planner with the City of Vancouver and now lives in White Rock. He has provided those who love maps, those who are interested in history, those who appreciate the look and feel of a beautifully compiled book, and all of us who live in the GVRD with a beautiful treasure. We owe him our thanks.

[1] I wish to thank Dr. Graeme Wynn of UBC Geography for his careful editing of this atlas review.

[2] A. Buckley, “Atlas Mapping in the 21st Century,” Cartography and Geographic Information Science 30, 2 (2003): 149.

[3] D. Hayes, Historical Atlas of British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest, (Vancouver/ Toronto: Douglas and McIntyre, 2001); D. Hayes, Historical Atlas of Canada, (Vancouver/Toronto: Douglas and Mc- Intyre, 2002); D. Hayes, Historical Atlas of the North Pacific Ocean, (Vancouver/ Toronto: Douglas and McIntyre, 2001); D. Hayes, Historical Atlas of the Arctic, (Vancouver/Toronto: Douglas and Mc- Intyre, 2003); D. Hayes, America Discovered Historical Atlas of North American Exploration, (Vancouver/Toronto: Douglas and McIntyre, 2004).

[4] K.T. Carlson, A Sto:lo Coast Salish Historical Alas (Vancouver and Chilliwack: Douglas and McIntyre and Sto:lo Heritage Trust, 2001).

[5] B. Harley, “Deconstructing the Map,” Cartographia: 26 (2) (1989), p1-20.