Stanley Park - A Military Engineer Legacy

Stanley Park - A Military Engineer Legacy

With the arrival of British governance in 1763 in what was to become Canada, the British Royal Engineers assumed great responsibility for the construction of defensive works as well as the development of the North American colonies. Early activities included the construction of forts, roads and bridges, and inland canals and waterways. Landmarks such as the Halifax Citadel and Fort Henry at Kingston still stand today and attest to the strength of their defensive works.

The role of the Engineers slowly changed from a focus on things military to ‘national development’ as the Canadian colonies evolved. Among these early undertakings, the Royal Engineers surveyed and marked much of the the Canada-United States boundary and laid out the original townsites of Toronto, Ottawa, and London in what is now Ontario, and New Westminster, Yale and Hope in British Columbia, as the grid pattern of their streets attests. They constructed the Cariboo Road through the treacherous Fraser Canyon in the interior of British Columbia, built the Cayuga Road in Ontario stretching from Niagara to Simcoe, and built the Rideau Canal strategic waterway between Ottawa and Kingston.

What we know today as British Columbia was a great beneficiary of the development work of the Royal Engineers. Much of this work started in November 1958 when the new colony of British Columbia was declared. Sappers of various skills were employed under Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Clement Moody over the next five years.

Among their activities, the Royal Engineers surveyed the border between Canada and the United States from the Pacific Ocean through the Rocky Mountains. The new city of New Westminster was developed as the colonial capital near the Royal Engineer garrison of Sapperton.

Moody’s sappers laid out the Caribou wagon trail into the interior to help the British control the Cariboo Gold Rush. As well as supervising its overall construction, they built two of the most dangerous and difficult sections. They also explored and mapped the area and their presence ensured law and order in the gold mining camps.

When the Royal Engineers laid out the early town of Vancouver, the area that is today Stanley Park was set aside for military use, primarily guarding the narrow passage into Burrard Inlet. This has become one of the city's greatest treasures. Originally home to Indigenous peoples, the 1000 acres became Vancouver's first park in 1886 when the city was incorporated.

In 1886, as one of its first orders of business, Vancouver's City Council voted to petition the Dominion government to lease the military reserve for use as a park. To manage their new acquisition, the city council appointed a six-person park committee, which in 1890 was replaced with an elected body, the Vancouver Park Board. In 1908, 20 years after the first lease, the federal government renewed the lease for 99 more years. In 2006, a letter from Parks Canada stated that "the Stanley Park lease is perpetually renewable and no action is required by the Park Board in relation to the renewal."

Much of the park remains today as densely forested as it was in the late 1800s with about a half million trees. Stanley Park became an evolution of the hopes and dreams of a pioneer city and provided a place for recreation and relaxation.

Another legacy was in the form of the sappers who took their discharge when the unit was disbanded in late 1863. They became early settlers in the land they had worked so hard to develop and provided the strong foundations and leadership in the settlement of Canada.