A few years ago, Bruce McIntyre Watson was checking the Vancouver Historical Society’s info line and found an enquiry from the president of the Lions Club in Diggers Rest, an outer suburb of Melbourne.
He was looking for the plane that Harry Houdini flew in 1910—in what some believe was Australia’s first successful flight, and wondered if it had made its way to Vancouver.
The Society gets queries from all around the world. People wanting to know who’s living in a certain house, if a building is still standing, or just recently, where a man from San Diego could access prison records about his bank robbing ancestor.
“Essentially we are just a referral service,” says Bruce, but members know the most obscure things, and the Houdini connection intrigued him.
With help from the Vancouver Public Library’s Andrew Martin, Bruce found that Houdini had purchased a French Voisin bi-plane for $5,000 and shipped it from Marseilles to Australia, where he was performing to huge crowds. More research revealed that the plane was crated back to England and disappeared from public record in 1913.
Bruce couldn’t find the plane, but he did make an interesting discovery. While Houdini’s first recorded visit to Vancouver was in March 1923, he visited Vancouver with his wife in June 1910.
The Story of Vancouver
The Society does much more than act as a referral service. It’s mission is to “preserve and promote Vancouver’s history.” Increasingly that interest comes from young people. It was some of those questions that convinced Bruce to write “The story of Vancouver” for the website which he has sprinkled with quotes and anecdotes from the Major Matthew’s collection at the Vancouver Archives, and dozens of archival photos.
“There was no overall coherent story of Vancouver,” he says. “And we are more than a bunch of stories piled one on top of the other.”
Tours and Speakers
Every third Thursday of the month (except in summer), the society hosts a speaker. Held at the Museum of Vancouver in Vanier Park, the meetings are free and open to everyone and regularly draw over 100 people. Over the years speakers have included Vancouver Sun reporters David Baines (Vancouver Stock Exchange) and Kim Bolan (crime and terrorism), John Atkin (the Chinatown tunnel myth), and Don Luxton (top 10 endangered sites).
The Society holds walking tours for its members and they’ve been some unusual ones: a tour of downtown brothels by the Vancouver Police Department, a labour history tour, a behind the scenes at the Orpheum Theatre, and a tour of Purdy’s chocolate factory.
I’ve recently joined the board of the Society and I’m finding out all sorts of fun facts. Did you know that William Henry Pratt helped build the PNE in 1910? Apparently he was a lousy carpenter and he left for Hollywood soon after and changed his name to Boris Karloff.
The website is loaded with information at http://vancouver-historical-society.ca/
Eve Lazarus is a writer with a passion for history and heritage houses. She is the author of At Home with History: the secrets of Greater Vancouver’s Heritage Houses, a member of the North Vancouver District Heritage Commission, and blogs obsessively about buildings and their genealogies at www.blog.evelazarus.com. Her next book “Sensational Victoria” with house stories of Victoria’s murders, ghosts, brothels, artists and sea captains (not necessarily in that order) will be published in November.