Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

English Bay (Joe Fortes teaching swimming), ca. 1905. (City of Vancouver archives/City of Vancouver archives)
English Bay (Joe Fortes teaching swimming), ca. 1905. (City of Vancouver archives/City of Vancouver archives)

Tom Hawthorn

Black history month a time to remember Joe Fortes Add to ...

Mourners lined downtown Vancouver streets, doffing hats and bowing heads as a coffin passed.

The hearse was followed by a float carrying a small rowboat draped in evergreen boughs and the finest flowers from Stanley Park, freshly cut by city gardeners. The Elks’ brass band played as the procession made a slow, dignified journey down Granville to Hastings to Main and on southward toward Mountain View Cemetery. Mounted police in dress uniform led the way, followed by the mayor and city councillors, as well as the police commission, the school board and the park board.

Ninety years ago this week, Vancouver bade farewell to its favourite citizen with a funeral larger than had ever been held in the city. At the age 58, Seraphim Fortes, known to locals as Joe, had died of pneumonia and a stroke.

The city is commemorating black history month with a series of cultural and historical events in the coming weeks. Of the many who made a contribution to the city’s life, none were so loved as Joe Fortes.

His name lives on today, gracing a popular oyster house, where one assumes many diners suppose it is named after the restaurant’s founder. A branch of the public library also carries his name. It can be found near the English Bay waterfront where he lived, and earned his reputation as a lifeguard and swimming instructor.

On the day of his funeral, the Holy Rosary men’s choir sang hymns in the cathedral. The air was redolent of incense mixed with the sweetness of bouquets and wreaths. A mound of mismatched single flowers had been placed atop the coffin by schoolchildren.

Those youngsters who did not attend the service instead had their studies interrupted in the classroom for five minutes, as a moment of silence throughout the city was followed by a lesson from teachers in self-sacrifice and devotion to duty.

At the gravesite, Rev. William O’Boyle told those gathered, “You do honour not only to Old Joe, who has just gone out with the tide on the great ocean of eternity, but to yourselves, indeed, in gathering to tender solemn homage of respect for the passing of a great soul.”

A marker placed in the ground atop the final resting place was a simple stone into which had been carved just three letters – JOE.

Named by his parents for the highest rank of angel, Seraphim Fortes was born to a Barbadian father of African ancestry and a Spanish (or perhaps Portuguese) mother on Feb. 9, 1863, in Port of Spain in the British sugar colony of Trinidad. At 17, he left the Caribbean for Liverpool, England, where he won swimming races across the Mersey River.

In 1884, he joined the crew of the windjammer Robert Kerr, embarking from Britain on an ill-fated voyage to the Pacific Coast. Rough seas at Cape Horn and an unhappy crew made for a harrowing sail. Then, the captain died. Even as the barque neared its destination, the battered ship grounded at San Juan Island, needing to be refloated. It was leaking badly when it limped into Burrard Inlet nearly a year to the day after leaving Britain.

The damaged boat was sold and the crew paid off. Mr. Fortes wandered into the Granville townsite and found work as a shoeblack. He was soon employed by the Sunnyside Hotel as a porter and roustabout. As the fledgling city burned to the ground in what would be known as the Great Fire, the young man escorted a married woman and her son to safety aboard his old ship, anchored in the harbour. He also salvaged much of the hotel guests’ luggage before the building was consumed.

Those were but his first acts of bravery.

As the city quickly rebuilt, Mr. Fortes became bartender at the Bodega saloon, 21 Carrall St. He later took up similar duties down the block at the Alhambra Hotel before tiring of the saloon life and establishing himself in a tent on a slight rise of land overlooking English Bay. In time, he built a tidy waterfront cottage at the foot of what would become Bidwell Street.

A regular bather, Mr. Fortes soon became known for rescuing careless swimmers. In 1898, he rescued J.C. McCook, the newly appointed American consul for the Klondike gold rush town of Dawson City, who suffered an attack in the water while visiting the city. The consul was recorded in newspapers as the fifth person to be rescued by Mr. Fortes.

The count was up to 11 in the summer of 1903, by which time Mr. Fortes had been hired by the city as lifeguard, swimming instructor and special constable responsible for the beach.

In 1908, the city surprised him with the presentation of a gold medal. “I’ve always tried to do my best at the bay,” he said, “and I shall try to keep that reputation.”

As he aged, his barrel chest grew ever thicker and he weighed nearly 300 pounds. He claimed to drink a glass of salt water as a tonic for good health each morning.

He taught generations of children to swim. The newspapers of the day recorded his instruction as holding children afloat by gripping their swimsuits with both hands and ordering them to “Kick yo’ feet!” Among his charges were Sylvia Goldstein, the girl for whom the Sylvia Hotel was named, and Pat Slattery, a future sports columnist and politician. Mr. Fortes even appeared on postcards sold to tourists.

A few years after he died, leaving worldly goods estimated at just $228.66, a water fountain designed by the sculptor Charles Marega was erected in Alexandra Park near the beach he patrolled. An adult needs to crouch to take a sip, for it is not designed for grownups. Engraved on the back of the stone is the inscription, “Little children loved him.”



Special to The Globe and Mail

Follow on Twitter: @tomhawthorn

 

Topics:

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories