On May 7, 1907 a Seattle film maker named William Harbeck came up to Vancouver to make a movie. That silent black-and-white movie is the earliest we have of the city. It is a fascinating glimpse into the city’s past.
According to the History of Metropolitan Vancouver, the BC Electric Railway Co. laid on a special streetcar, and Harbeck—his camera firmly bolted down—stood at the front. Then, hand-cranking the camera at a steady rate, he is off. Until 1922, we’re still driving on the left side of the street, remember.
The film carries us along Hastings, then Carrall, Cordova, Cambie, Robson (all houses, not a shop to be seen) and Davie. The streets are boiling with people, horse-drawn carts and bicycles. The Vancouver of 1907 was a thriving, energetic city. The population was climbing rapidly, jumping from the 27,000 in the 1901 census to the 100,000 of 1910. We see in these flickering images a city that is in the process of quadrupling its population in 10 years.
The story of how this movie was found is an adventure in itself. A dozen or so years ago it was found with a pile of other ancient short films in the collection of a recently deceased Australian film buff. The people who found it screened it and, thinking it was an American city being shown, shipped it off to the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. They looked at it and said, “That’s not an American city. They’re driving on the wrong side of the street.” They decided, correctly, it was a Canadian city and forwarded it to the National Archives in Ottawa. Someone there watched it carefully and determined the city was Vancouver. The National Archives then set about the laborious task of restoring and preserving the film frame-by-frame.
As for William Harbeck, he had one more interesting film assignment. While in Europe, he was hired by England’s White Star Line to record shipboard life during the maiden voyage of the company’s huge new liner. Those films however, were never to be seen. Harbeck was one of hundreds who lost their lives when the White Star Line’s Titanic sank on the night of April 14, 1912.