Visitors on the gantry above the Challenger Relief Map in the newly-constructed BC Building at Hastings Park c. 1954. (Photo credit: City of Vancouver Archives)

Visitors on the gantry above the Challenger Relief Map in the newly-constructed BC Building at Hastings Park c. 1954. (Photo credit: City of Vancouver Archives)

The Editor’s Desk: A majestic, monumental map

Plans are afoot to put the Challenger Relief Map back on display, after 25 years in storage

Have you ever played the game where you look at a colossal jackpot for some lottery, and think about all the things you would do with that money if you won it? I’m not talking about $50,000, or $100,000, or even $1 million; I’m thinking of the prizes that are into the tens of millions, more money than most people will ever see in their lifetime.

I’ll tell you what I would do; I’d buy a map.

Not just any map, mind you. If I wanted a plain old paper map, I could buy one with the money I won on scratch tickets at Christmas, which is a princely $14. No; the map I have in mind is the Challenger Relief Map, currently sitting in an aircraft hangar at Vancouver International Airport, where it has been gathering dust since it was dismantled and taken out of the custom-built structure that housed it at Hastings Park, the home of the PNE in Vancouver.

I have always loved maps, for reasons that even today I cannot fully articulate. I think it’s something to do with the sheer possibilities inherent in a map, which show not just where you are but all the places you could theoretically go to, if you had sufficient time and money. I recently had occasion to look at something on Google Maps, and then spent a very pleasant half-hour or so “travelling” through B.C., following roads and rivers just to see where they went, tracing out various routes — some familiar to me in real life, others not — and the names of the places and things by which they passed.

(As an aside about names, is there a more beautiful, more euphonious name than “Similkameen”? Say it aloud, and you hear what velvet or silk sound like. Try it and see.)

I have felt this way about maps for as long as I can remember, which explains why, when I discovered the Challenger Relief Map at the PNE as a child, I immediately fell head-over-heels in love with it. For those who never saw the map, it is a 6,000-square-foot relief map of B.C. measuring 80 by 76 feet, painstakingly crafted by George Challenger and his family between 1947 and 1954 from one million pieces of jig-sawed, layered, and hand-painted pieces of 1/4” Douglas Fir plywood. It shows every town and city in the province, along with its mountains, lakes, rivers, and valleys, and between 1954 and 1997 it lived in a building designed specifically for it at Hastings Park.

The map could be viewed from different levels of the building, and a gantry took passengers over the entire map from one side to the other while a guide gave a “tour”. As a child I would always find my home of Richmond, and trace the routes familiar to me — to Okanagan Falls, where my maternal grandparents lived, and to Ashcroft, where we stayed at a friend’s cabin on Cornwall — then marvel at the vastness and mystery of the province, with its huge lakes that were unknown to me, towns and cities that I had never heard of, highways that were tiny threads weaving through broad valleys and snow-capped mountains.

(As another aside, I note that George Challenger shares a name with Professor George Edward Challenger, the great fictional explorer and scientist created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and who first appeared in the classic novel The Lost World. I am sure that the larger-than-life Prof. Challenger would heartily approve of his namesake’s creation.)

A movement is now afoot to refurbish and update the map, and put the entirety of it on display once more. I certainly hope this endeavour is successful, but it will take a good deal of money to make it happen, which is where my theoretical lottery jackpot win would come into play. I know that $14 isn’t going to be much help, but I still have two tickets left from Christmas, and it’s good to dream. Wish me luck.

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