On Will Woods’ walking tour, you won’t hear about venerable town fathers or the architectural details of heritage buildings.
Instead, you’ll be ushered into the seedy world of speakeasies, risqué cabarets and opium dens that characterized Vancouver’s prohibition era, from 1917 to 1921.
“Men sitting round ramshackle wooden tables, drinking, playing cards, some men so drunk they’re just lying passed out on the floor,” says Woods on a tour last month, describing an underground drinking den. “Prostitutes lurking in the corners. These places were not for the faint of heart.”
The 32-year-old tour guide has turned his passion for history into a profession. Starting at Holy Rosary Cathedral, Woods leads walking tours that delve into the some of the city’s more unsavoury history. It was a time when both the mafia and the mayor had a hand in one of the most profitable—and very illegal—businesses in town.
To create his Forbidden Vancouver tour, which launched this May, the history buff spent hours in the Vancouver Public Library researching the city’s history. He also took acting lessons to learn how to spin a good yarn and make himself heard above the hubbub of city streets.
“I figured if I was going to be leading a group of people and entertaining them and doing this in a theatrical way, I needed to get some experience,” says Woods.
The theatrical character Woods has adopted is an out-of-work reporter who’s been kicked out of the newsroom for digging a little too deep. The 90-minute tour route winds its way through Gastown and Chinatown, making stops on street corners and in alleys and shop doorways. Using historical photographs to illustrate his stories, Woods paints a compelling portrait of B.C.’s grand experiment with banning liquor.
Local history has always been a passion for Woods, but until this February it was only a hobby. That’s when Woods left his job at an accounting firm to start his small business.
He was inspired by other walking tours such as Seattle’s Underground Tour and the Edinburgh ghost tour. “These are successful businesses but they’re a fabulous job, really entertaining and educating people about their cities,” Woods says.
While his tours are now attended by a mix of tourists and locals, Woods originally designed the content for Vancouverites. It’s not just something to do when your mother-in-law is in town—you’re guaranteed to learn something new about your own city, Woods says.
The tour guide has also teamed up with Courier contributor Aaron Chapman to offer more noirish tours of Granville Street landmarks like the Penthouse, the Orpheum and the Vogue. Arsenal Pulp Press will publish Chapman’s book Liquor, Lust, and the Law: The Story of Vancouver’s Legendary Penthouse this fall.
Forbidden Vancouver tours run Wednesday, Friday and Saturday evenings, departing from Cathedral Square opposite Cathedral Dunsmuir and Richards. For more information, visit forbiddenvancouver.ca.