Ben Springer and James Van Bramer

Springer and Van Bramer (sometimes written as Van Braemer or Van Bremer) were two of Vancouver’s earlier developers, known to have partnered to build the Springer-Van Bramer Block, sometimes referred to as the Masonic Hall, on West Cordova Street in 1888. In fact they pre-date Vancouver, both having been active in Granville, the township that preceded the renamed city, and the block we know today was their third real estate project.

Benjamin Springer was born in Melbourne, (or London) Ontario in 1841, started out in civil engineering and came to BC to join the Cariboo gold rush in 1862, after a year looking for gold in California with his brother-in-law, Jonathan Miller. He remained in Cariboo engaged in mining for nine years and during that time he developed claims on Williams, Antler, Lowhee, Keithley and Mosquito creeks. He headed to the small town of Granville in 1872, and became book-keeper for the Moodyville sawmill on the north shore of Burrard Inlet in 1874, marrying in that year and becoming mill Manager in 1882, moving to ‘the big house’ and retiring in 1890. Springer partnered Van Bramer in his steamship business, and as well as the Vancouver buildings they developed. They also shared ownership of the BC District Telegraph and Delivery Company, obtaining a 50 year franchise for the operation of district telegraph systems in Vancouver and Victoria. Initially, the company provided the transmission and delivery of telegrams to its customers. This service soon evolved into the provision of signal boxes for watchmen and guards, by which the individual could signal his well being at specific intervals to the central office.

Ben Springer c1895. City of Vancouver archives

On retiring from the sawmill Springer partnered in a new company with Captain Mellon, handling merchandise consignments. Ben’s role as Vice-consul for Sweden and Norway was useful in this new venture. They also acted as agents for Fire Insurance companies based in Britain, and marine insurers in the US. An 1890 portrait of Ben Springer said “Mr. Springer owns considerable property and has erected a number of pretentious buildings in the city, among which is the Masonic Temple block and also the Leland block on Hastings street.” As this was otherwise a glowingly positive piece, presumably pretension was acceptable or even admired in the late 19th Century. Ben was both a Mason and a member of the Ancient Order of United Workmen, was a Justice of the Peace and also acted as School Trustee for over ten years.

The most likely candidate for the first Springer-Van Bramer block is a two-storey brick building at 320 Cordova Street (opposite the building today known as the Springer Van-Bramer Block). It is clearly an early building (although it is possible that the facade has been changed some time after construction). In the 1887 Elector’s list the owner of the lot that the building sits on was T C Sorby – the only parcel of land that he owned in Vancouver. In August 1886 architect Thomas C Sorby placed a notice in the Colonist newspaper “Parties desirous of tendering for a two-storey Brick Block to be erected in Cordova Street, Vancouver, for Messrs Springer and Van Bremer can see the drawings in my office. The proprietors reserve the liberty of declining any or all tenders”.

There was a second Springer-Van Bramer block built a year after the first block, in 1887. This time the architect was N S Hoffar, and the building was said to be located on Hastings Street opposite the Leland Hotel. It was altered again in 1889. The Leland Hotel was located on the south side of the 600 block of Hastings, between Granville and Seymour Streets. There’s some confusion asbout the use of the name ‘Leland Block’, (rather than the Hotel) In the Major Matthews archives The Leland Block is described as either the first, or perhaps the second brick-built structure in the city, and on Cordova Street, but an 1890 Daily World profile puts it (probably wrongly) on Hastings.

The second Springer Van Bramer block is almost certainly the two-storey building, as Ben Springer owned the land in 1887. City of Vancouver archives

James Van Bramer is something of a man of mystery – although he was an American, and was frequently called ‘Captain Van Bramer’, there are no identified images of him, although there is one description of him as “a little man with a beard“. From his death certificate it looks likely that he was born in New York around 1831.

We know he arrived in BC around 1860 and was part of a syndicate formed by Sewell Prescott Moody to build a steam powered sawmill in New Westminster in 1862; a project that didn’t last long as the first boat to load lumber got stuck on a Fraser river sandbar for six weeks, dissuading other ships from taking the mill’s lumber. The same group incorporated the British Columbia Coal Mining Company in 1865 to exploit the coal in Coal Harbour, but nothing came of that venture either. In 1863 Moody and Van Bramer joined the Masonic Union Lodge No. 899 ER on the north shore, and in 1865 Van Bramer was a member of the group who bought the mill on the north shore, selling out his share a year later.

In 1866 the Sea Foam – a steam tug owned by Van Bramer began regular ferry service between Brighton and Moodyville across the Burrard Inlet. It is described as “quite a nice. comfortable and airy conveyance“. Joseph Mannion recalled the service in an article in the Province in 1909 “The waterfrontage extended from the Sunnyside hotel to the Methodist parsonage, and consisted of a beach which, when the tide was high, was very shallow, for a considerable distance from the shore. To allow passengers landing from the ferry a long floating wharf about four feet wide, and consisting of two-inch planks nailed to logs which crossed them at intervals of ten or twelve feet, extended out to sufficiently deep water to allow of the little steamer mooring alongside. The ferry was owned by James Van Bramer, who carried on a regular service on the inlet as follows: leaving Moodyville at 7.30 a.m., the steamer came across to Gasstown, and leaving there called at the Hastings Mill, picked up the medical officer of the milling companies and returned to Moodyville. Then it ran over to Hastings and met Lewis’ stage from New Westminster which brought in a daily mail from New Westminster.” Captain Van Bramer, despite the title, employed a crew to operate the ferry.

In November 1867 the Sea Foam blew up, fortunately causing no serious injuries. It was joined (or replaced) by the Chinaman and the Lily.

In 1869 he appears to have partnered George Black, the local butcher, in purchasing cattle and sheep. In 1871 Van Bramer is listed as a resident of Granville; later he moved to the north shore, probably with his wife and family. In that year he was part of a syndicate, with Hugh Nelson, Sewell Moody and George Dietz, along with several others, who bought the rights to the Eureka silver mine, near Hope, with shares of $150,000. The Van Bremer mine yielded ore with as much as $2,000 worth of silver per ton, and sold in San Francisco at $420 a ton. Captain Van Bramer was also partners in the 1880s with Hugh Nelson, in a mine on Texada Island.

In 1873 he was naturalized a British subject at New Westminster in May and took over mail delivery across the Inlet, receiving $300 a year from the postmaster general. In 1876 he had the Leonora built in Victoria as a mail and ferry boat. Bill Nahanee, in a conversation with Major Matthews of the Vancouver archives recalls “In his cottage on the hill there lived with him an Indian woman, her name was Lizzie, her Indian name Ka-ak-sala; she belonged to the Katzie Indian Reserve up the Fraser River. She was a young woman, and they had three children. There was Louisa, Leonora, and the youngest one whose name I don’t recall. I don’t know if he named the tug Leonora after his second daughter, or not, but it would seem so”.

That information is confirmed in the 1881 Census; James Vanbremer, captain, born in the US was aged 45 and living in New Westminster with Louisa, aged 4, Leonaroa aged 3 and a 1 year old, unnamed. There were four other members of his household; Hugh Stoker, another 45 year old American, who was an engineer, John and Jane Anderson (John was 27 and German, occupation ‘ship’s mate’) and Thomas Linn, from Scotland, who was 23. It appears he may have had five children with his wife, who was known as Lizzie.

In 1875 he applied to purchase land, although his interest in the lot wasn’t published until 1884.

He lived in Moodyville rather than Granville, and was recorded there in 1882, described as a steamboat captain. In 1883 he was a school Trustee, and Ben Springer was Secretary of the Burrard Inlet School District. In 1888 the Senator was launched. (Captain Van Bramer may of course be in the picture below). Later, when he sold the launches to the Union Steamship Co and went to the US, his older daughters apparently went with him, and his wife took the youngest back to the Katzie reserve.

S.S. Senator at City Wharf c1889. City of Vancouver Archives

The third building that we know the men partnered to build is a flatiron building on West Cordova Street, designed by N S Hoffar, and completed in 1888, with 5 stores, second floor offices and the Masonic Temple and Oddfellows’ Hall on the third floor.

Springer Van Bramer block in 1888 – City of Vancouver archives

The building still stands today, relatively unscathed, although the elaborate cornice and Masonic Insignia have been removed for safety reasons.

Van Bramer had a more exciting retirement. He relocated to California on or before 1888, although he visited Victoria as late as 1894. In 1892 a San Diego dispatch to the Post Intelligencer reported: “The steam schooner Eliza Edward was today fined $1,400 for landing and taking on cargo at Santa Barbara without complying with the customs regulations. Captain Van Bremer paid the fine cheerfully, and took out clearance papers for hunting and fishing. He plans to leave this port Monday. The charges of smuggling were dismissed for want of actual proof.” In explanation, the Seattle paper adds: “The sealer Eliza Edwards of Vancouver was supposed to be in the smuggling business. When she sailed from the home port recently she announced her destination as Cocos Island off Costa Rica to hunt for $6,000,000 buried by pirates. She hove too off Victoria and, it is supposed, took out a cargo of Chinese and opium. She slipped into the port of Santa Barbara, Cal., and was off again before the customs officers knew it, and it is supposed she landed her cargo. When the Edwards left Victoria she announced her destination as Valdivia, Chili; at San Diego, he said he was bound for the Hawaiian Islands”. (Victoria Daily Colonist Tuesday July 11th1892). The story was widely reported.

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The New York Times made several attempts at identifying the Captain, none very accurately. Because the same story appeared in other papers, including the Colonist in Victoria, we know it was James Van Bramer.

The Captain died in the Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara in June 1895 not long after returning a further mysterious voyage to the Cocos Islands to search for the buried treasure he believed was there. He was described as a widowed Sea Captain, and had made out his will a month before his death. In a curious postscript to the story, an edition of the Victoria paper three months after his death claimed that “Captain Van Bremer’s Dream Proven a Reality – Millions Recovered From Their Hiding Place”. Subsequent news stories however suggest that the treasure was never found. The Eliza Edwards, which had been built in Vancouver for Captain Simon MacKenzie, was sold in Costa Rica as a gunboat. Renamed the Turalba she returned to the Cocos Islands, hired by others to search for the treasure in subsequent years.

Yip Sang

Yip Sang was the head of the Wing Sang Company, an important Vancouver Chinese trading company from 1888 onwards. Yip Sang was born in Guangdong Province in 1845, and came to San Francisco on a sailing junk from Hong Kong in 1864. He earned enough by washing dishes, cooking in a restaurant and panning gold on his trip to the United States to be able to return to China and identify the woman he intended to marry. He returned to the US, among other jobs cooking for cowboys in Montana, allowing him to return again to China to marry and have two children. His first wife died, but he had already married another to look after her and his children. On a further trip back he married again, so now had two wives to look after his three children.

In North America he passed through Vancouver, headed for the Cariboo gold fields, but with no luck there ended up selling coal door-to-door in New Westminster. Finally his luck was in when he impressed Andrew Onderdonk, the contractor building the CPR line from Port Moody to Kamloops, becoming bookeeper, timekeeper and paymaster for the Chinese work gangs building the line. He then started supplying the CPR with work gangs, recruiting in the Pearl River Delta and while there marrying a fourth wife.

Yip Sang, UBC Chung Collection

Once the railway construction was completed Yip Sang returned to Vancouver, establishing the Wing Sang Company (it means ‘everlasting’) in 1888. He built what was probably the first brick building in Chinatown on Pender Street, enlarging the building in 1901 to three storeys to allow him to bring his entire family from China (using a design from T E Julian) and then building an even larger 6-storey family and stores block in 1912 at the back of his lot on Market Alley, this time using Edward Stanley Mitton as architect.

Wing Sang’s building in 1900. City of Vancouver Archives photograph

By 1908 Yip Sang was one of the four largest Chinese owned companies in the city with real estate worth over $200,000. Yip Sang’s family grew as successfully as his businesses, with 19 sons and 4 daughters all living with their father and three wives and other family members including numerous cousins. The growing family moved to the new building at the back, leaving space for the expanding businesses covered by the Wing Sang company, including labour supply to the railway, rice, silk and clothing imports, salt herring export and steamer ticket brokerage.

Like several other Vancouver traders (although far fewer than in Victoria) the Wing Sang Company imported and processed opium. Although the government changed the rules after the McKenzie inquiry into the riot of 1908, Henderson’s Directory hadn’t caught up with those changes in 1909. (Market Alley runs behind the Wing Sang building)

Yip Sang never learned English well, but employed two secretaries, one English speaking and one Chinese who could also speak English. In 1911 when Sun Yat-Sen and his followers toppled the Manchu Dynasty, Wing Sang cut off his queue and adopted western dress.

He owned at least 16 lots in the city, including the 11-lot Canton Alley tenament district of homes and businesses which saw construction on Pender Street in 1903 ans 5 more buildings that cost $50,000 to develop in 1904. A 1912 building replaced the 1903 building with a substantial 7-storey apartment block.

While those buildings were cleared away many decades ago, two other buildings developed by the Wing Sang Company are still standing. The Chinese Times Building was completed in 1902 to designs by W T Whiteway, working with Chinese architect W H Chow – even though in theory the Chinese were prevented from working as professionals in the city. The building sits on the corner of Pender and Carrall, and on the back half of the lot (so on Carrall Street) J G Price designed the West Hotel for Yip Sang in 1913.

As with several of his Chinese competitors, Yip Sang didn’t only invest in Chinatown. In 1912 J G Price designed the Fraser Hall for Wing Sang, located at Fraser and 46th Avenue. It’s still there today, 100 years later.

Yip Sang died in 1927, his death being marked by the longest funeral procession Vancouver had ever seen. Unusually, he opted to be buried in Vancouver rather than having his bones returned to China, as normal custom would have indicated. The buildings on Pender Street stayed in the family until 2001. In 2004 Bob Rennie acquired them and undertook a massive restoration project, moving his realty company to the Pender Street building and installing his extensive art collection and a gallery for curated works into the gutted six-storey family block on Market Alley.