Clearing Hastings Townsite

The following article from the World newspaper (19 February 1912) describes the chaingang used to clear the Hastings Townsite, also known as New Brighton. Much of Vancouver was cleared using prison labour, until the practice was ended in 1917 under Chief Constable MacLennan.

Hastings Townsite was located on the south shore of Burrard Inlet at the second narrows, and was established by the provincial government in 1869 in an effort to raise money for the government coffers. It is now part of the Hastings-Sunrise area. Two hotels were located there and according to Derek Hayes was in its early days “something of a resort for residents of the New Westminster escaping the mosquitoes in the summer.” Hastings Townsite did not become part of Vancouver until 1911.

Note that “vag” is short for “vagrant,” signifying that these “motley specimens of humanity” weren’t necessarily hardened criminals, but would have been poor, homeless, and unemployed.

PRISONERS AT WORK CLEARING LAND – Army of Vags, Guarded by Armed Police, Demonstrate Economical Labor in Hastings Townsite

Weekday visitors to the haunts of the chaingang, in Hastings Townsite, will observe a spectacle of industry entirely foreign to the nature of many of its demonstrators. Congregated upon the fourteen and one-half acres which form the prospective site of the Old Men’s Home, will be found fifty or more motley specimens of humanity under guard of stern-faced officers of the law, who stand with loaded rifles, prepared to let daylight into the misguided vag who might desire to seek a more congenial clime.

Notwithstanding the grade of material available, the officials in charge of the new institution have already been able to show some really remarkable results. The men work a conventional eight hours, and receive a first-class ration of bread, meat and vegetable three times a day. In the majority of cases the men are green at the work and, finding themselves earning their three meals perhaps for the first time in their lives, are inclined to be fractious, necessitating a little persuasion on the part of the guards.

On Saturday Inspector MacLennan, accompanied by a contractor, visited the ground and supervised the erection of a temporary dwelling, comprising a dormitory and kitchen for the men, and these quarters will have to serve until a more pretentious structure can be built.

The strenuous physical exercise is having the two-fold effect, according to the officials of the police department, of building up the decayed physiques of the men as well as stimulating a dormant liking for work. The real effect, however, will most probably be to act as a deterrent for the vags from again coming into contact with the minions of the law in their official capacity.

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