There has been a thick fog enveloping Vancouver this week. My mind always turns back to stories my mother has told me about the Vancouver fog in the 1940s. The fog, she says, was so thick that my grandfather would have to get out of the car to find the bridge so that they didn’t drive into the Fraser River. You literally could not see the hand in front of your face.
I’m not an air quality expert, but this photo from the City of Vancouver archives (1936) of the sawmills on False Creek tells a large part of the story. In weather conditions like today, the pollution would exacerbate the fog. Add to that home heating – people burned coal and wood to heat their homes. Despite the huge increase in population over the years, natural gas and electricity have led to huge improvements in air quality.
Which leads me to the story of the Vancouver fog and the future prime minister. Round about the time my mother was sitting in the car waiting for my grandfather to find the bridge, John Turner was attending the University of British Columbia. He was a phenomenon. The phrase “Big Man on Campus” was probably invented for him. Paul Litt’s biography of Turner, Elusive Destiny, chronicles his early years at UBC and his triumphs in academia, sports, and student life. He was awarded a Rhodes scholarship upon graduating from UBC.
According to the UBC Sports Hall of Fame, Turner was one of the three fastest men in Canada between 1947 and 1949. He led UBC to two Pacific Northwest Conference track championships and his Canadian-best in the 100 and 200 yards qualified him for Canada’s 1948 Olympic team. In June of 1947, at a track meet in Seattle, Turner recorded the fastest time by a Canadian in the 100 yard dash, covering the distance in a UBC record 9.8 seconds.
What does this have to do with fog?
In 1948, at the peak of his athletic career, Turner was on his way home from attending a football game in Bellingham. He lived near UBC on Vancouver’s west side. Paul Litt tells the story in Elusive Destiny:
As they passed over a level crossing on Arbutus Street in Vancouver, a train appeared out of the heavy fog. “We were lucky we were only hit in the front of the car and not in midship,” Turner recalled. “I saw this light coming out of nowhere and was able to turn and roll with the train as it hit us.” The train was not moving rapidly, but it still drove the car a hundred feet down the track. Turner’s left knee was smashed. Surgeons were able to piece it back together, but his leg muscles atrophied as he waited for the bone to heal. By the time he could run again, it was too late to train for the Olympic trials in Vancouver that June. He showed up anyway and gave it a shot, but his knee gave way and he collapsed on the track.
The Vancouver fog dealt a punishing blow to Turner’s Olympic hopes, but he would go on to have an outstanding career in politics and serve as prime minister – and the first PM with a British Columbia pedigree. He represented Vancouver-Quadra for 9 years and must have cursed the Arbutus Line every time he crossed it.
So, enjoy the fog today, it’s not as bad as it used to be. And while the trains may be gone, watch out for those bikes on the Arbutus corridor!