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Vancouver History: Joe Fortes

January 17th, 2008 @ 3:59pm (PT) by Rebecca Bollwitt

In 1986 he was named Vancouver’s “Citizen of the Century” and he was pretty much just a regular guy who happened to spend most of his time saving lives.

You’ve probably seen the restaurant that’s famous for its seafood and that yellow cab out front, and maybe you’ve been to the library named in his honour, but do most Vancouverites these days know much about the man Joe Fortes himself?


VPL Number: 21746. Photographer / Studio: Dominion Photo Co.

Joe Fortes was born in Barbados in 1865 and by way of Liverpool, England he ended up in Vancouver after surviving a shipwreck. He held many jobs – as a bartender, porter, shoeshine boy, etc. – but fell in love with English Bay and soon became Vancouver’s first self-appointed, un-paid lifeguard, living in a tent on the beach. Shortly thereafter he was given official lifeguard status and overlooked what soon became known as “Joe’s beach.” He would go on to teach hundreds of children to swim, to save over 100 lives and to become a legend and inspiration for the city.


(Left) 1910 – VPL Number: 39420. Photographer: White, J. Studio. (Right) 1918 – VPL Number: 649

… scarcely a tyke who was raised in Vancouver in the 1890’s or 1900’s but learned to swim with Joe’s ham-like fist gripping the back of his or her cotton bathing suit and that deep, mellow voice ordering, “Kick yo’feet, chile – kick yo’ feet.”…Mothers confidently shooed their children away to the bay for the long summer days with the simple command, ..’and don’t go away from where Joe is..’ ” [History of the West End]

In 1922 when he passed away his funeral at the Holy Rosary Cathedral was the most-attended to date in the city.


Photo credit: SqueakyMarmot on Flickr

The people in Vancouver held Joe in such high esteem that ever since 1926, when a memorial fountain was placed for him near English Bay, we’ve been naming things in his honour. He would later have a branch of the Vancouver Public Library (on Denman) named after him in 1976 and a famed oyster bar restaurant on Thurlow street would open in 1985, bearing his name one hundred years after he came to the city. In 2003 the National Film Board of Canada even produced an award-winning short film called, “Joe”.

The fountain depicted in the photo above resides in the West End’s Alexandra park. It’s the perfect height for youngster and on it is inscribed, “Little Children Loved Him.” Next time you pass by the fountain, the restaurant or the library, now you’ll know about this great man who changed the lives of many in Vancouver – from all walks of life, young and old.

Facts from this post were gathered with help from my favourite Vancouver history website, VancouverHistory.ca more can also be read on the Black Historical and Cultural Society’s website.

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21 comments

  1. Matt says:

    1865-1992? Wow, I’m going to take up swimming! :)

  2. Raul says:

    Thanks for writing such a wonderful historical review. I’d be happy to contribute as a guest blogger if you want me to do a history of Mount Pleasant (the neighbourhood where I live).

    :D

  3. Miss604 says:

    @Matt – oh geez, too many numbers to remember! Fixed it, 1922 was the year.

    @Raul – sure, anytime!

  4. Mel says:

    You probably mean the Holy Rosary Cathedral, not the Holy Rosemary Cathedral ;)

  5. Miss604 says:

    I just thought it was an older church that didn’t exist anymore :-P I got that from the English Bay website.

  6. what a GREAT story! thank you so much! i had no idea who joe fortes was … actually … psst (i hope no-one is listening) for the longest time i thought he was the guy who owned that restaurant

  7. […] outlining the story of Vancouver’s citizen of the century. There’s so much more to Joe Fortes than just an oyster bar. Her post even comes complete with a cryptic black-and-white […]

  8. Mitch says:

    I’ve heard lots of first hand stories about Joe Fortes, courtesy of my Grandma who learned how to swim because of him! He deserved the honour especially after the stories my Gram told of him.

    (in case you’re wondering…My gram was born in Vancouver, as was her Mom. In short, Iv’e got deep roots here!)

  9. Adelaide says:

    I only knew the name Joe Fortes as that restaurant (oyster bar) downtown. Doh!

  10. mom604 says:

    Mitch – Those are some of the most treasured memories. Stories related by grandparents and parents. Hold onto them, and remember them. Even write them down. (I didn’t, and I regret it now.)

  11. Mark says:

    Wow, I had no idea! Thx!

  12. […] another post of this nature based on how I was able to enlighten folks to the fact that there was much more to Joe Fortes than an oyster […]

  13. […] on the map in many different realms, from First Nations literary works, legendary hockey skills, to helping children learn to swim in English Bay. Vancouver’s history is made by its people, from many […]

  14. […] of picking the right private sector restaurant partner this time around. Considering the historal significance of this English Bay location, the obvious choices is Bud Kanke’s group. They’re […]

  15. Motiongroove says:

    Never Jore Fortes was a unpaid life guard, very cool post.

  16. Al Borthwick says:

    I was just talking to my mom (91) and she told me out of the blue that her dad’s company cut and produced the granite for the memorial fountain. They did not do the carving but all the granite work.

    I knew my grampa had done a lot of granite bases and construction in Vancouver but this is very exciting for me. I am now 64.

  17. jan says:

    I am producing a show on Joe Fortes and was at his 100th anniversary celebration a few weeks ago. I would like to contact anyone who may have information about him other than the generic info.

  18. […] Joe Fortes (lifeguard, hero, the Citizen of the Century) […]

  19. […] You can find a drinking fountain dedicated to Joe Fortes in the Park. Also, the original fountain outside the Vancouver Art Gallery was a tribute to King […]

  20. Jean says:

    I did not know Joe’s story either… thank you ~> great post! (PS excellent restaurant ~.~)

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