I first discovered we had the Vancouver Police Museum last spring during the Amazing Hunt as they had a clue box parked outside. It’s taken me over a year to finally get in there and thanks to a chat I had a few months ago with Executive Director Chris Mathieson, I was able to rally a small group of friends (including the Biehlers and Keira) to go on a special tour last night.
Aside from being a comprehensive museum packed with anything and everything you’d want to know about Vancouver’s grimy, gritty, and sordid past they also run a number of public programs such as Forensics for Kids, educational programs, birthday parties, and spring break activities. One of their most popular features (however probably not recommended for the kiddies) is the tantalizing Sins of the City tour. It’s a walking tour around Chinatown and the Downtown East Side where Chris provides decades-old stories about illegal gambling, prostitution, brothels, opium dens, and everything in between.
At the museum (and on the tour) you’ll learn about the crime-fighting dynamic duo of Detectives Donald A. Sinclair and Joseph Ricci — often referred to as Vancouver’s Untouchables. They have an amazing collection of case files, artifacts, and evidence gathered by the men along with boxes of newspaper clippings recently donated by a relative of Ricci.
Contrary to popular belief, there is no network of tunnels under Chinatown although there are thin alleys between buildings, and basement ‘escape routes’. Due to the community being built on the flats near the shore (before False Creek was filled in) it wouldn’t have made for the most stable ground. We were lead to one of such basements yesterday, which resides under Funheuser – a funky hipster tiki-themed shop on Pender.
We explored buildings and alleyways before heading back over to Main Street to stop in front of the No 5 Orange, then walk down Alexander Street which was once the brothel district in town. In a brief recap of what happened to cities up and down the coast back in the late 1800s, Chris said the industry would come first (such as the mill), then the communities, then the ‘bad stuff’. As New Westminster was the capital of our province complete with all of the entertainment, the men working down in Burrard Inlet had quite a ways to walk to get a pint after work (or to quench other thirsts). It was around this time that John “Gassy Jack” Deighton moved his bar from New Westminster into the part of the city we have since named after him: Gastown.
Throughout the Downtown East Side there is a series of 17 mosaics on the sidewalks that are actually a part of a self-guided walking tour. Each comes with a panel, affixed to a nearby lamppost, that explains its imagery and significance.
Back inside the Police Museum we were able to wander through their exhibits such as the Unusual Firearms Collection, learning about police equipment, and innovative technology that was often first-used or invented in Vancouver (such as the story of the Drunkometer’s first conviction).
The building was once the coroner’s office and the morgue so there are some interesting displays including exhibits about famous unsolved crimes in Vancouver.
Since this was no ordinary tour, Chris lead us downstairs to the “behind the scenes” areas of the museum that included storage areas, file cabinets filled with glass negatives, rental uniforms, and other fun things we could find — from the Blood Drying room down to the lab. Keira and I both tried on different types of female uniformed hats, which we immediately documented. With a long tradition of females serving with the force, the Vancouver Police Department was the first to hire women in Canada and the 3rd in the world to do so.
“This is CSI Vancouver,” said Chris as we got to the lowest floor in the building. After which Keira immediately got The Who stuck in our heads. This crime lab from the 1930s was used to solve cases and examine evidence in Vancouver up until 10 years ago.
There’s so much to explore in the museum (but please, don’t touch) that you could literally spend hours in there. I don’t want to share and giveaway too much about the stories we were told as I would highly encourage everyone to check out the museum and tour for themselves. However being a lover of local history, I was pretty much just eating up every word so I could do more research later. Perhaps I’ll have a few Sins inspired history posts up in the near future.
It’s located on Cordova, near Gore and is open Monday – Saturday from 9:00am until 5:00pm. The Sins of the City tour runs seasonally, starting in May, and takes place Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays (with special times throughout June). The cost of admission to the museum is $7 for adults, $5 for kids and children under 6 years old are free. You could also become a member of the Historical Society and with that, there would be no charge for you to visit.
I’ve talked about Vancouver’s not-so-squeaky-clean past before but this is a whole new spin. If you can’t make it out for a tour or a museum visit, I would highly recommend checking out their blog and following them on Twitter (@policemuseum).
You can view the rest of my photos in this Flickr set, Keira’s got her blog post up and John Biehler’s got some amazing shots up on Flickr as well.