It’s probably the most curious relic in West Vancouver’s archives, made only curiouser by the bizarre trajectory it’s taken to get there.
A whale’s tooth, carved into a gavel almost 100 years ago and used by the district’s reeve to chair council meetings, disappeared from the chambers for almost five decades, and has now, almost as mysteriously, reappeared.
On Christmas Eve 1925, Duchess Avenue resident Ewart Long gifted the gavel to the municipality after he’d heard council was in need of a new one.
“This, if properly used, will effectively and promptly settle any subject which may be out of hand or order,” Long wrote in his accompanying letter to council.
A rotting whale of a tale
The story is best told, though, from its beginning. Sometime in 1906 or 1907 (Long couldn’t remember which) a whale carcass washed ashore in Vancouver Harbour. Based on the tooth, it most likely was a sperm whale, which were more common in local waters at the turn of the century before being hunted nearly to extinction.
“[It] the caused the City of Vancouver Police Force no end of trouble in hooking onto the mammal and floating it out as far as Point Atkinson where it was set adrift only to be carried back to exactly the same spot off Deadman’s Island – the stench follow it,” Long wrote in another letter, which is now kept in the archives at Gertrude Lawson House.
Police attempted the same manoeuvre two more times, only to have the decaying cetacean return on the tides.
Not wanting to repeat the process a fourth time, they towed the rotting whale carcass back out to Howe Sound and used dynamite to blow it to smithereens.
One of those smithereens – a chunk of jawbone with some teeth still attached – washed up on Gambier Island, where someone happened upon it. They salvaged a couple of the teeth and passed one off to Long, who kept it as a souvenir, until deciding to bore a hole into it and lathe a handle, sometime in 1923.
Long specified that it was his Christmas gift to council when he handed it over two years later. The stench was gone by then, he made clear.
A tooth extraction
The gavel stayed in service through various reeves and mayors. As a symbol of power, it was often featured in the official portraits of council for decades. Then, sometime after the Dec. 1, 1975, council meeting, it vanished.
The municipality put a notice in the newspaper saying they’d like the gavel back if anyone happened to know of its whereabouts. In his weekly humour column in the Province, writer Himie Koshevoy joked the “tooth fairy” was at work in West Van.
It’s not known whether the theft was reported to West Vancouver police, and the department’s file system for such things doesn’t go back that far. The trail went cold and council moved on.
Making a hash
On Dec. 7, 47 years after it was last seen in public, the whale tooth gavel came back to its rightful owner.
“It came to this person who knew the provenance – who knew what the object actually was,” said district archivist Reto Tschan said. “That person came into the archives last week and said, ‘Here you go.’”
On the promise of anonymity for everyone involved, the “donor” shared with Tschan what they knew of the artifact’s more recent history.
Sometime after that 1975 council meeting, a teenager who lived in the western part of the district stole the gavel.
“They had this idea that it would make a great pipe for smoking hash,” Tschan said. “I don’t know how well it functioned in its new purpose.”
The thief didn’t keep the whalebone hash pipe for long before turning it over to a friend who owned a store in Horseshoe Bay. That friend wasn’t sure what to do with it so it spent most of the intervening years being hidden. That former shop owner died a few years ago and the relic was passed to another friend. The friends had, apparently, discussed giving it back, but weren’t sure how to go about it.
Tschan said he had suspicions something was up when a person showed up at the archives earlier this year, wanting to see any documents the district was keeping related to the whale tooth gavel.
“I had a bit of an inkling that it was coming, but I was still surprised that it came,” he said. “They wanted to do the right thing.”
The original handle and plaque that the gavel rested on remain lost. The tooth/gavel/hash pipe was in otherwise excellent condition – though it did have some remnants of ash and smoke scrubbed out of it, Tschan said.
Safe in West Vancouver’s archives
Tschan has since written a short history on the gavel. There are no plans to put it back to use in the council chamber for when things do get out of hand, as Long once envisioned (although it’s probably sturdy enough).
“It’s whalebone. It’s ivory, technically. That’s sort of a dubious material to be using that way,” Tschan said.
Municipal clerk Mark Panneton said council has a wooden gavel today, though it is rarely if ever used – and not in recent memory.
For now, the relic will stay at the archives, kept safe from anyone wanting to repurpose it.
“I think, as a historical artifact, it’s welcome here,” Tschan said.