John Deighton (The Legendary Gassy Jack Deighton)

John Deighton was born in Hull on the 7th November 1830, the son of Richard Deighton, a native of Escrick near York, and his wife Jane who came from Sand Hutton. Richard and his wife had settled in Hull and owned a couple of small businesses in the town, one was a dyers and the other a small drapers shop. John – known to all and sundry as Jack – was the last of their eight children, one of whom had died in infancy, and he may well have been born above their business premises down Brook Street, now close to the Prospect Centre.

Statue of Gassy Jack, Founder of Gastown, a historic neighbourhood of Vancouver
©Lori Henry

Jack’s two older brothers, Thomas and Richard, attended school at Trinity House before going to sea and both eventually obtained their master’s certificates. He followed them offshore at the age of fourteen and later worked on American ships. Whilst in New York, he joined the clipper, Invincible, for a voyage to San Francisco but soon became infected with the Gold Fever still sweeping the United States. Jack tried his hand at prospecting in California, although probably sometime after its peak in 1849, and then afterwards joined the 1858 Fraser Canyon Gold Rush in New Caledonia (now British Columbia). He was probably amongst the 27,000 men who left California for the Fraser River in 1858. Like many of his fellow prospectors, he failed to make his fortune from gold. Disillusioned, he turned back to the water for a time, becoming a skilled pilot on the Fraser River and soon made his reputation as a good navigator and capable steam boat man. Yet the lure of gold remained strong and in 1862, he could not resist trying his hand once more at prospecting in the Cariboo Gold Rush. He fared little better at this and by 1865 had married a local Indian and was dividing his time between running the Globe Saloon in the settlement of New Westminster on Vancouver Island and piloting a Fraser River paddle steamer. After one prolonged spell on the river, however, he returned to New Westminster in 1867 to find that his caretaker manager had disappeared leaving his saloon business bankrupt.

Undaunted, he gathered up his few remaining possessions and left New Westminster. Legend has it that he set off in a canoe with his wife, her mother, an Indian cousin called Big William who did most of the paddling. Jack also took his yellow dog with them but was down to his last six dollars and final barrel of whisky which he stowed aboard. He set his sights on the Burrard Inlet, near the mouth of the Fraser. A timber industry was developing in the vicinity but there was no town nearby, let alone a saloon, and the lumberjacks and sawmill workers had to travel more than thirty miles to slake their thirsts. On landing, he persuaded a group of workers at a local sawmill to help him build a saloon in return for generous helpings from his whisky barrel. They erected a makeshift board and batten shack, measuring twelve by twenty four feet in little more than a day. Jack named it the Globe, after his old place in New Westminster, and the little saloon soon proved exceedingly popular, as did its voluble owner who regaled all who visited with his adventures and stories – gassy is, of course, a Victorian term for talkative. Jack had chosen well and although this was initially a wild spot, a small settlement soon grew up around his saloon. This township was soon officially called Granville in 1870, after the Earl Granville the Colonial Secretary, but everyone knew it as Gastown.

Increasing prosperity meant Jack was also able to build a hotel, known as Deighton House, but soon afterwards his wife became ill and eventually died. Before she passed away, however, she arranged for him to marry her niece, Qua-hail-ya – or Madeleine. A year later she gave birth to their son, Richard. As the township expanded, it became somewhat of a lawless place and Jack Deighton was amongst those who successfully petitioned the region’s governor for the appointment of a police constable. Jack made at least one visit back to Hull, a few years after starting his life in North America and later, in 1873, his older brother Tom, brought his wife over from Hull to run the hotel. Jack left his business in their charge the following year whilst he returned to New Westminster for a spell. Here he took charge of the steamer, Onward, but by now his health was probably failing and he soon returned to Gastown.

On the evening of the 29th May 1875, legend has it that Jack’s mastiff began to howl. Later that night he died; he was only 44. His obituary in the region’s newspaper said his name was a household word and today he is still described as ‘the first and finest pilot on the Fraser’. Meanwhile, Gastown continued to grow, today it is the oldest part of the city of Vancouver and graced with a statue of the legendary Gassy Jack. Back in Hull, Jack’s mother, Elizabeth, outlived him by five years, dying in the parish of Myton at the age of ninety in 1880. His brother Tom returned to Hull and died at a relative’s house down Silver Street in 1887. Jack’s second wide Madeleine, outlived him by more than seventy four years, passing away as late as 1949 at the age of ninety. Such is the story of Gassy Jack Deighton, the founder of modern Vancouver.

Select Bibliography

R. Hull and O. Ruskin, Gastown’s Gassy Jack (Canada: Vancouver, 1971)

J. H. Marsh and D.Francis, New Beginnings: A Social History of Canada (Canada: McClelland & Stewart, 1982)

T. Snyders and J. O’Rourke, Namely Vancouver: A Hidden History of Vancouver Place Names (Canada: Vancouver, 2000)

On line references

Gastown’s Gassy Jack by Raymond Hull and Olga Ruskin