The City of Vancouver’s first official lifeguard gave himself the job.
Immortalized today in place names, Joe Fortes is known as a restaurant, a public library branch, and a memorial fountain. But there was a time when summer in Vancouver meant his constant presence at English Bay, ensuring everyone stayed safe and happily splashing.
Seraphim “Joe” Fortes was born on February 9, 1863 in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. He left home at 17 to sail to Britain, where he found work in Liverpool. He came to Canada on a weather-beaten windjammer called the Robert Kerr in 1884, sailing around Cape Horn from Liverpool and arriving in the Burrard Inlet in September of 1885.
At that time, Vancouver was called Granville, and Fortes would become one of its first black citizens. He opened the first shoeshine stand in Vancouver in the Sunnyside Hotel on Water Street; he subsequently worked as a bartender and porter at the Sunnyside, the Bodega Saloon on Carrall Street, and the Alhambra Hotel at Carrall and Water. Eight months after his arrival, the city burned in the Great Fire of 1886. He helped citizens evacuate, and even saved some of their worldly possessions. As a hotel employee, he was talented, but his real love was swimming; in Liverpool, Fortes had won swimming races across the Mersey River. When Vancouver began to rise from the ashes of the Great Fire, he headed for the beach.
The nearest and most popular was English Bay, and this is where Fortes would make his home. He lived in a tent on the sand during the summer months, and at the turn of the century he built himself a cottage at the foot of Bidwell Street. Eventually he would move off the shore and across Beach Avenue to the east of Alexandra Park. For over 30 years, Fortes started his day by swimming in the bay, followed by a drink of his “medicine”: a cup of sea water he swore by as a tonic. He appointed himself the beach manager, keeping an eye on paddlers, teaching children how to swim, and saving lives. Although officially credited with saving 29 people, the actual number is estimated to be likely over 100. When he saved an American consul from drowning in the bay, the city began to take notice, and he became Vancouver’s first official lifeguard by the early 1900s, complete with new cottage and salary.
Fortes was content to be alone on his beach. He never married, and after settling in the bay, never lived anywhere else. In 1910, he was honoured by the city with a gold watch. When he died in 1922 (of pneumonia and a subsequent stroke), Vancouver had a funeral procession with record-breaking attendance. His official service was at the Holy Rosary Cathedral downtown, and he was buried at Mountain View Cemetery in Riley Park. The marker for his grave is a flat stone befitting a kind, humble, local legend; it is engraved with a solitary word that says it all: Joe.
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