The Seawall and the man who built it
By Greg Waldock, Staff Writer
The Seawall is one of Vancouver’s most impressive attractions, measuring 30 kilometers of solid construction and well-crafted stonework lining one of the largest urban parks in the world. It offers a wide view of the ocean, the woods, and downtown Vancouver all on one long walk. It even doubles as erosion protection for the park and waterfront it encompasses. Surprisingly, given its usefulness and size, this massive accomplishment almost didn’t happen—it’s only thanks to the singular obsession of one man that it we can enjoy its existence today. James “Jimmy” Cunningham is Vancouver’s unsung hero.
Cunningham was a Scottish mason who came to Vancouver in 1910, honing his skills and gaining political acumen by working on n ever-growing UBC campus, as well as many hotels across the province. When the idea of building a large wall to protect the rapidly-eroding Stanley Park was floated around city hall, Cunningham took the initiative and became head of the project. He would direct the construction of the Seawall starting in 1917 and resigned in 1955. Even after three decades of work, he still showed up to the site to oversee construction until his death in 1963.
Work on the Seawall was long and arduous. Federal and provincial funding was never fully secure despite the enormous risk erosion posed to Stanley Park, so the struggle to keep the project going never ceased. Construction happened in tiny bursts over the course of those three decades, but Jimmy Cunningham never quit or slowed himself down. Brick after brick, he oversaw it all and kept the quality high. His hard work paid dividends for Vancouver—the seawall is extremely sturdy, which makes it a standout in a city that has a history plagued by construction issues.
Sadly, Cunningham didn’t live to see the completion of the Seawall in 1971. He passed away eight years earlier, and his ashes were placed into the wall he’d spent a third of his life building. His wife’s were placed next to his upon her own death.
Today, the Vancouver Seawall is the busiest part of Stanley Park and an iconic walk to get the full Vancouver experience: Forest, ocean, and city. Its long cycling routes encourage a healthier lifestyle and the busts and plaques along the perimeter commemorate Vancouver’s history and heroes. One of these plaques is on the wall near Siwash Rock, marking the spot where Jimmy Cunningham and his wife lay interred. It is easy to appreciate the Seawall as an impressive work of masonry or as a gorgeous tourist attraction, but it should also be remembered for how Cunningham saw it—a three decade-long labour of love by a man inspired by his city.