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Wah Chong - Granville, 1884. (Vancouver Archives/Vancouver Archives)
Wah Chong - Granville, 1884. (Vancouver Archives/Vancouver Archives)

Treasure trove of local memories is now online Add to ...

The output of a life's work can be found in seven tattered volumes on a shelf in a storage area at the Vancouver Archives.

Fill out a requisition form and wait at a table. No food or ink pens allowed. In a few minutes, the books arrive.

The leather bindings are scuffed and tattered. Three are in such disrepair - bindings cracked, pages loose - they are now stored in boxes of acid-free cardboard.

Open a book and one finds the story of a city at its founding - primitive shelters carved from the looming forest, a conflagration that nearly snuffed the settlement at its founding.

More than 3,300 pages - filled with hand-drawings, annotated photographs, and, mostly, single-spaced, typewritten text - tell the tale of the city by its earliest residents. These were compiled by Major James Skitt Matthews, the city's first archivist and a man whose obsession preserved the story of a remarkable settlement that grew from hamlet to metropolis in a century.

He recorded the memories of pioneer settlers and of men such as August Jack Khahtsahlano, who as a boy had watched the new-found city burn from the safety of Kitsilano Point, on which could be found the Squamish Nation village of Snauq (also Sun'ahk).

Some tales are priceless, some informative, some merely capturing the spirit of the times.

Major Matthews included his own reminiscences. Turn to page 70 of Volume 1 of his Early Vancouver to read about the Great Salmon Year of 1900, during which pyramids of scaly carcasses covered docks and beaches. The fish were sold at 5 cents each, if not given away, and he retells the story of having a salmon secreted within a newspaper under his arm when he was jostled on the streetcar. The slippery fish squirted free, flopping onto the floor of the streetcar to the mortification of his wife. Salmon, you see, was Indian food, not fit for the elite to eat.

A few entries earlier, one reads about a cougar hunted in Stanley Park in 1911 and a bear shot in what is now Kerrisdale the same year.

The onion-skin paper crackles with each turn of the page. It is the sound of history having been made.

Major Matthews began his magnum opus during the Depression, continuing until 1956, by which time he had seven unique, hand-produced volumes. (He also created revised editions and copies, each typewritten, mostly by himself.) It has long been one of the most frequently requested resources at the archives, hence its battered state. The seven volumes are an invaluable tool for historians and a means to find the flavour of a historical age. The author Lee Henderson dipped into the idiosyncratic work while writing The Man Game, his well-received 2008 novel set in the frontier town.

For years, researchers have made a pilgrimage to the archives to consult the volumes.

Now, every page is available online in a format searchable by keyword, the result of hundreds of painstaking hours of digitizing and transcribing as part of a project financed by the non-profit Vancouver Historical Society. The online edition of Early Vancouver launched 11 days ago.

The effort to bring onionskin pages into the digital world was not without hiccups. An attempt to scan the pages did not work, as the thin paper and clunky ink blots from the typewriter made it difficult for the computer to make out words. As well, Mr. Matthews included lengthy, handwritten corrections and addenda to his entries.

"It's opened it to a whole new audience," said archives manager Heather Gordon. "And it's given people who are familiar with it a whole new way of using it, and using it more efficiently."

Major Matthews, who was born in Wales, arrived in Vancouver as a young man in the waning days of the 19th century. He worked for Imperial Oil and served in the militia (helping to repress a miners' strike in Nanaimo in 1913), before being sent overseas to battle the Bosch in the Great War. He led waves of attackers from the trenches at Ypres, a bravery that no doubt led to his being promoted to major, a rank he used as a title for the remainder of his life. He died in 1970, aged 92.

He began collecting in the 1920s, accumulating a half-million photographs and reams of civic records and personal papers. He squabbled with city fathers, at one point removing his entire collection from City Hall and storing it at his home.

"A lot of people saw him as crusty and cranky," Ms. Gordon said. "He'd be annoyed when you came in to see him. Kind of grumpy. But if you managed to convince him you were interested, sincere and genuine, he was animated and gracious."

The original seven volumes of his Early Vancouver are housed in an archives building that bears Major Matthews's name. It is in Vanier Park, a few steps from the site where young Khahtsahlano watched a fledgling city burn to the ground in the year of its founding.

The online version of Early Vancouver can be accessed at: http://vancouver.ca/ctyclerk/archives/digitized/EarlyVan/index.htm.

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