Vancouver History: Joe Fortes

Comments 17 by Rebecca Bollwitt

In 1986 he was named Vancouver’s “Citizen of the Century” and he was pretty much just a regular guy who happened to spend most of his time saving lives.

You’ve probably seen the restaurant that’s famous for its seafood and that yellow cab out front, and maybe you’ve been to the library named in his honour, but do most Vancouverites these days know much about the man Joe Fortes himself?

VPL Number: 21746. Photographer / Studio: Dominion Photo Co.

Joe Fortes was born in Barbados in 1865 and by way of Liverpool, England he ended up in Vancouver after surviving a shipwreck. He held many jobs – as a bartender, porter, shoeshiner, etc. – but fell in love with English Bay and soon became Vancouver’s first self-appointed, un-paid lifeguard, living in a tent on the beach. Shortly thereafter he was given official lifeguard status and overlooked what soon became known as “Joe’s beach.” He would go on to teach hundreds of children to swim, to save over 100 lives and to become a legend and inspiration for the city.

(Left) 1910 – VPL Number: 39420. Photographer: White, J. Studio. (Right) 1918 – VPL Number: 649

… scarcely a tyke who was raised in Vancouver in the 1890’s or 1900’s but learned to swim with Joe’s ham-like fist gripping the back of his or her cotton bathing suit and that deep, mellow voice ordering, “Kick yo’feet, chile – kick yo’ feet.”…Mothers confidently shooed their children away to the bay for the long summer days with the simple command, ..’and don’t go away from where Joe is..’ ” [History of the West End]

In 1922 when he passed away his funeral at the Holy Rosary Cathedral was the most-attended to date in the city.

Photo credit: SqueakyMarmot on Flickr

The people in Vancouver held Joe in such high esteem that ever since 1926, when a memorial fountain was placed for him near English Bay, we’ve been naming things in his honour. He would later have a branch of the Vancouver Public Library (on Denman) named after him in 1976 and a famed oyster bar restaurant on Thurlow street would open in 1985, bearing his name one hundred years after he came to the city. In 2003 the National Film Board of Canada even produced an award-winning short film called, “Joe”.

The fountain depicted in the photo above resides in the West End’s Alexandra park. It’s the perfect height for youngster and on it is inscribed, “Little Children Loved Him.” Next time you pass by the fountain, the restaurant or the library, now you’ll know about this great man who changed the lives of many in Vancouver – from all walks of life, young and old.

Joe, Jill Haras & Jill Haras, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

Facts from this post were gathered with help from my favourite Vancouver history website, more can also be read on the Black Historical and Cultural Society’s website.

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17 Comments  —  Comments Are Closed

  1. RaulThursday, January 17th, 2008 — 5:09pm PST

    Thanks for writing such a wonderful historical review. I’d be happy to contribute as a guest blogger if you want me to do a history of Mount Pleasant (the neighbourhood where I live).


  2. fotoeinsFriday, January 18th, 2008 — 5:06am PST


  3. isabella moriFriday, January 18th, 2008 — 10:45am PST

    what a GREAT story! thank you so much! i had no idea who joe fortes was … actually … psst (i hope no-one is listening) for the longest time i thought he was the guy who owned that restaurant

  4. In The Sphere: Behind Every Kid… | BlueFur.comFriday, January 18th, 2008 — 11:57am PST

    […] outlining the story of Vancouver’s citizen of the century. There’s so much more to Joe Fortes than just an oyster bar. Her post even comes complete with a cryptic black-and-white […]

  5. MitchFriday, January 18th, 2008 — 12:37pm PST

    I’ve heard lots of first hand stories about Joe Fortes, courtesy of my Grandma who learned how to swim because of him! He deserved the honour especially after the stories my Gram told of him.

    (in case you’re wondering…My gram was born in Vancouver, as was her Mom. In short, Iv’e got deep roots here!)

  6. AdelaideFriday, January 18th, 2008 — 2:57pm PST

    I only knew the name Joe Fortes as that restaurant (oyster bar) downtown. Doh!

  7. mom604Friday, January 18th, 2008 — 4:40pm PST

    Mitch – Those are some of the most treasured memories. Stories related by grandparents and parents. Hold onto them, and remember them. Even write them down. (I didn’t, and I regret it now.)

  8. MarkFriday, January 18th, 2008 — 4:41pm PST

    Wow, I had no idea! Thx!

  9. Vancouver History: Cyclone Taylor » Miss604’s Vancouver Blog by Vancouver Blogger and Podcaster Rebecca BollwittTuesday, March 18th, 2008 — 1:30pm PDT

    […] another post of this nature based on how I was able to enlighten folks to the fact that there was much more to Joe Fortes than an oyster […]

  10. Vancouver History: Jack Wasserman » Vancouver Blog Miss604Monday, April 21st, 2008 — 1:20pm PDT

    […] on the map in many different realms, from First Nations literary works, legendary hockey skills, to helping children learn to swim in English Bay. Vancouver’s history is made by its people, from many […]

  11. – Kitsilano’s very own blog. » English Bay gets it’s own WatermarkThursday, June 12th, 2008 — 10:46am PDT

    […] of picking the right private sector restaurant partner this time around. Considering the historal significance of this English Bay location, the obvious choices is Bud Kanke’s group. They’re […]

  12. MotiongrooveMonday, July 7th, 2008 — 3:38pm PDT

    Never Jore Fortes was a unpaid life guard, very cool post.

  13. Al BorthwickThursday, September 25th, 2008 — 8:37pm PDT

    I was just talking to my mom (91) and she told me out of the blue that her dad’s company cut and produced the granite for the memorial fountain. They did not do the carving but all the granite work.

    I knew my grampa had done a lot of granite bases and construction in Vancouver but this is very exciting for me. I am now 64.

  14. janFriday, February 20th, 2009 — 9:02pm PST

    I am producing a show on Joe Fortes and was at his 100th anniversary celebration a few weeks ago. I would like to contact anyone who may have information about him other than the generic info.

  15. Mountain View Cemetery Open House » Vancouver Blog Miss 604 by Rebecca BollwittWednesday, June 24th, 2009 — 8:19am PDT

    […] Joe Fortes (lifeguard, hero, the Citizen of the Century) […]

  16. Vancouver History Tidbits: Park Names » Vancouver Blog Miss 604 by Rebecca BollwittMonday, January 11th, 2010 — 9:48am PST

    […] You can find a drinking fountain dedicated to Joe Fortes in the Park. Also, the original fountain outside the Vancouver Art Gallery was a tribute to King […]

  17. JeanThursday, May 20th, 2010 — 11:37am PDT

    I did not know Joe’s story either… thank you ~> great post! (PS excellent restaurant ~.~)

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