A Local Hero: The Story of Vancouver's First Lifeguard

Back in the 1880s, it was not a given that most people knew how to swim. Nor was there any guarantee that if you started drowning, someone would even know how to come to your rescue. But, as attitudes towards swimming and leisure began to change in the late 19th century, more and more people were spending their free afternoons down at the beach. Enter one of Vancouver's first local celebrities and the first official lifeguard and swim instructor employed by the City of Vancouver: Joe Fortes.

Joe was born in Barbados, or perhaps the Port of Spain, in 1863. At that time, not only did Canada not exist as an independent nation but Vancouver didn't even exist.* At the age of 17, Joe left Trinidad for England where he learned how to swim while living in Liverpool. Already he was becoming a swimmer of some note: he won a three-mile race across the Mersey River, won a gold medal in life-saving, and joined an 11-person swim team touring through England and France.

In September 1885, Joe made the long trip to Granville (Vancouver) and opened Vancouver's earliest shoeshine stand outside of the Sunnyside Hotel at Carrall and Water Street in Gastown. In just 20 years, the city was booming due to its lumber mills and designation as the new terminus of the just-built Canadian Pacific Railway. However, just eight months after Joe arrived, the Great Fire of 1886 tore through Vancouver and destroyed much of the new city.

After the fire, Joe began frequenting English Bay Beach, teaching children how to swim and acting as a volunteer lifeguard. For over ten years, Joe taught thousands of children how to swim and saved well over 100 lives. He became so prominent in early Vancouver that the City decided to put him on the payroll in 1897 as the first official lifeguard and even made him a special police constable. Joe was beloved by Vancouverites, especially the children he taught how to swim, and became a local hero and celebrity for his years of dedication.

When Joe passed away in 1922, it was the largest public funeral that the City had ever seen: thousands of people turned out to honour Joe's memory, including the mayor, several aldermen and the chief of police. A moment of silence was held in all schools across the city and a sum of $5,000 (over $60,000 today) was raised to erect a monument to Joe Fortes at Alexandra Park with the simple moniker, "Little children loved him." And there it still stands today.

* The first non-First Nations settlement in what-would-become Vancouver was only one year old in 1863.

Image Credits: Top image - City of Vancouver Archives, CVA 677-440; Snapshot image - CVA 677-591; Bottom image - CVA 677-421.