The Oppenheimer Brothers

The Oppenheimer Brothers involvement in early Vancouver was pivotal in charting the city’s early course. Their land holdings and negotiations with the Canadian Pacific Railway ensured the success of the location they had risked their fortune on.

There were five Oppenheimer Brothers who we know left Germany for North America, David, Charles, Godfrey, and Isaac, as well as their brother Meyer, (the Gummo Marx of the family, as he is seldom mentioned). Only David and Isaac had a significant involvement in the history of Vancouver. Like their brothers, David and Isaac were born in Blieskastel in Bavaria, David in 1834 and Isaac in 1835 (or perhaps 1838 if an 1881 census entry is to be believed). Their father was a merchant and vintner, and their mother died when they were only three and four years old. After political unrest the five brothers headed initially to New Orleans in 1848, then Placer Country, California in 1851, and later Sacramento. David worked in real estate and the restaurant business in Columbia, California, where he married his wife, Sarah, another German immigrant in 1857.

As gold became harder to find in California, David moved on to work in Victoria in the supply business Charles had set up there in 1858–59. Their elder brother was almost certainly in the gold fields – a Godfrey Oppenheim petitioned Governor James Douglas in January 1860 to ensure continued access to mining on Cornish Creek. Meyer’s wife, Babette also held a mining licence in Barkerville. Charles Oppenheimer had been forced to leave the country at the end of the 1850s when a company he formed with T B Lewis and Walter Moberley to build the Cariboo Wagon Road was not repaid by the government for the work they had undertaken, and Moberley was arrested as a result for non-payment of debt. Although the government eventually repaid some of the costs, both Charles Oppenheimer and Walter Moberley were significantly out of pocket – although they did have a road.

David and Isaac followed the miners to Yale, expanding into wholesale business and opened new stores and warehouses in Hope, Lytton, Barkerville, and Fisherville.

Oppenheimer Brothers store, Front St, Yale, 1860 – BC Archives

An 1861 report from Lytton in the Colonist newspaper

In 1862 David and Isaac took over Charles Oppenheimer and Co

By the summer of 1866 they were operating their own pack-train, purchasing acreage near Lytton and in the Cariboo, and buying, developing, and selling lots in Barkerville. Both Godfrey and Mayer were in Yale as well, as both had sons born there in 1866.

Oppenheimer mule train in Barkerville 1868 – BC Archives

 Along with the significant profits, the brothers had low points. They faced trusteeship in 1866 and again in 1867, and a competitor took their business over, banning them from any involvement in running the company. Charles returned to buy that competitor out in 1871, reinstalling David and Isaac, who soon faced another loss when a fire destroyed their Barkerville building. They donated a fire engine to the town in 1872 before selling up there and continuing to operate in Yale until the early 1880s. Charles retired to San Francisco in 1873 and the partnership was once again dissolved.

David suffered a tragedy when his wife, Sarah died in 1880 (it was reported she was aged 40). The brothers nearly lost control of the company again in 1881, and another fire sapped their fortune as their ‘fireproof’ warehouse burned and they lost $170,000 of goods while holding only $49,000 in insurance. Although they rebuilt, they abandoned Yale for Victoria where David had already been conducting business, establishing an import-wholesale business on Wharf Street.

Although a less prominent partner, Godfrey had obviously also been involved from Victoria, but less than two months after the fire he died, being buried in a Masonic burial service in the Jewish cemetery near Victoria. He left behind Lena, his 32 year old widow, and five children aged 15 to 7 (one born every two years, Solomon, Isabella, Amealia, Edith and Milton). Meyer Oppenheimer and his wife Babette had by this point moved to San Francisco, perhaps with Charles who lived there until his death in 1890.

In 1883 David remarried, in San Francisco, to Julia Walters of New York, and became a father for the first time in 1884 when his daughter, Flora was born in Victoria.

The remaining brothers had already contributed to railway construction near Yale – now they looked to the opportunities the rail terminus might bring. This was not a new interest – as early as 1878 David had acquired 300 acres of land on the Inlet. In 1884 and 1885 he bought land in both Coal Harbour and English Bay in conjunction with other investors in the Vancouver Improvement Company.

The Oppenheimers may have lost property in the fire that destroyed the city in 1886. They certainly acted quickly after the fire to build a brick-built warehouse. Although the company that continues to exist today, the Oppenheimer Group, suggests it was established in 1887, there was an advertisement placed in the Colonist by T C Sorby, the architect, on July 23rd 1886 – less than 6 weeks after the fire – for a new brick building for the Oppenheimers.

Colonist, 23 July 1886

The building was apparently completed in 1886. (Certainly it was up by 1887). It is identified as a single storey building at 28 Powell Street that was still standing in the 1930s. (It is often thought that the Columbia Street warehouse was their first building.)

Oppenheimer warehouse, 1931 – City of Vancouver Archives

T C Sorby announced he was moving his practice from Victoria to Vancouver five days after placing the advertisement. By September he had a huge commission from the CPR to design the terminal station building and offices. Although it is sometimes referred to as the first brick building, it is more likely that the stores built by A G Ferguson at Carrall and Powell were started first.

 A second warehouse building on Powell at Columbia is usually attributed to N S Hoffar. He was definitely hired in 1891 to work on the building. This was quite possibly to enlarge and alter it, as the initial two-storey structure was clearly standing in 1890, (and is still in existence today, but with a third floor added)..

By 1887 both David and Isaac were firmly established in the new city of Vancouver. They had completed one of the first brick buildings, held (and were selling) huge tracts of land, and were both Aldermen in the newly elected City Council. A handbook of the city published by the Daily World that year carried a full page advertisement for the company and a testimonial to the brothers, which passed over the problems they had experienced in Yale only a few years earlier.

 In 1887 the Oppeheimer Brother’s lands were assessed at $125,000, third only to the CPR and the Hastings Mill. By 1889 their lands were worth $150,000 (despite having sold significant areas off in the two years) and the Vancouver Improvement Company, where they were significant shareholders, had $225,000 worth of land, having bought the mill’s lands. And two years later still in 1891 the brothers were estimated to be worth $200,000 and the Improvement Company $330,000. The Improvement Company was initially organised by David Oppenheimer with a number of Victoria and San Francisco based shareholders who acquired shares in the mill in order that they could control the mill’s landholdings. It also included a number of shareholders already involved in the city.

By 1889 David had become significantly more visible in the life of the city than his brother. Another profile of him that year describes the previous two years activity: “He was elected mayor by acclamation for 1888 and again for 1889 and stood for office for 1890, defeating his opponent with ease. Mayor Oppenheimer is connected with nearly every enterprise which is calculated to advance the interests of the city or the Province at large. He is a member of the Board of Trade and was president of that organization. He is president of the British Columbia Agricultural Association and of the British Columbia Exhibition association. He has done a great deal to advertise the Province by compiling pamphlets, showing the extent and resources of the country and distributing them in Europe and America.” His picture was also featured.

In 1888 David was elected mayor and Isaac re-elected an alderman. David was re-elected three times, twice by acclamation, finally resigning in 1891. As mayor David Oppenheimer established the basic civic services: water supply, sewers, fire department, streets, schools, and parks, and was mayor when Stanley Park was dedicated. His civic duties were often intertwined with his investments: the Vancouver Water Works Company, the Vancouver Electric Railway and Light Company, and the Westminster and Vancouver Tramway. He also helped establish a steamship connection between Vancouver and Australia and took an active role in the founding of the BC Sugar Refinery. He helped establish the city’s YMCA, the Alexandra Orphanage, the British Columbia Exhibition Association, and the Vancouver Club, of which Isaac was president in 1895-96. David was elected the first president of the Vancouver Board of Trade after its incorporation on December 12, 1887. Both David and Isaac were also prominent Masons.

In the 1891 census David is aged 58, and his wife Julia is 35. Isaac is recorded as aged 56, and his US born wife Celia is 38.

David died in 1897, so only Isaac was living in Canada for the 1901 census. In that record he is aged 65, and Celia has managed to lose 2 years and is only 46. Isaac, who moved to Spokane Washington in his final years, lived on until 1922.

When David died in 1897 his fortune was in decline and despite his reputation as a wealthy man, the provincial finance minister, John Turner, accepted the trustees’ estimate of $20,000 as fair value for the whole estate. That may not have been so unreasonable -The Vancouver Improvement Company was valued at over $300,000 but had an overdue mortgage against it. Similarly, Oppenheimer Brothers held nearly half of the stock of the British Columbia Drainage and Dyking Company, but their Pitt River lands weren’t selling after a flood in 1894. Even the grocery company wasn’t doing so well, although it was subsequently reorganized by David’s nephews and continues to operate in Metro Vancouver.

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