As the local legend goes, on New Year’s Eve in 1931, Vancouver’s Canadian Pacific Railway workers were upset that they were not allowed to join the exclusive Engineers’ Club—so they formed their own. The Railwaymen’s Club in the Laursen Building at 579 Dunsmuir, a short distance from the station, was outfitted with wooden tables and brass fittings.
It would become a Vancouver institution.
Clubs were a huge part of an individual’s social life in the 1920s and ‘30s. Industry societies, card associations, legions, and philanthropic organizations provided regular meetings with like-minded friends, and offered a way around strict prohibition laws. Prohibition existed in British Columbia from 1917 to 1921, but ironically, had a long hangover: beer parlours wouldn’t reopen in the city until 1925. One way around the ban at the time was a membership to a private club: the railway men paid yearly dues and could sign in guests for a night of drinking and mingling.
As the Prohibition era speakeasies began to die off, The Railwaymen’s Club continued as a successful, private, unionized meeting place until it was purchased by NDP member Bob Williams and other investors in 1981, and its life changed course. Williams hired his extended family, the Forsyths, to run his new venture. They decided to make it a little more eclectic and funky, while staying true to the original bones of the place. The name was shortened to The Railway Club, and Janet Forsyth began to book bands to perform on a stage situated at the end of one long room.
Her timing could not have been better, as local indie music was experiencing a rush of popularity in Vancouver. The Forsyths began to book homegrown talent every night of the week, and soon developed a fierce following. The awkwardly-shaped club and postage-stamp stage would develop new sounds and artists, and would play host to some big names in Canadian music, including Cowboy Junkies, The Tragically Hip, Great Big Sea, K.D. Lang, Blue Rodeo, Barenaked Ladies, and Grapes of Wrath.
In 1998, after decades behind the wheel, the family decided to sell. The Railway continued to change hands, but business wasn’t what it used to be, and in late 2015 the current owner (who purchased it in 2008) was looking to sell this unique landmark for $299,000—a bargain. Still, possibly because the music scene had changed, possibly because Vancouver had changed, it found no buyer. Whatever the determining factor, on March 29, 2016, The Railway Club closed after 84 years of operation.
In a city lacking in live music venues and with a relatively short pedigree, The Railway will be missed. Lines of music fans will no longer snake out the door and up the carpeted stairs, but memories and stories from those who went there ensure its place in the vault of our city history, to be thumbed over and remembered fondly.
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