Joe Fortes

I wanted to publish this post last month, but I had to wait for a break in the rain so I could take the photo. And … well … I had to wait quite awhile. I finally got my chance last weekend.

This photo is of a fountain in Alexandra Park that stands facing English Bay Beach. The fountain was erected in honour of Joe Fortes. There’s also a popular downtown restaurant named after Joe Fortes, and the local branch of the Vancouver Public Library is named after him. If you live in Vancouver’s West End, eventually you’re going to ask (as I did), “Who’s this Joe Fortes guy they keep naming things after?”

Joe Fortes

Joe Fortes was born in Trinidad and Tobago in 1863, and he arrived in Vancouver, via England, in 1885. He first started up a shoeshine business, then worked as a bartender and a porter.

When he wasn’t working, he hung out at English Bay, acting as a volunteer lifeguard. In 1897, the city of Vancouver made his volunteer position official when he was put on the payroll as the city’s first lifeguard. He lived in a little cottage just above the beach on Bidwell Street, and is credited with saving more than a hundred people from drowning, and with teaching thousands of children how to swim.

When Joe Fortes died in 1922, his funeral was attended by the mayor, the chief of police, and thousands of Vancouver citizens ― the largest public funeral Vancouver had ever seen. There was also a moment of silence held in the city’s schools.

On February 1, 2013 (which is why I wanted to publish this post a month ago), Canada Post issued a stamp featuring Joe Fortes to commemorate Black History Month. Joe Fortes is an appropriate choice for this year’s stamp as 2013 is the 150th anniversary of the year of his birth.

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