Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Goodbye Joe

It was mid January, 1922, and Vancouver's favourite citizen, Seraphim, "Joe", Fortes was being taken to Vancouver General Hospital with a severe case of pneumonia. He stopped the attendants on the way to the ambulance because he had to give the on duty constable instructions on how to care for 'his' bay.

Word spread and the city was in shock. This was old Joe, a fixture on the beach, the saver of many lives, and a teacher for the children - an indestructible force. The hospital telephones range constantly and his room was filled with flowers. Vancouver loved Joe Fortes.

On February 4, 1922, Seraphim "Joe" Fortes died in his adopted homeland, far from the sunny isle where he was born.

They took him to the cathedral where he had worshipped every Sunday morning. The church was filled with the rich and the poor, the labourer and the merchant, loggers and miners, housewives and socialites, policemen and pickpockets. From the toddlers to the elders, all came out to say their final goodbyes to this great man. And many of these people felt ill at ease because it was unfamiliar to them, not somewhere they would regularly go. But for Joe they went.

The priests fell silent, having finished the requiem for "Our Joe" and the bearers lifted the coffin to begin the slow, quiet, inevitable procession to the doors. It wasn't all sad though. For probably the first and last time on so solemn an occasion in such a sacred place, the deep pipes of the church organ rumbled into the swinging strains of "Old Black Joe".

Then the great crowd filled the aisle - men and women with tears streaming down their faces - joined the rest of Vancouver to followed Seraphim Fortes of Barbados to his last home.

In that little park where he lived and served for so long, there is a simple granite monument - a drinking fountain, which is low enough for the smallest child to reach. Over it is a modest bronze plaque with the head and shoulders of a heavy-set man and three little youngsters below. On the granite it says:
Little children loved him.

But it wasn't only the children who loved Joe. He was the heart of a Vancouver that lived and grew and worked and built and loved and played quietly and decently and honestly amid the frenetic excitement that superficially characterized the Roaring Twenties. 

The inscription says: 'This fountain erected by the citizens and children, co-operating with the Kiwanis Club of Vancouver, commemorates the life and deeds of 'Joe' Fortes. For many years guardian of this beach.
-Little Children Loved Him-
A.D. 1927
Thanks to Alan Morley and his book Vancouver, From Milltown to Metropolis for the above information.

I hope you find the beauty around you.

Karen Magill

Monday, January 25, 2016

Seraphim's Story

The early 1920's may have been a time of change brought on by violence and lawlessness but not all of the change in Vancouver revolved around crime and irresponsibility. During the winter of 1884-5, Seraphim Fortes from Barbados arrived on Vancouver's shores. Fortes became a porter, handyman and second bartender for the Sunnyside hotel.

Seraphim, or Joe as he was known, lived through the great fire, saw the first train arrive and, during the 'boom', obtained a steady position at the bar of the Bodega Saloon where the Rainer Hotel now stands at Carrall and Cordova Streets. The burly, chocolate-coloured seamen became a popular citizen, and was known for his habit of discouraging excessive drinking.

Sometime during the 1890's, Joe discovered English Bay. He gave up his good job and established himself in a squatter's shack on the shore side of Beach Avenue, a little to the east of present day Alexandra Park - a triangle fronting on the bay, near the boathouse. He supported himself by doing casual labour jobs but the work of his life became the bay and its beach.

Every morning - 365 days of the year - he swam in the bay and drank his "medicine" - a cup of salt water. When he wasn't working, Joe managed the beach. More people moved into the West End and to the adults, he was "English Bay Joe' and to the children "Ol' Black Joe". Joe loved kids and most of the children raised in the 1890's or 1900's learned to swim with Joe holding the back of his or her cotton swimsuit and listening to the deep, mellow voice ordering, "Kick yo' feet, chile - kick yo feet".

During the summer, mothers would confidently shoo their children to the bay with a simple command "...and don't go away from where Joe is."

When the time came for the Park Board to hire a lifeguard, Joe was the obvious choice.

When Joe wasn't with the children on the beach, his little boat cruised over the waves. We don't know how many lives he saved over the years but he was credited with over one hundred witnessed rescues, some of them in desperate circumstances. When, as will happen, Joe's efforts failed he was grief stricken.

Joe belonged to the beach and the beach was his. From dawn to dark and long after dark, he hosted picknickers, chaperoned courting couples and terrified bums and hoodlums. His cottage was spick and span inside and out. The children came to visit - he kept a tin full of all-day suckers. Beside his bed was his one book, Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis and he did leave the bay on Sunday mornings. A devout Catholic, Joe attended Mass weekly.

Joe Fortes was given the authority of special constable by the city of Vancouver and when the houses were cleared away from the shore where he lived, Mayor Buscombe had Joe's cottage moved beside the bandstand in the park where it would stay as long as Joe lived.

In January of 1922, Joe became ill.

Thanks to the book Vancouver, From Milltown to Metropolis by Alan Morley for the above information.

I hope you find the beauty around you.

Karen Magill

Friday, January 22, 2016

Rum-running Hazards

Wednesday, we left off talking about crime in Vancouver in the 1920's. Another crime that was foremost on people's minds was prohibition. (Prohibition was in effect in Vancouver from 1917 to 1921) By the end of 1918, there was an enquiry held in the city and it produced some remarkable evidence even though many witnesses suffered a loss of memory for many important details.

The provincial liquor commissioner was committed to Oakalla for refusing to answer any questions at all. One prominent Vancouver businessman who was involved blew his brains out with a shot in a New York City hotel. Draymen and teamsters testified they delivered cases of "canned goods" and barrels of "oil" from liquor warehouses to scores of citizens - both notorious and respectable.

Freight cars of legitimately imported liquor were mysteriously spotted on lonely sidings before arriving at their destinations minus a half or two-thirds of their initial loads. There was particular interest in the delivery of 40 cases to a Shaughnessy address. This address was never exactly identified. The manager of the provincial "prescription store" declared that nobody, at any time, ever suggested he sell a pint without a proper medical prescription. Yup. He even said it with a straight face.

The chief of police stated his force was unable to cope with the problem of enforcing prohibition and it was little wonder. In December of 1920, the dry squad raided 108 bootleggers and 18 disorderly houses and collected $9750 in fines. The booze flowed free from Chinatown to the Fraser and from West Point Grey to Boundary. The Sikhs had pint bottles wrapped in their turbans and stood at the entrance to downtown alleys.

The police got a little relief with the inception of government sale of liquor, and of club licenses and beer parlours in 1921 but the bootlegger had already become an established civic institution and remained so.

Being a port city added to the problem. Not because of the provincial laws but due to those by the US. Coal Harbour became the rendezvous point of one of the finest assemblages of adventurers, pirates, skilled seamen, gangsters and murderers the eastern Pacific had ever seen.

"Mother ships" and prohibition blockade runners from Vancouver operated from the Gulf Islands to San Diego. Some of the liquor exporters, distillers and brewers in Vancouver made fortunes.

Not all the exports went by sea. Some liquor crossed the border from Blaine, Washington to Grand Forks, BC by car, pack-train and even mountain climbers. It sounds romantic and exciting, a game not a crime, but the disregard for the law that was nurtured by this 'game' culminated in one of the coast's most celebrated crimes in 1924.

Officials found the fish boat rum-runner Beryl G. adrift off the southern end of Vancouver Island. Captain W.J. Gillis and his son were both aboard, murdered and the cargo gone. Mount Police, Provincial Police and U.S. officials co-operated in a manhunt that eventually resulted in the hanging of the hijackers, Owen "Cannonball" Baker and Harry Sowash on January 14, 1926.

Thanks to the book Vancouver, From Milltown to Metropolis by Alan Morley for the above information.

I hope you find the beauty around you.

Karen Magill