History · Pacific Northwest · Vancouver

What’s in a Name?

Blood Alley Square an evocative name that conjures up brawls and murders, or slaughter houses and butchers, the hangman’s noose, and of course ghosts. Blood Alley Square was the name officially given to the recently created space in the 1970s, a part of the renovation and beautification of the newly minted heritage district of Gastown. In guide books, walking tours and other narratives the Blood Alley name is closely associated with the early settler history of the Gastown area however, Blood Alley turns out to be a much more recent invention.

After the fire of 1886 that destroyed the original townsite rebuilding was quick. Cordova became the main business street in the early town while Water Street was largely given over to warehouses servicing the railway and the fruit and vegetable wholesalers. The lane between Water and Cordova streets was just that, a lane. Newspaper accounts of the day don’t indicate any major fights, murder or general mayhem in the alley and there were no slaughter houses or butcher shops to provide the necessary blood to give the alley a name. Major Matthews the city’s first archivist and a man who interviewed most of the early residents of this city – and a stickler for detail – never mentions Blood Alley in his copious notes on settler history. So the Blood Alley name is a bit of a mystery.

A search through the newspapers doesn’t turn up the Blood Alley name in association with Vancouver until 1964 when the Daily Province columnist Ormond Turner writes about the death of ex-merchant seaman Charles Davidson who was found after a fight in a narrow alley behind the Stanley and New Fountain Hotels in his September 3, 1964 column in which he noted two other deaths that had occurred in the same space in the previous two years.

“Blood Alley” in 1964 situated between the Stanley and New Fountain Hotels and a former truck repair garage.

Daily Province reporter Ian Todd picked up the story and noted in his September 5th. article that the 200 foot long space was “a privately owned lane known among thugs and drunks as Blood Alley. Here, every night a dozen or more men and women who are thought to have caused trouble are disgorged from three beer parlours, three rooming houses and two coffee shops. Some are just sick or drunk, others spill their blood, but all are outside the arm, or the help, of the law officially at any rate. Because the alley is private property and, according to the law, a policeman needs a warrant to enter it.” This is the first time the Blood Alley name appears.

There were a couple more pieces about the alley and a disagreement about whether the police could enter it freely or not. A November 25th. article by Ian Todd reported that Jack Cohen of Army and Navy was concerned about the area and had plans to demolish the Stanley and New Fountain hotels on Cordova Street opposite his store because “We want to keep this part of town clean,” Cohen said. “We don’t want drunks and bums congregating on our property. We plan to tear down the hotel and use the space for parking for our customers. Cohen said the adjacent Stanley Hotel will also be torn down in due course. Both hotels have back exits on Vancouver’s Blood Alley where three men have been found dead under mysterious circumstances in the past few years.”

Blood Alley appears again in a 1969 article about the rehabilitation efforts in Gastown and a Province writer noted in a May 9th. article that “Trounce Alley* has seen carriage and riding stables, a smithy, Chinese laundries but over the years it has achieved a certain notoriety as “blood alley.” Brawl and killings were frequent. The brick and rusted iron bars of an old jail are remnants of the past.” It’s interesting to see the lower case of blood alley as a similar use appears in a 1946 Associated Press article about the “brawls in the blood alley of third-rate hotels and dance halls of Shanghai”. The old jail the writer saw was actually an old warehouse that had nothing to do with jails but the myth making had now taken hold. An article in May of 1969 notes the City might buy the Stanley and New Fountain hotels to prevent their demolition and preserve the “infamous Blood Alley behind them.”

The alley in the articles was a narrow space between the back of the Stanley and New Fountain hotels and a large garage built to service the trucks used by the various wholesale fruit and vegetable dealers on Water Street. The demolition of the shed in the 1970s created the open space that would become Blood Alley Square.

*Trounce Alley, by the way, was a name used for the lane between Water Street and Cordova since the 1890s. It was named for Victoria’s Trounce Alley by Frank Hart whose Cordova Street furniture store backed onto the alley. Hart had spent an enjoyable visit to Victoria and remembered Trounce Alley there fondly and bestowed the name on the lane behind his store. It was officially named by the a city bylaw in the 1970s. Blood Alley Square was officially named in the same bylaw.

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