It All Began With Gassy Jack...

Who was Gassy Jack?

by Olga Ruskin

      Vancouver's history as a city has its roots in what was a tiny settlement nicknamed Gastown. The name Gastown came into use because a Fraser River pilot turned saloonkeeper with the name Capt. John 'Gassy Jack' Deighton was in 1867 the first settler on the site from which Vancouver was to evolve. (In Victorian times the term 'to gas' referred to talking a lot, something which Captain Deighton had become famous for.) It is said that Deighton had erected his saloon at Luck-Lucky which meant grove of maple trees close to Stamp's Mill (near what is now the foot of Gore) with the help of eager workers from the mill just 24 hours after arriving on the shores of Burrard Inlet. He called it the Globe Saloon after his former saloon in New Westminster.

      The saloon was a makeshift structure - a 12' by 24' board-and-batten shack. A large maple tree grew close by and eventually the spot became known as Maple Tree Square. Today it's the intersection of Water and Carrall, the maple tree gone but a statue of Gassy Jack remains. But back in 1867 the settlement which became known as Gastown after Gassy Jack was still wilderness. Deighton wrote in a letter that it was "A lonesome place when I came here first, surrounded by Indians. I care not to look outdoors after dark. There was a friend of mine about a mile distant found with his head cut in two. The Indian was caught and hanged."

      Gassy Jack had come to Luck-Lucky from New Westminster in a dugout canoe with his Indian wife, her mother, and Big William, her cousin who was along to do the paddling. It was while in New Westminster that he earned his reputation for being "gassy" entertaining customers with stories at his Globe Saloon, according to a contemporary, of "desperate adventures and hairbreadth escapes from Sydney docks, Yankee road agents, Mexican bandits, grizzly bears, etc.". We learn this from two letters that "Ancient Mariner" (most probably a sailing associate of Deighton's) wrote to the Vancouver News Advertiser in 1888. The letters are interesting because they give us a contemporary assessment of John Deighton.

      "At some future day when Vancouver becomes the emporium of the Pacific shores" Ancient Mariner wrote, "the name of the first permanent settler will be sought out by historians and given a name as great as that for which many thousands have ventured limbs, lives and fortunes. Yet the already-locally famous Gassy Jack never sought for fame, nor had he the least atom of hero about him."

      Who anyways was Gassy Jack? John Deighton was born in 1830 in Hull, England. He became a sailor, first on British ships, then switched to American ships because, according to Ancient Mariner, of the "better quality and greater quantity of provisions." He served on the clipper ship Invincible from New York to San Francisco, where he left the ship and made for the California gold diggings. After some time there without striking it rich, Deighton followed gold rush mania to the Fraser River in 1858. He didn't do better here either, explains Ancient Mariner, "for his talents were better suited to bossing roustabouts on a steamer or distributing whiskey to them."

      And so John Deighton became a Fraser River pilot "and a good, skillful and careful steamboatman he was." The lure of gold again pulled at him when the Cariboo rush started, and so off he went to the Cariboo in 1862. But unlike another ex-sailor Billie Barker who struck it rich no fortune awaited him here. So it was to New Westminster he went where he acquired the Globe Saloon. Ancient Mariner tells how at the Globe Jack "recited his adventures and railed at hypocrites.. to all who came through as old acquaintance, or thirst, or curiosity to his bar and would drink his whisky" and so he acquired the nickname Gassy Jack. Then unfortunately in 1867 he entrusted his saloon, whisky and cash to an American friend while he went to Douglas Springs (now Harrison Springs) for his health.

      But the American patriot took advantage of his position of trust. On July 4 the friend invested Deighton's cash in powder, rockets and fire-crackers for what must have been a glorious display on the Glorious fourth, and there was even whisky on the house that day. All this had a disastrous effect on Gassy Jack because he was now broke and disillusioned with his fellow man, explains Ancient Mariner. What on earth was Gassy Jack to do now?

      Again he decided to gamble - searching for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow not in a gold field but in staking his future and now very slim assets on Burrard Inlet. Ultimately as a result of this action he was to become the real founding father of the community that was to spring up here. He saw the potential of the site where he had landed, and how it could develop. He is quoted as saying later to an old Cariboo miner William Mackie these prophetic words "You and I may never see it but this inlet would make the nicest of harbors. It will be a port some day."

      By 1870 the small settlement around the saloon received acknowledgement as the townsite of Granville, named after Earl Granville, the British colonial secretary. The new town plan covered 6 acres (now bounded by Water, Carrall, Hastings and Cambie streets) and included most of the then existing buildings of Gastown. However, because the townsite plan left his saloon in the middle of the street, Gassy Jack, a squatter, had no other alternative but to set up his business in a different spot.

      What he did was to buy the property nearest to the Globe, a larger-than-average lot at the south-west corner of Carrall and Water streets. He built on this lot an establishment quite grand in comparison with what he had before-a two-storey building with a bar-room, billiard room, several bedrooms upstairs, and facing Water Street, a verandah shaded by a maple tree. It was more than a saloon - it was called Deighton Hotel.

      While officially the settlement was Granville, unofficially and even on Admiralty charts it was referred to as Gastown. Today the boundaries of Gastown are roughly equivalent to the old Granville townsite area.

      Soon after moving into Deighton Hotel, 40 year old Jack lost his wife, but before she died, she arranged for him to marry her 12 year old niece Qua-hail-ya or Madeline. The following year in 1871 she gave birth to a boy named Richard Mason after his uncle, Jack's late brother. He was described as "a chubby little Indian boy with a very broad face who used to play around Gastown. He was such a dear little fellow, and they nicknamed him the Earl of Granville." The year was noteworthy in another way because it was on July 20, 1871 the Colony of British Columbia became a province of the Dominion of Canada.

      During this period the Gastown settlement was attracting an explosive mixture of different races, nationalities and religions. Because of the number of robberies, fights and stabbings, Gassy Jack was one of the persons petitioning the Governor for better police protection. As a result, in the fall of '71 Jonathan Miller was appointed police constable. He lived in a government owned cottage called the Court House next to the Deighton Hotel. Behind it stood the jail- two log cells without locks on the doors. Gastown was growing into a legitimate town!

      Arriving on the scene in 1873 from England was Gassy Jack's brother Tom and his wife Emma who had agreed to come to Gastown and run the hotel. An ad in the Mainland Guardian describes the Deighton Hotel as having "large and comfortable parlors, single and double bedrooms, extensive dining rooms under the experienced management of Mrs. Tom Deighton."

      The following year in 1874, but just for a brief time, Gassy Jack moved with his family back to New Westminster, leaving his hotel in the hands of his brother and sister-in-law. He was in charge of the steamer Onward, but this didn't last for long, possibly because of ill-health. A few months later he was back in Gastown and Tom and Emma departed for Victoria.

      Gassy Jack's health took a turn for the worse. His feet and legs began to give him more trouble, nor could he breathe well.

      Legend has it that Jack's mastiff began to howl the night of May 29, 1875. Jack hearing it howl said "You son of a bitch! There's something going to happen." Captain John Deighton- Gassy Jack of Gastown- was 44 years old when he died that night.

      The Guardian's obituary said "his name was a household word with most of our citizens. He was the first and best pilot on the Fraser." In her old age Madeline was to describe Gassy Jack as "a nice, good man."

      Deighton had left his estate to three year old son Richard Mason Deighton, the tiny Earl of Granville. Sadly the child died six months after his father in November, 1875. Madeline was to die many years later at age 90 in 1948 on the North Vancouver Indian Reserve.

      As for the Deighton Hotel it disappeared in the Great Fire of June 13, 1886 "One huge flame, a hundred feet long, burst from the Deighton Hotel, leaped Maple Tree Square, and swallowed up the buildings" was the way a contemporary Wm. Findlay described the conflagration.

      Though the Deighton Hotel has gone, the name Gastown remains, an everlasting memorial to Capt. John "Gassy Jack" Deighton.


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