I live at the corner of 1912 and 1925. I discovered this fact shortly after I moved into my neighbourhood. As someone who commutes mainly by walking (and public transportation), I have the pleasure of seeing the world at a slower pace. This allows me to notice small things, like sidewalk date and name stamps, that most people are incognizant of. These inconspicuous markings in the urban landscape were originally used to date the construction of the sidewalk but consequently, mark the provenance of a neighbourhood.
I live in an established part of the city, but since my building dates to ca.1960, I was quite surprised to find sidewalks dating from 1925 and 1912 intersecting on the corner of my block. The impact of this may be lost to those of you who live in older cities with plenty of heritage buildings, but here in Vancouver a building from 1960 can be considered old – a construction from 1912, is positively ancient!
At its start, Vancouver was a rough and tumble industrial lumber town incorporated in 1886 – when lumber was plentiful and most of the buildings of the time were made of wood, as were the streets and sidewalks (if there were any). This photo from 1910 found in the City of Vancouver Archives illustrates this.
Concrete sidewalks have existed for approximately 150 years in North American cities. The oldest known concrete sidewalk date stamp in Vancouver is from 1906 (one can be found at Robson St. and Bidwell St.) and I have seen a 1907 date stamp on Victoria Drive near East Georgia. On my recent dated sidewalk walkabout, I found a 1908 stamp at 10th and Columbia in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant neighbourhood. Most of the older dated sidewalks are found in residential neighbourhoods in Vancouver, most likely due to the stability of property development in those areas.
Vancouver is not the only city to have dated sidewalks (a practice that continues to this day). Through my research, I have discovered that other cities in North America have them as well. It also appears that the largest concentration of sidewalk stamps are found in cities along the west coast of North America. From California, there is the blog called Oakland Sidewalk Stamps, where Andrew Alden, a genealogist, has made a hobby of documenting these “fossils in the city’s hardscape”. There is also a website out of Berkeley, California that is dedicated solely to the “documentation, cataloging, and publication” of sidewalk contractor stamps. The website’s author, Lincoln Cushing, states that
“Much can be learned from these artifacts, including construction dates and patterns of urban development. But perhaps most importantly, these are symbolic of the pride that tradesmen and women displayed in building [America].”
Other, larger cities, like Toronto, Montreal and Chicago also have some dated sidewalks – though these seem to be mainly in the form of the dated contractor stamp, and don’t seem to be as prevalent as in Vancouver’s.
Major civic infrastructure projects are often reflected in the sidewalk date stamp. The completion date of the construction of the Granville Bridge (1954), by the City of Vancouver, is echoed in these sidewalk stamps found underneath the north end of the Granville Street Bridge on Pacific Street.
The street name sidewalk stamp (below) reveals the former name of the southern portion of Burrard Street in Vancouver. According to Street Names of Vancouver by Elizabeth Walker, Cedar Street dates back to 1885 and was named by L. A. Hamilton, Vancouver’s most influential street namer. Lachlan Alexander Hamilton (1852-1944) was a land commissioner for the CPR and named most of the streets in Vancouver’s West End, Downtown (including Hamilton St. which he named after himself) and the series of “tree streets” in Kitsilano and Fairview.
When the Burrard Bridge was completed in 1932, Burrard St. (north side, downtown) was then linked to Cedar St. on the south end of the bridge. Cedar Street was officially renamed Burrard Street in 1938.
Often there is a human component to these sidewalk impressions. According to an article posted on an online group discussion board, somewhere on Arbutus Street south of 4th Avenue, preserved in the sidewalk since 1912, are the faint impressions of the footprints of a man and a child. During my “sidewalk investigations”, I found this footprint preserved in concrete in my own neighbourhood. I would date it’s origin to 1926, as it was most likely made at the same time as the adjacent section of dated sidewalk was poured.
I wonder if the person who made this impression is still alive? Was this an accident, or was it intentional? It is a mystery preserved in concrete.
Another mysterious marking preserved in concrete that I have noticed in my travels over the years are the seemingly arbitrary (mid-block) markings of the letter “D” stamped into the sidewalks.
I have no idea what they mean, or why they are there. They differ from the dated sidewalk stamps, as they are usually found in the middle of the block instead of near the corner. The sensationalist in me would like to believe that they are the work of a rogue city construction worker, whose name starts with the letter “D”, who used these stamps as a way of marking his territory – a sort of “Zorro” of the sidewalks! If anyone knows the real story behind the “D” markings, I would love to hear about it. ***
Even though we are told to always walk with our heads up, I invite you to look down the next time you are out walking – you never know what you could discover about your neighbourhood.
***UPDATE*** Thanks to civic historian (and person who knows everything about Vancouver history), John Atkin, the mystery of the “D” markings is solved. John informed me that the “D”, as in drain, denotes a City water connection.
An updated version of my study of sidewalk name and date stamps ran in Scout Magazine in 2017.