The heroic reporter
B.C.’s most-liked reporter has a bestseller—again
March 11th, 2014
Prior to Haunting Vancouver, Mike McCardell has already raised more than ninety grand for charity with his nine books. He has also told 9,000 human interest stories. Now the tireless TV journalist has a tenth fundraising volume.Some of the best writers don’t necessarily win prizes but they are the quiet heroes of the publishing world. They keep our history alive and they keep the book industry afloat because they make books that people want to own.
Chuck Davis was one such local hero. Ever-affable Mike McCardell is another.
Under an arrangement that McCardell brokered between Harbour Publishing and Global TV, over $90,000 generated by book sales has been donated to Variety, The Children’s Charity, as of 2013.
Hired by the Vancouver Sun in 1973 as a police beat reporter, Mike McCardell went on to work for BCTV (Global BC) in 1976 and has since produced more than 9,000 mostly “human interest” stories and ten books.
In his latest title to top the BC Bestseller List, Haunting Vancouver: A Nearly True History (Harbour $32.95), McCardell cheerfully revives tales of saloon-owner “Gassy” Jack Deighton (the inspiration for Gastown), The Penthouse nightclub and how Pauline Johnson named Lost Lagoon.
He also introduces beloved lifeguard Seraphim “Joe” Fortes, Vancouver’s first openly gay politician A.E.B. Davie and China-born Chang Toy who rebelled against racist city planners and built the famous Sam Kee Building in Chinatown, the narrowest commercial building in the world.
Fairly described as “a rollicking tour of Vancouver history,” this tenth tome is more than an amusing romp. With a consistent abhorrence of racism, McCardell has deftly crafted a clever and informative overview of the city by adopting the persona of an “accidental immortal,” Jock Linn.
McCardell clearly enjoys the artistic conceit he has adopted: His alter-ego Jock arrives with a detachment of British Army Royal Engineers in the 1850s, and dies in 1876. No problem. McCardell resurrects him as a time-travelling reporter with a shrewd sense of humour and a nose for fascinating facts.
McCardell, the former police reporter, is not averse to digging up a little dirt along the way. Always with a deft touch, never brazen, McCardell divulges, for instance, how and why the Canadian Pacific Railway line really got completed.
The real story of why John A. Macdonald partnered with the CPR to connect “sea to sea” is cited here in Jock’s seemingly innocuous piece about the locomotive called Engine 374…
Remembering ‘Old Chug-Along,’ Engine 374
By Mike McCardell
If you grew up in Vancouver anytime before Expo 86 and you went to Kitsilano Beach you probably climbed on that old locomotive in the parking lot.
It was Engine 374. You could see that engraved right in the front. It stood on rails that were just long enough for its wheels. It stood in the rain and the snow, and on any days when it was not raining or snowing it stood under the feet and fingers of kids who climbed all over it.
It was wonderful fun but it was falling apart; a sad ending for the steam engine that saved Canada.
I know everyone in school learned about the first spike and the last spike, and that the people in British Columbia were going to leave Canada if they did not have a train that connected them with the rest of the country, but did you know that the railway was almost not built?
It cost huge amounts of cash to build the longest train line in the world and the CPR had run out of money. William Van Horne wanted to keep going because his company was getting such a good deal. They were given twenty miles of land on both sides of the tracks all the way across the country in return for laying down the steel, but no matter how much money they were going to get they could not finish the project. The cash they had raised and borrowed and squeezed out of investors was gone. Most of the money they owed was borrowed from the Government of Canada, which means from the people. I was doing a series of stories on building the railroad when William Van Horne heard the news that they were broke.
“We can’t raise any more. We can’t borrow it. There must be something we can do.” Then he said to someone, “Give me that newspaper.”
He read the headlines and his eyebrows went up. There was a major rebellion going on in the territory of Saskatchewan. He had never been to Saskatchewan. The rebellious people were the Métis. He had heard about them, but he could not remember ever meeting one.
“That is the answer,” he said.
I could see his genius at work. He had a problem and he figured out a solution, even though the solution would be very bad for some people. “It says here in the newspaper that the government will have great difficulty putting down this rebellion because they can’t get troops there.”
“I will get them there,” he said.
The only problem was the tracks going near a place that would later be called Winnipeg were not yet finished and those that were in place had never been tested.
“Finish them,” he said.
If you think Canada never had a king you are only technically right. It had William Van Horne, an American, who acted as though he had a crown.
The tracks were finished within a few days and Van Horne told the prime minister to send his army on the new troop train to Saskatchewan. He did, and in a record nine days the guns of the government were there.
Poor Louis Riel, who had led the rebellion, was hanged for treason in 1885. That was not a good ending for him, but the Canadian government was so thankful to Van Horne that all the debt he owed the government was forgiven. That part of the history of the CPR is written in small print.
There is another part of the building of the railroad that is not in the headlines of the CPR history. I was on the line when the work was being done and this is not something you joke about.
The white men who worked on the railroad were getting between $1 and $2.50 a day. Out of that they had to pay for their own food, their clothing, their medical care and their transportation from wherever they slept to where they were working. Rotten conditions.
Van Horne was not in the business of charity.
After a hundred non-stop days of back-breaking work (they had no days off) they were lucky if they had fifteen dollars left over.
Tough. But the Chinese who worked alongside the whites were paid half those wages. It was basically the same as being black in Alabama in the 1930s. About half the workers were Chinese, so Van Horne was making a big saving there.
At the end of a hundred days they had only a few dollars to send back to their families in China, which was the reason they had left home and travelled across an ocean to come here.
But there were other problems with being Chinese. If there was dynamite to be put into a cave to blow it up to make a tunnel, guess whose job that was? If you had to climb out over a cliff to string a cable, guess whose job that was? And if you were killed, the officials of the railroad would not inform your family. They would tell the other Chinese to bury you alongside the tracks and forget you.
As for the young boys who were Chinese, well, someone had to hold the spikes while someone else with a twenty-pound sledgehammer would lift that hammer up high and then come slamming down with all his might. Usually they hit the spike, but not always.
What I really enjoy nowadays is to report on the computer science and economics classes at the universities, which are almost all filled with Chinese students.
I’m supposed to be impartial but I like to say, “Right on.” Anyway, the train that made the people in the west happy and kept them in Canada reached Vancouver on May 23, 1887. At the front of it was Engine 374. That same engine is now in the Roundhouse Community Centre in Yaletown. It is the same engine that was at Kits Beach. But now you can go to the Roundhouse and climb up to where the engineer and fireman worked. You will not only be touching the past, you can touch your own past and pretend you are a kid again.
If I were a history teacher I would teach all my classes beside the train.
McCardell: A brief bio
Mike McCardell was born in New York City in 1944.
His first memoir Chasing the Story God starts with McCardell’s youth in a New York high school where he spent most of his time daydreaming. “I was not as good with prepositions as I was with clouds,” he admits. Perpetually in the detention room, he started reading New York’s Daily News. “I was fascinated by stories of criminals with names like Two Finger Maloney and crime bosses who had more power than the mayor without having to worry about votes.” To celebrate her son’s graduation, McCardell’s mother bought a six-pack of beer and two sandwiches of ham on rye. She asked him what he wanted to be. “I want to be a reporter,” he answered. She gave him a subway token. Her solution was simple. “Go to a newspaper,” she instructed. The New York Times offered McCardell a job as an outdoor messenger. The Daily News offered him a job as an indoor messenger. “It was winter,” he recalls. “Winter in New York is cold. I took the indoor job, and stayed at the Daily News for eleven years.”
McCardell got married and worked his way out of the mailroom. He became a copy boy on the night shift, where he changed typewriter ribbons, sharpened pencils and got beer for the reporters after the bars had closed. He also learned how to get the reporters’ film back to the newsroom faster than a taxi. “…A good copy boy would use a variety of back streets, subways and rides bummed on garbage trucks to deliver the film while the taxi was still stuck in traffic.” Spending countless nights getting beer at three a.m., hanging around police stations and outside burning buildings, McCardell developed a skewed view of life. “By the time I was twenty I thought the entire world was made up of crooks and firemen and taxi drivers and illegal beer merchants.”
After a stint in the U.S. Air Force, where he fought insects on golf courses with DDT, McCardell went back to school. He raised two kids with his wife Valerie, while juggling school and a night job. He did his homework in police stations and newsrooms, surrounded by crime reporters. One night he found himself studying outside a rioting prison, where the guards had been taken hostage. This was the Attica prison riot of 1970. At three a.m., McCardell and four other reporters volunteered to go inside. They were led through a black steel door and into a dimly lit concrete tunnel. The door was closed behind them. At the other end of the tunnel a second door was opened. “We stepped inside and were hit like a two-fisted punch by the smell. It made us gag… The stink of excrement and urine had replaced the air. I forced myself to breathe through my nose.” After asking the hostages a few brief questions, the reporters were led back outside. The next night, McCardell was back at the same prison. This time, prison guards with heavy jackets, nightsticks, football helmets and shields made of tabletops arrived by the carload. They were going to free their fellow guards. McCardell walked around to the back of the prison. He climbed to the fourth floor of a factory to see into the prison courtyard.
McCardell witnessed the following scene after the guards had quickly defeated the inmates: “Two rows of guards, about thirty in all, stood in parallel lines in the exercise yard… They held clubs. The rear door of the prison opened and an inmate was pushed out. He was hit on the back with a club. He went down, then was picked up and hit again. He fell, but was pulled to his feet and was forced to walk between the rows of guards. When he fell again he was beaten. When he got to his feet, trying to protect his head with his arms, he was beaten on his ribs… Even from where I was I could see he was drenched in blood… I could only watch as bloodied, limp prisoners were thrown into a pile.” Back at the newsroom, McCardell had the story but no photos – until the bell on the wire photo machine began to ring. “Pictures of what I had described were coming out of the machine,” he recalls. “I did not know that one floor below me in the factory, an Associated Press photographer had been at work.” Photos of the beatings spilled from the machine. “In a scene straight out of Hollywood, one of the editors said to me, ‘Write your story, kid.’”
Eventually he tired of the violence that seemed to pervade New York, and moved to B.C. to “trade gun smoke for fresh air.” He was hired from afar by the Vancouver Sun in 1973, and began by covering the police beat out of police headquarters. In 1976 he started work with BCTV, which later became Global BC. During his long tenure, he has produced more than 9,000 mostly ‘human interest’ stories.
McCardell’s second memoir of “Socratic vignettes,” Back Alley Reporter, shares his appreciation for eccentric characters and his frequently heartwarming views of everyday life. It was followed by The Blue Flames that Keep Us Warm: Mike McCardell’s Favourite Stories (Harbour 2007), shortlisted for the BC Booksellers Choice Award. It frequently appeared atop the BC Bestsellers list in 2008, when he released Getting to the Bubble: Finding Magic Amid the Urban Roar. In that book he describes meeting an austistic nine-year-old boy named Reilly who had an unshakeable faith that he would be able to catch a fish in a polluted urban pond by using just a stick and a piece of string. McCardell extrapolated from that metaphor of hope for a heartwarming, how-to book about enjoying life more, The Expanded Reilly Method (2009) in which “it is never quite clear whether the author truly feels he has found a harmonious new approach to living or if he is doing a send-up for the self-help industry exemplified by Dr. Phil and Wayne Dyer.” Here’s Mike: With Junkyard Granny, Whistling Bernie Smith, the Robertson Screwdriver, Pancakes and Eternal Truth is a compendium of McCardell’s favourite stories from the thousands of television tales he has shared at the close of Global TV’s six o’clock News Hour.
Engine 374 pulled the first passenger train into Vancouver on May 23, 1887. Had it not been for that engine chugging into the city the citizens would probably have voted to join the US.
Photo by Major James Skitt Matthews, City of Vancouver Archives AM54-S4-: Can P6
According to Mike McCardell’s narrator: “I got to witness the construction of a bridge for the Canadian Pacific Railway in the late 1800s. Chinese workers were given the most dangerous jobs. Despite the prejudice against them, their work helped the railroad company build something that was nearly impossible.”
Royal BC Museum, BC Archives D-01440.jpg
MCCARDELL WITH TRAIN PHOTO (black & white – big)
After it famously reached Vancouver on May 23, 1887, Engine 374 was on display for decades at Kitsilano Beach. It’s now housed in the Roundhouse Community Centre in Vancouver’s Yaletown district.
MCCARDELL WITH JUNK CAR PHOTO
Mike McCardell traded “gun smoke for fresh air” when he came to Vancouver in 1973.
Chasing the Story God (Harbour, 2001). 1-55017-248-4 $32.95.
Back Alley Reporter (Harbour, 2002). 1-55017-294-8 $32.95.
The Blue Flames that Keep Us Warm: Mike McCardell’s Favourite Stories (Harbour, 2007) 978-1-55017-440-3 $32.95.
Getting to the Bubble: Finding Magic Amid the Urban Roar. (Harbour, 2008) 978-1-55017-443-4 $32.95.
Back Alley Reporter (Harbour, 2009). 978-1-55017-480-9 $32.95.
The Expanded Reilly Method. (Harbour, 2009) 978-1-55017-500-4 $34.95.
Everything Works (Harbour, 2010) 978-1-55017-512-7 $32.95.
Here’s Mike: With Junkyard Granny, Whistling Bernie Smith, the Robertson Screwdriver, Pancakes and Eternal Truth (Harbour 2011) 9781550175622
Unlikely Love Stories (Harbour, 2012) 978-1-55017-563-9 $32.95
Haunting Vancouver: A Nearly True History (Harbour 2013) 9781550176063 $32.95