Skip to main content

You won't find it on any current map of Stanley Park, but the lost rock garden, once so famous it was featured on postcards that went around the world, is there all right, hidden in the greenery.

And Chris Hay knows because he found it.

Yesterday, stepping around one of the big trees that fell in the December storm that devastated so much of Stanley Park, Mr. Hay pointed out the garden built by his great-grandfather, John Montgomery, between 1911 and 1920.

He figures the garden has been lost and forgotten since the end of the Second World War.

"You can see it clearly now," he says, "but before that tree fell, you'd have walked right past without knowing it was there. It was just buried in the underbrush."

Snaking off through the shrubbery, softened by moss and overhung by drooping ferns, is a remnant of the rock garden Mr. Montgomery built into what was once Stanley Park's feature attraction. Here and there are flecks of yellow and white as the first blooms of spring peek through. But mostly the rockery is muted greys, greens and browns helping it to fade into the background.

Mr. Hay, who spent years searching for the long-forgotten garden after an aged aunt asked him about it, pulls out an old postcard that shows the garden in full bloom.

"Wow. That was beautiful," he says, holding up a picture of pathways weaving through fields of scarlet and gold flowers. "It was not just a feature of Stanley Park, it was the park's star attraction in its heyday. Then it sort of got forgotten and became neglected."

Mr. Montgomery was a master gardener when he immigrated to Canada from Scotland in 1908, at the age of 64. The next year he got a gardening job in the park, and two years later started work on the rockery.

"He took the job at an age when most would be retiring because of his love of gardening. He was just passionate about it," said Mr. Hay, as he strolled through the old rock garden.

"He asked permission to build a rock garden. They told him, 'Okay, you can do a test project and we'll see how it looks.' " Apparently park officials liked what they saw, because shortly after that he was assigned full-time to building and caring for the rockery. It was all he would do until he died in March of 1920.

"It became his only concern in the park after that," said Mr. Hay, 61, a letter carrier who lives in Coquitlam. "He was meticulous about where he wanted the rocks and when you walk through here now and look at it you can be sure he thought about where each rock was placed."

Over the decades, as park staff retired and priorities changed, Mr. Montgomery's garden was forgotten.

"Piece by piece the rock garden got whittled away as other things were developed," Mr. Hay said. "So it kind of lost its stature. And then it got overgrown."

Mr. Hay started to research the garden several years ago as a family history project. While he found some archival references to the rockery, he didn't really appreciate what a major garden it was until he found an early report that said it was almost one mile long.

"The continued development and growth of the Rockery will call for more attention than our appropriation permitted during the past year," states the parks board annual report of 1920, the year Mr. Montgomery died. "This garden, representing as it does one of the outstanding features of our park system, extends for ¾ of a mile, and to try to maintain it with only one regular gardener is to attempt the impossible, if it is to be kept to the standard worthy of its importance."

When Mr. Hay first went to Stanley Park to look for the forgotten garden, he couldn't find it. Then he stumbled on a postcard that showed it in all its splendour, with the Stanley Park Pavilion, a lodge-like building that's still standing, clearly in the background.

Using the building as a reference point, Mr. Hay ducked his head, went into the underbrush and found the serpentine pattern of rocks. From there he was slowly able to piece sections of the garden together.

"It was very exciting to have found even a piece of it because I thought nothing was there at all. Eventually I found about half of it, and I thought that was all that was left."

Recently, after the big storm that knocked down thousands of trees, he revisited the park to see if the garden had been damaged.

On that visit he was joined by Lyle Dick, West Coast historian for Parks Canada, who wandered up a knoll with him -- and found the missing half of the lost garden. It had been there in plain sight all along, snaking along a driveway that leads to the Stanley Park Pavilion.

"I'd driven past it before and hadn't even seen it," he said yesterday as he stood in the sunlight and admired his great-grandfather's handiwork.

"But you can see now how it fits in. It starts there at Pipeline Road, winds up here behind the Pavilion. It is broken up in places where they changed things over the decades, but then you pick it up again running down along the ridge."

Mr. Hay says that without an impassioned, dedicated gardener like Mr. Montgomery, the rock garden will never be returned to its old glory. But he has hopes the Vancouver Parks Board might mark the rockery with a plaque dedicated to Mr. Montgomery.

Who knows, maybe they will even put it on the official Stanley Park map one day, so that people can find the lost garden for themselves.