Building the Stanley Park Seawall
“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” -John Muir, 1913
The City of Vancouver seawall is a 22 kilometre (13 mile) waterfront path for cyclists, joggers, inline skaters and pedestrians. The seawall extends through Coal Harbour, Stanley Park, English Bay, False Creek, past Granville Island and the Burrard Street Bridge, through Vanier Park and ends at Kitsilano Beach. The Stanley Park section of the seawall is 8.8 kilometres (5 miles) in length. The seawall is used by more than 2,500,000 people every year.
The seawall is the most popular recreational facility in Vancouver and is on many tourism top ten “to do” lists. It is divided into two sections, one for pedestrians and joggers and another for cyclists and inline skaters on the inside path. Travel is two-way on the path, except in Stanley Park. People stay to the right to allow room for people going in the other direction. In Stanley Park, cycling and inline skating is one-way between Georgia Street and the Second Beach concession. Cyclists and skaters travel in a counterclockwise direction only. It takes two to three hours to walk or one hour to cycle. On shared paths cyclists and inline skaters yield to pedestrians.
Take a stroll along the famed seawall of North America’s third-largest park and enjoy the spectacular scenery. If you are short on time, rent a bike from one of the many rental shops near Stanley Park: Bayshore Rentals, English Bay Bike Rentals, Spokes Bicycle Rentals, and Stanley Park Cycle. The seawall allows cyclists, rollerbladers and pedestrians the opportunity to experience the magnificent beauty of Stanley Park, Vancouver and the North Shore. Stroll the seawall or relax on a park bench and enjoy the stunning view.
The seawall is a stone wall that was constructed around the perimeter of Stanley Park to prevent the erosion of the park’s foreshore. Construction on the seawall began in 1917 with much of its incremental progress overseen by Park Board master stonemason James “Jimmy” Cunningham. A plaque commemorating Cunningham’s work can be seen in the rock face above the seawall at Siwash Rock.
The original idea for the seawall is attributed to park board superintendent, W S Rawlings, who said in 1918, “It is not difficult to imagine what the realization of such an undertaking would mean to the attractions of the park and personally I doubt if there exists anywhere on this continent such possibilities of a combined park and marine walk as we have in Stanley Park.”
A proposal was submitted to the federal government for funding to help finance seawall construction because it owned the park and leased the land to the city. It was argued that waves created by ships passing through the First Narrows eroded the area between Prospect Point and Brockton Point. On this basis, the federal government helped pay for construction of the wall until 1967 when portions of the park vulnerable to erosion were protected.
The largest section was built between 1914 and 1971, although the seawall around Stanley Park was not completed until 1980. Much of the original wall was constructed under the direction of master stonemason James Cunningham who spent 32 years on the project until his death in 1963. Cunningham continued supervising construction despite being ill and, on at least one occasion, went to check the seawall’s progress in pajamas. He died in 1963 before the wall was finished, and remains as the one person most associated with the project. In contrast to the continuity during Cunningham’s tenure on the project, construction of the seawall was intermittent, owing to the short-term funding commitments of civic and federal governments. The first 1,219 metres (4,000 feet) was completed between 1914 and 1916.
During World War I, a series of storms threatened the foreshore near Second Beach when water flooded land between the beach and Lost Lagoon. In 1920, the wall served as a workfare project for 2,300 unemployed men, and by 1939, an additional 2,438 metres (8,000 feet) of the wall was finished. Another 2,773 metres (9,100 feet) was built between 1950 and 1957, and the final 762 metres (2,500 feet) was completed in 1968. Henry Herbert Stevens, who also helped initiate the project in 1914 as a Member of Parliament for Vancouver, tapped the last block into place completing the original vision of the seawall. Workers on the wall included seamen from HMCS Discovery facing punishment detail in the 1950s and unemployed relief workers during the Great Depression. In the 1950s, stone sets from the dismantled BC Electric Railway streetcar system were incorporated into the seawall.
On September 21, 1980, the entire seawall around Stanley Park was officially completed with the final paving between Second Beach and Third Beach. Since 1980, the seawall has been extended outside of Stanley Park. In 2010 and 2011, two sections of the seawall near Second Beach and Sunset Beach were renewed to repair erosion damage. With deep foundations and renewed surfacing, the seawall is built to withstand the tides for many years to come.