The peninsula that forms Stanley Park is the result of millions of years of geomorphic processes. It is composed of plutonic, volcanic and sedimentary layers of rock and exhibits the profound influences of glaciation and glacial retreat from the last ice age. The surface layer of the peninsula is composed of glacial deposits, and scouring of exposed volcanic rock is visible on the northwest edge of the park.
The peninsula’s most distinctive geological features are Prospect Point and Siwash Rock, two formations that resulted from a volcanic eruption more than 32 million years ago. The hard volcanic rock was resistant to wave-action erosion, which wore away the western edge of the peninsula, leaving the high ground of Prospect Point rising 60 metres above sea level and a small separated sea stack to the northwest, known as Siwash Rock. Both geological features are significant spiritual landmarks for Coast Salish peoples.
Prior to its use as a public park, Stanley Park was the traditional territory of Coast Salish First Nations, including the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil Waututh. Indigenous habitation of the Stanley Park peninsula is ancient. Archaeologists have found artifacts in the park that are more than 3,200 years old.
The peninsula was the site of one of the largest Indigenous settlements in the Lower Mainland, known as Whoi Whoi (X̱wáýx̱way), home to hundreds of people near the present-day location of Lumberman’s Arch. For many generations, they drew from the forest and marine resources of the surrounding environment to create homes and sustain families. In 1887, city employees destroyed the remaining structures of Whoi Whoi and evicted the residents to build the first Park Road.
A small number of Indigenous and settler residents continued to live in Stanley Park into the 20th century. The Park Board eventually won a series of legal cases against these park residents in the 1920s and began evictions in the 1930s. The board permitted Tim and Agnes Cummings, two park residents, to remain in their home in Stanley Park until their deaths in the 1950s.
Establishing a Reserve
European settlers first laid claim to the Stanley Park peninsula in 1859 by designating it a government reserve. The first chief commissioner of lands and works for British Columbia, Richard Clement Moody, set aside the peninsula, ostensibly for military purposes, though it may also have been reserved as a prospective coal mining site.
After British Columbia joined Confederation in 1871, authority for military reserves in the province was later transferred to the Canadian government, including the Stanley Park peninsula. The Canadian government later leased the peninsula to the City of Vancouver for use as a public park.
Opening and Constructing the Park
Stanley Park opened to the public on 27 September 1888 following a ceremony that featured the mayor and other city and provincial government officials. The city appointed a committee to administer and manage the park. Later, the city established the Board of Park Commissioners as an elected body.
The park had two entrances, a main entrance at Georgia Street, where the city built a pedestrian bridge across Coal Harbour into the park, and a secondary entrance on the south end of the park at Beach Avenue. A third entrance was added at Nelson Street later in the 20th century. To facilitate full use of the park, the city constructed a perimeter road around the peninsula. Built between November 1887 and September 1888, the first Park Road ran for more than 11 km and cost the city nearly $20,000. During construction, road crews uncovered debris from the Indigenous inhabitation of the peninsula as well as human burial sites. Workers used some of the debris to pave the original Park Road. Some of the remains were sent to the national museum in Ottawa and relocated to nearby Squamish and Musqueam reserves, but much was lost and disturbed.
Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Park Board undertook several projects to build amenities and other features to improve the environment for aesthetic and recreational purposes. These included the establishment of a zoo, athletic fields, ornamental ponds, paths, bridges, and beaches.
Measures to create a recreational park also included the introduction and removal of animal species. At the time, getting rid of crows and other “pests” was seen as an improvement to the environment. In 1911, the Park Board purchased grey squirrels from an American game company to supplement the native Douglas squirrel population. From 1910 to 1961, the board invited members of the Vancouver Gun Club to shoot crows in Stanley Park to reduce what they felt was the unpleasant sound and predatory behaviour of the birds. Park employees also constructed ponds to support populations of ducks and swans.
The most significant project in the early history of Stanley Park was the redevelopment of the Georgia Street entrance to the park and the construction of the causeway across Lost Lagoon. The board first initiated the project in 1909 when the old wooden bridge across Coal Harbour began to show signs of decay. In 1910, the Park Board invited architects to submit proposals to improve the entrance to the park. Applicants submitted several different plans, including an ambitious plan by renowned British landscape architect Thomas H. Mawson. Mawson’s plan for Coal Harbour involved the construction of a causeway adorned with spectacular buildings and monuments built in a neoclassical style. This proposal won support from the city council but was eventually rejected by the Park Board due to the enormous expense. Mawson’s plan also contradicted the board’s prior landscape policies, which sought to maintain a naturalistic appearance for the park. The board opted instead to follow the plan of the city engineer, Frederick L. Fellowes, which called for the construction of a simple causeway without substantial architectural interventions. The city completed construction of the causeway in 1917.
The most popular and enduring infrastructure project in Stanley Park was the construction of the 8.8-km seawall that now surrounds the peninsula. The project took more than half a century to complete, beginning in 1914 in small segments at Brockton Point and Second Beach and finishing near Third Beach in 1971. Hundreds of city employees, relief workers and seasonal labourers constructed the seawall to halt the persistent tides that wore away the edges of the peninsula. The acceleration of shipping traffic in Burrard Inlet in the 1920s rendered the erosion problem more urgent, leading the Park Board to request continuing support from both the city and the Canadian government for the construction of a protective seawall for Stanley Park. Master stonemason and foreman James Cunningham led the project from 1931 until his death in 1963. Today, millions of visitors to the park enjoy walking, cycling and in-line skating along the seawall.
Lions Gate Bridge
A three-lane highway connecting Georgia Street to the Lions Gate Bridge has bisected Stanley Park since the late 1930s. Its construction was the subject of significant political controversy and two separate city-wide plebiscites.
As early as the 1890s, real estate developers had proposed constructing a bridge at First Narrows to link downtown Vancouver to property on the north shore of Burrard Inlet. The idea did not gain traction until the 1920s, when the city put a private proposal for the construction of a bridge across First Narrows to a municipal plebiscite. In 1927, Vancouver ratepayers rejected the bridge proposal, which would have required the construction of a new roadway through the middle of Stanley Park.
Conditions changed by the 1930s, however, when another private company proposed to build a bridge across First Narrows. The severe economic depression and the collapse of the bridge at Second Narrows in 1930 made the new bridge proposal more attractive to voters in Vancouver. In 1933, ratepayers voted to approve the construction of the Lions Gate Bridge and the roadway through Stanley Park. This decision resulted in the clearing of roughly 10 acres of forest to build the road. The bridge officially opened to pedestrian and auto traffic in November 1938.
The Wars: Coastal Defence
During the First and Second World Wars, the Canadian military used parts of Stanley Park for coastal defence and the installation of defence batteries and spotlights.
At the outset of the First World War, Vancouverites feared a German attack on Canada’s Pacific coast. A German naval squadron was known to be stationed in China, raising concerns that it could strike Vancouver if the city was left undefended. Two days after Britain declared war on Germany, the Vancouver Park Board wrote to the Department of Militia and Defence to offer Stanley Park for military use for the war. Military officials delivered two four-inch-calibre guns to Vancouver and installed them on the cliffs above Siwash Rock in Stanley Park. The Canadian navy operated the guns from August 1914 until June 1915. Afterward, the navy no longer deemed the city in danger of an attack and decommissioned the guns.
Canadian military authorities put Stanley Park to similar use during the Second World War. In August 1939, the Department of National Defence installed two six-inch-calibre coastal defence guns at Ferguson Point in Stanley Park, along with spotlights positioned at various points along the western shore of the park. The guns remained in operation until early 1945. Ferguson Point and Third Beach remained under military control until 1948.
Storms and Restoration
Wind storms have regularly altered the forest of Stanley Park. In the period from 1900 to 1960, 19 separate wind storms struck the park with enough force to take down dozens to thousands of trees. In the 20th century, two substantial storms altered the forest of Stanley Park, one in 1934 and the gales of Typhoon Freda in 1962. Following the storm in 1934, the Park Board adopted a restoration plan that removed fallen trees and replaced them with new seedlings of mainly Douglas fir. The plan led to the regrowth of the forest, only to see another storm sweep through the park in 1962, taking down even more of the forest cover of the park.
In 2006, a ferocious wind storm once again levelled thousands of trees in Stanley Park. The storm transformed the landscape of the park and forced the Park Board to consider new strategies for restoration. The result was a new forest management plan adopted in 2010.
Current Tourist Attractions
Today, the park is home to several of British Columbia’s biggest tourist attractions; for example, the seawall draws millions of people to the city each year and continues to be the most popular part of the park for walkers, joggers, cyclists and in-line skaters.
Since 1956, Stanley Park has been home to the Vancouver Aquarium, one of the most widely visited tourist sites in the province. The aquarium has housed a broad range of aquatic species from sea urchins to orcas.
A display of Northwest Coast totem poles has adorned the park since the early 20th century. The Art, Historical, and Scientific Association of Vancouver installed the first set of totem poles in Stanley Park in the 1920s as a tourist attraction. These included mainly poles from Kwakwaka’wakw people of northern Vancouver Island. The totem pole display in Stanley Park now also features work by local First Nations and continues to attract visitors from around the world.