The Missing Elevator Operators of Vancouver

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Angus McIntyre recently sent me some photos that he’d taken of operator-run elevators in the 1970s from buildings such as  Woodwards, the Bay and BC Electric. I told him that I wanted to write a blog based on his photos, then I realized that it should be Angus who writes that story.

Elevator operators
Operators in the Marine Buildings. CVA 677-915, ca.1972

By Angus McIntyre

“Going up, she said,” is the opening line in the 1970’s pop song Heaven on the 7th Floor about a tryst between a female elevator operator and a male passenger. At that time, you could ride on some 40 elevators in Vancouver that were operated by men and women. Vancouver City Hall, the Hotel Vancouver and all the department stores had elevator operators in the early 1970s. Most large American cities had already automated most of their lifts, but Vancouver did not start in earnest until later.

Elevator operators in Vancouver
The last day of manually operated elevators for Woodwards. Angus McIntyre photo, January 4, 1975

My interest in both horizontal and vertical movement of people started at an early age, and I was always fascinated with electric streetcars and trolleybuses. We lived in Windsor, Ontario, in the 1950s, and visits to Hudson’s, Detroit’s huge department store, were always a treat. There were dozens of elevators, all run by uniformed staff with white gloves, with a senior operator known as a “Starter” to keep things moving. In 1958 our family moved to Geelong, a city near Melbourne, Australia. One of the department stores had a manual elevator, and I became friends with the operator. I was in grade 7, and would sometimes visit after school. She showed me the mechanics of the lift, and how it all worked.

Vancouver's elevator operators
Eaton’s at Hastings and Richards Streets. Angus McIntyre photo early 1970s

Our family moved to Vancouver in 1965, and soon I found many buildings with elevator operators. Woodward’s on Hastings Street had a set of manual elevators in the centre of the store. The Starter stood at an information booth on the main concourse near the lifts, and she had a set of castanets. When she saw that a car was full, she would signal the operator with a “clack-clack”, the gate would slide across and the doors would close. The sound could be heard above the busiest crowds on $1.49 Day. Since there were windows in the doors, you could see all the people inside as the car ascended.

Vancouver Elevator operators
BC Electric Building, 425 Carrall Street. Angus McIntyre photo, early 1970s

The old B.C. Electric Building on Carrall Street had elevators that ran on 600 volts Direct Current, sourced from the trolleybus system. About a dozen downtown buildings were wired into the trolley system, so if there were a trolley power failure people would be stuck in the elevators. The last building to use such power was the Sylvia Hotel, converted in the 1980s.

Vancouver's elevator operators
Woodward’s. Angus McIntyre photo, early 1970s

There may be a few isolated manual elevators in Vancouver now, most likely for freight rather than people. New high-rise buildings often have the exterior construction elevator manually operated. A large downtown bank still requires an operator to take you to the safety deposit vault.

Vancouver's elevator operators
The Bay, Georgia and Granville. Angus McIntyre photo, early 1970s

If you want to see a large building with elevator operators today, you can visit Seattle’s iconic Smith Tower.

Vancouver Elevator operators
Eatons at Hastings and Richards Streets. Angus McIntyre photo, Early 1970s

© All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all blog content copyright Eve Lazarus.

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16 comments

  1. My Aunt Vi was an elevator operator at the downtown Eaton’s store in Vancouver for a time in the late 50’s and early 60’s. I recall she wore a uniform that had a nice pleated kilt – I thought she looked very glamorous!

  2. The Marine Building in Vancouver on the Corner of Hastings and Burrard street -355 Burrard –still has the original Elevator cars the building came with in the 30’s .With the Brass car doors and in laid tree wood of different tree species , it was an experience to ride in those cars .The control stand is still visible in the Lobby where the main operator would summon cars to each floors.I worked in that Building for a couple of years when the BC Forest Service had it’s Regional Headquarters there .

    Definitely worth a look at some real 1930-Art Deco Design with the whole building –the Lobby floor is also very impressive with its mosaic tile design.

  3. I worked at City Hall 1969-73 where there were elevator operators. A sweet older woman named Rose, and a much younger woman, my age, 21-ish, whose name I don’t remember. I was a junior on a survey crew, position called Rodman, although the older guys called us rodboys. The young elevator op wanted to work on a survey crew but she wasn’t allowed cos she was a girl.

  4. The operator of the elevator in the Hotel Vancouver would, at times, take off quickly, on the long ride to the Roof. The feeling in the pit of your stomach was a bit like taking off in the jets of the day.

  5. My sister Connie was an elevator operator in the Sun Building for many years. She made many friends from the people who worked in the building.

    1. I worked at the Sun Building in the early 70’s. I remember one girl there…yes very friendly. I don’t remember her name probably was Connie

  6. My mother was an elevator operator at the Marine Bldg and that is where my mother and father met and fell in love. Special memories.

  7. I loved the old style elevators that some apartments and hotels had,with the iron gate,that you could stop and see graffiti written on a wall.The old Dominion store on Main st had one,as well as the Lee building.

  8. My Mom was an operator for many downtown builndings such as the Sun building, Marine Building, VGH and several in Gastown in the 50s and 60s

  9. Hello,
    Thank you for your fascinating blog and photos. I am an enormous fan of “vintage” operator-driven elevators, particularly those in department stores, and have been since childhood (long time ago). I have many memories of shopping with my Mom in the big downtown Vancouver department stores and recall many rides on the old cage-style elevator cars in Eaton’s and Woodward’s, as well as the more modern cars at The Bay. Woodward’s at one time had one incredibly old car. I always wonder if it had originated in the original building and then been moved during one of the 1920s expansions, when the other older cars were added? Anyways it disappeared before the others too. Likely too old to maintain or just unsafe.
    Later I lived awhile in Edmonton, where Woodward’s old store also had five operator driven elevators, two in particular with glass doors and gates. I was ad to see that store demolished.
    Cheers!

    PS I look forward to any other photos you or others have to share!

  10. My dad was an elevator operator at the Belmont Bldg in Victoria – all the operators were war amputees at the time. I have faint memories of him showing me how when someone buzzed for the lift, a small bar would pop out beside the floor number and which ever operator acknowledged it, would take off to that floor. All mechanical, which is pretty cool to think about now…

  11. I operated the Otis at the Hotel Vancouver in the summer of…1972?? Our uniforms were an ugly olive green and we wore white gloves. One of the guys had long hair, so he had to wear a wig! It was a repressive atmosphere, as we were discouraged from interecting with guests…or each other. Memorable guests were Arthur Ashe, ‘Flying’ Phil Giallardi and delegates of the Eckankar convention.

  12. I was an elevator operator at The Bay in downtown Vancouver during the summer of 1968, when I was a student at UBC. I loved the job! I started out working in Sporting Goods in the store. Then, someone asked me if I wanted to be an elevator operator instead. Duh! It was a glamorous job back then. We had very cool white dresses with stripes and I think we wore white gloves. They paid for us to have our hair done at The Bay beauty salon weekly. It was fun to ride up and down all day with interesting passengers. I even had Ed Ames as one of my passengers that summer! I often tell my grown kids and grandkids about what was probably the most unique job I ever had!

  13. It was pleasant to have a chat with operator. They also were a sort of unofficial guard. Judy, Nancy; I wonder if the constant changing pressure had any significant effects on your back. How long did it take to acclimate to the “ride” in the cab? = i.e. start with slower start & stop rate(s) and then increase them?

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