Local History Advent Calendar 2018 – Day 7 – Vancouver’s first aquarium

When I am researching one topic I often come across random historical tidbits that I think might be interesting to research one day.  These tidbits sometimes end up as full-fledged stories and sometimes they just stay as random historical tidbits.  I have collected quite a few, so I thought it might be fun to present them in the form of “treats” for a local history advent calendar. Think of them as holiday cocktail party fodder – 24 facts about Vancouver history that can be used as conversation starters at your next social event.

Day 7: Vancouver’s first aquarium was located at the old English Bay bathhouse…

Before the current Vancouver Aquarium was established in Stanley Park, there once was an aquarium located on English Bay across from Morton Park. The aquarium was located in a bathhouse built in 1906 (the building was torn down in 1964) and was in operation from October 1939 to June 1956. The former English Bay men’s bathhouse was leased by Seattle’s Ivar Haglund – yes, “Ivar’s Acres of Clams”, Ivar Haglund – in 1939.  Haglund was already the owner of an aquarium on Seattle’s waterfront when he entered into a share-the-receipts agreement with the Park Board to run the Vancouver aquarium. The aquarium opened with over 100 varieties of fish, plant and animal sea life on display, all obtained from the waters of English Bay and the Gulf of Georgia. The most popular exhibits were that of “Oscar and Oliver” the octopi and “Mike and Billy” the harbour seals.  A new wing that featured non-live exhibits like a ship’s wheelhouse, microscopic enlargements, and the story of the salmon canning industry was opened in 1941 to much fanfare.

Ad from the Vancouver Sun in 1940.

However, the war years must have taken a toll, because by 1945 unfavourable stories about the aquarium started to appear in the press. Like the one by Vancouver Sun reporter Ray Gardner, where he called the aquarium “dingy”, “damp”, and “unsightly”, saying it would be “a lovely place for Frankenstein to hole up for the winter”. In 1951, Park Board Commissioner called the aquarium “a farce, a dead horse, not a credit to this board”, and another commissioner called it a “monstrocity” – yikes! the bloom was definitely off that rose. It seems that the first aquarium may have been run more like an attraction, than as an educational facility.

These cartoons accompanied the 1945 Vancouver Sun article slamming the aquarium.

The bathhouse aquarium closed in 1956, replaced by a new purpose-built Vancouver Aquarium located in Stanley Park run by the Vancouver Aquarium Association.

In 1986 a Vancouver Centennial plaque was unveiled placed on a water fountain where the bathhouse aquarium once stood:

Vancouver’s First Aquarium – The second English Bay bathhouse, which was located on this site, was the home of the first Vancouver Aquarium. Owned and operated by Mr. Ivar Haglund of Seattle. The Aquarium educated generations of Vancouverites on the abundance of marine life native to our Pacific Coast. The Aquarium was in service from October 1939 to June 1956.  This plaque is donated on the occasion of Vancouver’s Centennial by the Ivar’s Corporation of Seattle in honour of its founder Ivar Haglund, and his special role in Vancouver’s history.



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