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World & Nation

On the Ground: More than a century later, Vancouver cannon continues its nightly fire

The Vancouver cannon firing calls for a paper sack containing a pound and a half of gunpowder, which is placed in the cannon barrel and lighted with an electronic match connected to a timer.
(Kevin Baxter / Los Angeles Times)

Stanley Park, which wraps around Vancouver’s Coal Harbor like a warm hug, is one of the most scenic and peaceful spots in Canada.

Until 9 o’clock.

“If you were standing right here when the gun goes off,” says David John Waine, “you wouldn’t hear for a week.”

Waine is referring to the 19th century cannon he has tended for 22 years. For Waine and other locals, the angry retort is strangely comforting.

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“When it doesn’t go off, we certainly hear about it,” says Brian Quinn, Vancouver’s manager of parks operations. “It is part of what Vancouver is.”

It’s certainly older than Vancouver: The gun, which is aimed at the bay-side convention center, was cast more than half a century before the city began to take shape. And it has been firing on Vancouver since 1898, 12 years after the first mayor took office.

Over the years it’s been stolen, vandalized, even struck by lightning. One year it nearly sank an unarmed fuel barge. But it’s fallen silent for an extended period just once, during World War II, when the city feared residents might mistake the cannon’s roar for a Japanese attack.

As for how and why the cannon wound up at Brockton Point, no one is sure, says Sarah Kirby-Yung, chairwoman of the Vancouver park board. “There are different stories, but I don’t think there is a definitive history that says exactly what it was,” she says.

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The most-accepted tale claims the cannon, gifted to Canada by the British government in 1856, was one of three naval guns brought around Cape Horn to British Columbia. The other two were mounted as decorative pieces in front of the legislative building in Victoria before being melted down in 1940.

The Stanley Park gun escaped that fiery fate because it had proved an invaluable aid for sailors, first to mark the 6 p.m. curfew for salmon fishermen, then to help mariners set their chronometers — vital information for skippers navigating the tides separating the harbor from English Bay.

Before the cannon, a lighthouse keeper would light a stick of dynamite attached to a fishing line and cast it over the water each night. The sound of the dynamite could be faint, however, especially on windy or stormy nights. Cannon blasts provided a more efficient, not to mention safer, way of marking time.

Ship’s chronometers eventually improved to the point at which a nightly recalibration wasn’t needed. And that’s when parents stepped in, using the 9 o’clock gun to mark summer curfews.

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“When I was younger, after the gun went off, I had 10 minutes to get home,” Waine remembers.

Cellphones call kids home now. Yet Vancouver still fires its cannon.

“It serves more than timekeeping,” Kirby-Yung says. “I think it serves a message of tradition. There’s very few things that have been happening in any city since 1898.”

The tradition isn’t unique to Vancouver, though. If anything, the Canadians came late to the party. Cape Town, South Africa, has been shooting off its noon gun since 1806, and Hong Kong’s noonday cannons first began firing in the 1860s, about the time a similar tradition took hold in Edinburgh, Scotland. Even the Gric cannon in Zagreb, Croatia, is older, having first been used as a timekeeping device in 1877.

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But the Stanley Park gun has a rich history.

It was forged outside London in 1816 during the reign of King George III, whose crest graces the barrel. According to the late historian Chuck Davis, there’s no evidence it was fired in anger, but the cannon was deployed to protect coal miners from restless native tribes and later in a saber-rattling showdown with the U.S. over placement of the international border.

The gun was then retired from military duty and placed in Stanley Park, where it is now under of the care of Waine.

With his white beard and mustache and a shock of unruly shoulder-length white hair, the 61-year-old Waine looks a little like a cross between Santa Claus and Jerry Garcia, with prescription glasses. But his penchant for dressing all in black often gets him mistaken for another celebrity.

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“People ask me if I’m Kenny Rogers,” he says.

On a recent Saturday morning, Waine parks his aging white Dodge pickup near a bike path running behind the cannon and grabs a paper sack containing a pound and a half of gunpowder. After placing the sack in the cannon’s barrel, he shoves it into position with a wooden rammer and drops one end of an electronic match into the gunpowder. He attaches the other end of the foot-long match to a timer.

But Waine, who signs his emails “Keeper of the 9 O’Clock Gun,” is more than just the cannon’s volunteer caretaker. He’s also the gun’s unofficial spokesman, biggest fan and chief storyteller, rattling off tales with a well-practiced cadence.

There’s the one about the boy who jammed a fist-size stone into the muzzle. When the gun fired, the rock shot across the harbor and struck an Esso fuel platform. The barge was moved slightly to one side after that incident.

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Or the time the gun was stolen by engineering students from the University of British Columbia — a considerable feat of engineering given that the gun weighs 1,500 pounds. Upon its return, the gun was encased in a stone and metal cage — for its protection as well as that of unsuspecting fuel barges.

But that didn’t deter another group of UBC students, who broke into the cage eight years ago and painted the gun red.

Waine’s favorite story is another from his youth. Back then local boys would take their dates on a carefully timed romantic walk along the waterfront.

“The gun goes off and your date jumps into your arms,” Waine says with a chuckle. “I’ve seen it happen.”

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It won’t happen anymore. Now a red warning light flashes and an alarm buzzes for 10 seconds before the gun discharges.

That hasn’t totally eliminated the element of surprise, though, because the alarm can’t be heard in the restaurants and tourist hotels lining the other side of the harbor. But the cannon can be, and its blast can be unnerving in the era of terrorist bombings.

And for that, Quinn, the manager of park operations, apologizes.

“I’ve never considered that,” he says.

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Nor, he says, has anyone considered silencing the gun.

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