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Fool’s Paradise

Imagine buying land in Vancouver’s West End for $1.01 an acre and being thought a fool.

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Story by Ian MacNeill

J.W. Horne (fourth from left, with pencil), was one of Vancouver’s original real estate tycoons. In addition to financing the construction of the Stanley Park Zoo, he built a number of edifices, including the Horne Block, still standing at 311 West Cordova. In 1901 some Horne family land was sold to the city and incorporated into Mountain View Cemetery. This picture, a publicity stunt, was taken in 1886. Bit players included the U.S. consul, a man by the name of Hemming (extreme right).

That’s exactly what happened to Yorkshireman John Morton and his two business partners in 1862 when they forked over the princely sum of $555.50 for 550 acres of what was destined to become some of the most expensive real estate in North America. So gullible were the boys considered to be that they came to be known as The Three Greenhorns, and while they never did manage to fully capitalize on the value of their investment, they did help write one of the more amusing chapters in Vancouver’s business history.

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That history, at least the modern part of it, probably dates to 1864 when the barque Ellen Lewis made its way through the First Narrows bound for Australia with 275,000 board feet of lumber and 16,000 fence pickets on board, starting a lumber exporting trend that continues to this day. Unlike today, you didn’t have to go very far to find suitable timber for export; take a stroll through Stanley Park and you can still see evidence of the massive old-growth forests that once lined the shores of “Burrard’s Channel.”

Blessed with a mild climate, one of the world’s finest deep-water ports, access to cheap hydroelectric power and a natural resource-rich heartland, Vancouver has been a magnet for entrepreneurs going back to 1866 when Edward Stamp (think: Stamp’s Landing) built a sawmill at the foot of Dunlevy Street. A few months later another legendary entrepreneur named “Gassy Jack” Deighton rowed into town with his Indian wife and a barrel of whiskey. Legend has it that with the assistance of some thirsty gentlemen Mr. Stamp’s sawmill he built the township of Granville’s first watering hole, the Globe Saloon, in 24 hours.

Things really started to heat up in 1888 when the railway came to town, bringing with it hungry mouths and willing hands. If Vancouver had been like the rest of the developing world at the close of the 19th century, this would have been the age when the smokestacks started blotting out the horizon, but thanks to the abundance of natural resources flowing through town industrialization was slow to take hold, and not guaranteed to last. Consider the case of Granville Island, which at one time was one of the most industrialized parts of the city, and something of an eyesore at that.

Today it’s largely a tourist destination, famous for its market, restaurants, art galleries, studios and theaters. The Vancouver Stock Exchange, now known as the TSX Venture Exchange, has been around since 1907. A playground for “cowboy capitalists” and an assortment of colorful characters not all of them honest traders—it has nonetheless served as one of the leading sources of venture capital in North America.

It’s just a memory now but Vancouver was once a great shipbuilding center; small-boat construction was commonplace in Coal Harbour and during the Second World War thousands were employed in the building of merchant marine “Victory” ships. Fish boats once lined the wharves, but they’ve disappeared in recent years as conservation measures and mechanization continue to transform the fishing industry.

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In the 1980s Vancouver started moving away from its almost total reliance on resource-based industries and became more of a financial centre, trading on the marketing success of Expo 86 to position itself as a major player in the arena now known as the Pacific Rim. By the time the 21st century arrived Vancouver had almost completely transformed itself from a low-tech shipping centre into a high-tech power house. Mining and lumber companies still crowd the Top 10 lists modern forestry management practices almost guarantee a never-ending supply of wood products, and mineral exploration is booming—but Vancouver is also home to industry leaders in biotechnology, computer hardware and software manufacturing, alternative

energy development, and engineering. Tourism is also big business; in 2005 alone 8.6 million visitors pumped $4.3 billion into the local economy. All the opportunity Vancouver has provided over the years has guaranteed a steady influx of migrants from across Canada and around the world so it’s no surprise that real estate development and construction have risen to the fore as Vancouver “densifies” in order to find homes for all the folks who want to live here. Considering that a 450-square-foot condo in the West End now sells for $300,000, you have to assume that John Morton and his fellow Greenhorns are spinning in their graves like roulette wheels at a casino.

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