Distraction Free Reading

The Hastings Mill as Ecological Machine: Vancouver’s Origin Story

In Vancouver’s settler origin story, the city begins with a saw mill located in “primeval nature.” Living in the city as a student, I became interested in theories of the relation between economy and ecology, first studying forestry and working in the logging industry, then moving to graduate work in literature and science studies. The origin story of Vancouver stands out as a case study. The city combines an aesthetic regime (in architecture, tourism branding, and so on) focused on proximity to nature with an origin story that goes back to a single sawmill.

Panorama of the Hastings Mill

Image: Panorama of the Hastings Mill. Source: City of Vancouver Archive (Public Domain).

For centuries, mills have been technologies at the threshold of ecologic and economic systems, transforming resources into commodities with exchange value. But much research into mills and other sites of industrial processing considers them only as production machines—not as mediators, in Bruno Latour’s sense, that affect how we conceive the nature/economy difference in the first place. In Capital I, Marx writes that “technology reveals the active relation of man to nature.”[1] Is he right? Do what we call humanity and what we call nature exist prior to technologies such as mills, which we define based on their ability to transform nonhuman things into human things? Is communication about nature and society—currently in flux in debates over the Anthropocene and climate change—determined by such technological infrastructure, or does communication move machines into place? These are some of the questions that my case study grounds in Vancouver’s colonial origin story.

Historical narratives about Vancouver often focus on its sudden, explosive growth from rainforest to city, as one of the youngest major cities in the world. Vancouver brands itself as a nature metropolis offering panoramic vistas and windows (consider the advertising campaigns for the 2010 Olympics). Ethel Wilson’s story “The Window” makes this point well.[2] In the story, one of Vancouver’s new male homeowners becomes obsessed with his wall-sized window and with showing off his view. Wilson’s satire, with its uncomfortably long passages about the window, now works as a comment on Vancouver’s spatial history and 2010 Olympics branding alike. In architecture, Vancouverism is a design principle that maximizes both the number of panoramic views per building and the amount of space each condominium devotes to windows. All of this is to say that Vancouver’s geographic location and its economy (and certain histories of romanticism) make the city into a large-scale aesthetic machine that polarizes nature and society in ways less apparent elsewhere.

Archival Apparatus

The history of Vancouver goes back to the Hastings Mill, constructed between 1865 and 1867 on the south shore of Burrard Inlet. The mill was a project of Edward Stamp, a mediocre (by archival accounts) London capitalist. As you might expect, many of the early documents used by historians to reconstruct Vancouver’s short settler history treat the city as though it were constructed in a primeval rainforest, free from social inscription. But there had been a Salish city around the site of the mill (a trade center for the west coast) for thousands of years.

In order to study the Hastings Mill, and despite being a literary scholar, I’m doing fieldwork. But it’s a strange kind of fieldwork designed to observe something that vanished in 1930. All that’s available now is the site of the absent mill and its memory traces. The mill is distributed across the city in texts that include monuments, archival originals, museums, street signs, poetry, and fiction. Perhaps the best way to approach the city’s origin narrative is as what Foucault calls an apparatus or dispositif, a network connecting linguistic and non-linguistic elements, instead of conceiving the origin as a timeline. If an origin narrative collects and synthesizes texts, my approach would be to study their distribution and how they refer to each other across urban space. Locally significant texts that they are, their meaning depends on an apparatus that encompasses sites such as that of the absent mill itself, roads and survey lines, certain trees, architectural styles. The point of making my case study field-based is to understand the origin not as narrative or representation, but as site-specific traces still legible in the twentieth-first century. This way I’m able to move through the city, following the references from one element of the apparatus to another.

The granite Hastings Mill monument sits hidden at the foot of Dunlevy Street, behind a longshoreman’s building and next to the fence that separates the public from the port since 2001. The monument went up in 1966. The sculpture takes the form of an abstract anchor with three sides, each of which is a medium of inscription. The inscriptions read:

On July 25, 1867 the vessel Siam left Stamp’s Mill with lumber for Australia, thus beginning Vancouver’s prime function: to supply her great timbers to the world. And from whatever land we came to settle here, we are the heirs and debtors of that first mill.

Before 1865 magnificent Douglas Firs and Western Red Cedars towered above these beaches—some of the finest timber the world has ever seen. Handloggers with their oxen and horses drew the logs over the winding skid roads to the sea. From New Westminster to the tip of Point Grey, to Stanley Park, and all that lay between the forests fed the mill.

Hastings Mill, 1865-1928: Built by Captain E. Stamp Hastings Mill as it came to be known fostered the settlement that grew to be Vancouver. Its roar was the pulse of Gastown, its waste burner was a navigational beacon for the harbour. Stamp, Raymur, Alexander, Hendry, and Hamber in turn guide its operations, at all times a vital force in the community and in the establishment of the province’s forest industry.

In this encomium to a machine, the mill figures as the heart (“pulse”) of Vancouver and as its reproductive organ. As in the nature/society polarity crystallized by Ethel Wilson’s story and the 2010 brand machine, the firs and cedars from “before 1865” feed the mill, which parentally “fostered” the settlement that grew to be Vancouver. Nature (here Musqueam and Squamish society vanish) yields to society through the agency of the mill. The inscriptions situate the Hastings Mill in the middle of things, “the first mill,” responsible for the city. The monument interpellates its reader with the first person plural. If “we” as readers are heirs of the mill, the mill retroactively takes on agency and “vital force.”

Hastings Mill commemorative monument

Image: Hastings Mill commemorative monument. Photo by Mike Martin Wong.

Ecological Machine

Many approaches to the study of technology understand it as an instrumental extension of the human body or as an autonomous thing with a life of its own. Neither of these options (though the second is better) can see technology as an extension of its geographical context. In a recent exception, the media theorist Jussi Parikka approaches media as extensions of the earth, a reversal of Marshall McLuhan’s “extensions of man.” On this topic, there is something very useful in Gilbert Simondon’s reading of the Guimbal turbine—an heir of the watermill—in On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects.[3] Simondon’s account of the turbine hinges on the notion of the associated technogeographic milieu. The associated milieu is the emergent product of the relation between a technical system and its geographical context, reducible to neither: “the ‘natural’ milieu itself is found to be incorporated and functionally overdetermined.”[4] In this account, the Hastings Mill would have to be understood as an extension of its geography, not only as an imposition on “nature.” Different from smartphones and shovels, perhaps, mills (and we could add other power technologies and industrial plants) must adapt to their context to become situated, ecological machines.

In my archival research, I found evidence for this interpretation of the mill, among other places, in communications between Stamp and the colonial government in New Westminster. Stamp argues the need for a specific location:

I beg to remind you that when his Excellency Governor Seymour was at Victoria I then pointed out to you on a tracing from the official map of Burrard Inlet the exact spot marked on the tracing where I wished to place the Saw Mill and to purchase one hundred acres of land adjoining it; and at the same time stated that this was the only place I had found suitable to build a sawmill. [5]

Mills require a particular confluence of ecologic and economic forces, which is the case even after coal and oil loosen the geographical limitations of wind and water power—limitations which would return with a renewable energy regime. In order to make “Vancouver” (before the name) a viable economic site, the mill had to be located in a place that would allow geographical and ecological forces to participate in its operation. The Hastings Mill was steam-powered, but the most important consideration in building it was evidently a location that would combine proximity to timber resources and fresh water with an anchorage that could hold ships during loading.

To answer the questions with which I began, it would be worthwhile to study the origin stories of different cities in light of the problematic of my case study, using the same method. Colonial cities in regions that grew by resource extraction would no doubt show variations on the theme of Vancouver and the Hastings Mill. In each case, the spatial distribution of the archive in the city’s contemporary geography would set the conditions for understanding, in retrospect, the emergence of the technogeographic milieu. However hidden by historical change, this new milieu changes how we think ecology/economy difference in the abstract and experience it in aesthetic structures such as those that at work in Vancouver’s tourism and real estate brand.


[1] Marx, Karl 1990 [1867] Capital, Volume I. New York: Penguin: 493.

[2] Wilson, Ethel 1961 “The Window.” In Mrs. Golightly and Other Stories. Toronto: Macmillan.

[3] Simondon, Gilbert 1980 [1958] On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects. Ninian Mellamphy, trans. Unpublished translation available at http://english.duke.edu/uploads/assets/Simondon_MEOT_part_1.pdf, retrieved November, 2014.

[4] Stiegler, Bernard. 1998 [1994] Technics and Time, Vol. I. Richard Beardsworth and George Collins, trans. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

[5] Stamp, Edward 1865 “Letter to Colonial Secretary, New Westminster.” Hastings Mill Fond. Box 1, File 6. UBC Rare Books and Special Collections, Vancouver.

Derek Woods is a PhD candidate in English at Rice University. He studies twentieth century ecological culture in Canada and the United States. His recent essay “Scale Critique for the Anthropocene” appears in the minnesota review.

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