Harry Hooper, a.k.a. “Handsome Harry” or “Lightning Harry,” was born in Napanee, Ontario, around 1883 and moved to Vancouver with his family when he was three. By the early 20th century, he had become a well-known man-about-town through his various pursuits as a dog breeder, thespian, steamboat operator, taxi driver, and competitive cyclist, but was best known as a race car driver.
Harry Hooper’s notoriety in Vancouver began when he was just fourteen years old. He and a gang of other boys committed a string of burglaries in the East End in 1897, beginning with the theft of around $40 worth of cigars and cigarettes from Braid & Co. on Water Street, along with some cash they managed to liberate from the safe. Hooper and his six accomplices stashed the loot beneath the wooden sidewalk on Pender Street between Seymour and Richards. Police retrieved the booty after they caught the boys and Harry was given a suspended sentence on the condition that he leave town. He didn’t, and was pinched again a month later after he and his gang broke into Mrs Pierce’s house and stole money and jewelry. Young Harry was in court again in October for stealing 185 empty sacks from the Evans, Coleman & Evans wharf.
By the turn of the century, Hooper had gone legit, but his love of speed landed him back in court on more than one occasion. In 1900 he received a $10 fine for “scorching,” riding a bicycle at excessive speeds off the track. Hooper spent some time working as a professional cyclist, including a tour across Canada with a dog named Dirty Face.
Hooper found his true calling behind the wheel of a car, and by 1906 was the chauffeur for John Hendry, a lumber baron and the head of VW & Y Railway Company. He was again fined for speeding as Hendry’s driver. There were very few cars on Vancouver streets in 1907, but two other speed demons appeared in court the same day as Harry: BT Rogers, founder of the BC Sugar Refinery, and William Stark, who worked in his father’s dry goods store, Stark’s Glasgow House, now the Cambie Hotel. (Cars were still a rich man’s toy in 1907). Stark and Rogers were fined for driving 16 mph, but Lightning Harry licked them both by topping 20 mph. The next month Hooper accompanied his boss to New York, leading the World newspaper to remark that “if he starts autoing in Father Knickerbocker’s staid old town and strikes the same speed as the police clocked him on here, he is liable to put the traffic of that ancient village into inextricable confusion.”
Handsome Harry worked various other driving jobs, such as demonstrating cars and operating a sightseeing tour car. In 1909, Hooper received a $75,000 inheritance, which, he said, he would use to “get into the automobile business on an extensive scale.” He started the Hooper Taxicab Co., but sold out his share shortly after, and of course raced cars whenever the opportunity arose, becoming known as the “Barney Oldfield of Vancouver” in reference to a famous American driver.
In 1910, Hooper set a speed record for driving from Seattle to Vancouver in nine hours and thirty-two minutes. In 1916 and 1919, Hooper put his driving skills to the test by racing biplanes. He didn’t win either time, but put on a good show for the crowd. The first time, the World reported that Hooper’s “mechanician perform[ed] some hair-raising stunts” during the race, and in 1919, that the contest was “neck-and-neck.”
When the Great Depression hit, Hooper didn’t want to be one of the many unemployed men clogging Vancouver’s streets, and so took up placer mining on the Fraser River. City archivist Major Matthews interviewed Hooper in 1937 for his Early Vancouver oral history project. This is how Matthews described Hooper:
Pioneer of “Gastown,” associate of prince and pauper, who is in Vancouver, at the Regent Hotel, from his placer mine on the banks of the Fraser River, two miles from Chimney Creek, twenty-two miles from Williams Lake, twelve miles from the nearest store, two miles from his mail box, where he lives with his three dogs and four cats, but no one else, surrounded by his garden full of vegetables; with his radio; gets six newspapers at a time at the end of the week; hangs beef, pork, and mutton in the shed in winter time, and when he wants some, cuts it off; catches the finest of salmon in the river, and salts it down; says that money is worthless; that there is no need for a solitary individual in British Columbia to be “on relief,” and says he has washed fifteen hundred dollars of gold out of the hill side since last May—about four months. He wants a road into his place—about two miles of road; he also needs teeth.
After WWII, Harry Hooper worked as a metal worker for West Coast Shipbuilders in North Vancouver. He was back in Vancouver, living in an office in the old Stock Exchange building across from Woodward’s on West Hastings Street, when he died in 1956. The dearth of information on his death certificate suggests that this once well-known Vancouver character had mostly been forgotten by that time.