A G Ferguson – another capitalist

A G Ferguson is another important Vancouver pioneer developer. Initially his background was somewhat mysterious – we weren’t completely sure what his name was – on almost every document and publication he was referred to as A G Ferguson.

The earliest reference we’ve found for him is from his marriage to Marion Dixon in Pottawattamie, Iowa, in November, 1869. They appear in the 1880 US Census living in Santa Cruz, as Alfred G Ferguson and Marion, his wife, aged 36, born in Michigan. He was shown as being aged 37 born in New York in 1843; his father was Scottish, his mother English, and he was a Cement Manufacturer. The family already had a servant, 20 year old Susan Cassady, who was Irish.

He appears in the 1891 Canadian Census as Alfred Graham Fergusson, born in 1844 in the US to an English born mother and American father. His wife was correctly shown as Marion, born in 1843, there are two servants, 25 year old Annie born in Quebec and 22 year old Victor born in England, and A G’s sister-in-law, Grace Dixon is also living with them. We know Grace and Marion came from Mount Clemens, Michigan. Their significance in the Vancouver scene can be judged from the fact that their mother’s death (in Michigan) was announced in the 27 December 1894 newspaper.

Although the first name of Alfred is repeated in an 1894 Consolidated Electric Railway and Light Co petition, in the 1901 Census he is listed as Arthur G Fergusson, his wife is called Marrian and she was now born in 1841. This probably points to the census collector being less than rigorous with names. The Burnaby Museum still believe he was called Arthur, so the census collector is not the only error. A G had a brother, Arthur Northcote Ferguson, and that may be where the confusion arose. The 1901 household was completed by Elizabeth Orange, a companion, and Mabel Williams, a 24 year old domestic with James Williams, also a domestic aged 20 years.

Mr Ferguson was a tunneller, involved in the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. An 1899 Daily World publication tells how in I880 E B Deane (originally from Sydney, Australia) “came to British Columbia as bookkeeper for Mr A G Ferguson, who had a Iarge contract upon the CPR at Hope. Upon the completion of thia contract he returned with him to San Francisco, and later came back to British Columbia, this time to Kamloops, remaining there until that contract was completed.”

A G Ferguson was in charge of the Cherry Creek Tunnel work about 13 miles west of Kamloops in 1884. He almost certainly arrived in Granville in 1885; he doesn’t appear in the 1885 Street Directory, but his wooden building is definitely standing at the corner of Carrall and Powell Streets in spring of 1886, and Frank W Hart in a 1933 conversation recalled “Even in 1885, A.G. Ferguson was noted for being a C.P.R. tunnel contractor, and wealthy; a very nice man to boot. He built the Ferguson Block at the southeast corner of Carrall and Powell streets—burned down in the fire shortly afterwards”. In 1887 he’s still listed as a Civil Engineer, living on Hastings Street. By 1888 his description has changed to ‘capitalist’.

In June 1886, within days of the fire, Mr Ferguson confirmed he would build a ‘cottage’ high on the bluff at 815 Hastings Street. It was standing by 1887, and his near neighbour was Henry Abbott, first superintendent of the Canadian Pacific Railway (whose much-restored house still stands today). In 1888 he bought a Victoria-built Goodwin and Jordan piano for his new home.

Ferguson House, Hastings St – City of Vancouver Archives

The (second) Ferguson Block was built on the site of the first, almost immediately after the fire to a design by W T Whiteway. The Colonist described it in June 1886 as a fireproof block of seven stores. Fred Tatham (in a letter written in 1937) remembered “I arrived in Vancouver two days after the fire in 1886. I was on the platform, where the first train arrived, bedecked with flags. I also worked on the first brick building in Vancouver, the Ferguson Block”.

The second (brick) Ferguson Block in 1904 (City of Vancouver Archives) and as it is today with the addition to the south for Frank Filion

By 1901 the insurance maps show the building already doubled in size (the Fripp brothers were hired as architects to supervise the expansion in 1889). Ferguson also owned the next two single-storey stores to the south. In 1909 Parr and Fee added two storeys to these for their new owner, Frank Filion.

When the CPR sold off land, A G Ferguson was at the front of the line. It perhaps didn’t hurt that the sale took place in the Ferguson Block. Walter Graveley in conversation with Major Matthews in 1935 recalled the sale “Ferguson had his hand on the handle of the door; Ferguson was first; Dr. LeFevre was second; F.C. Innes was third; then came R.G. Tatlow; C.D. Rand was next, and I was behind C.D. Rand. The first three, Ferguson, Dr. LeFevre, and Innes had sat up all night in Ferguson’s office in the same block; the Ferguson Block was the wooden block on the corner of Carrall and Powell streets, where the C.P.R. had their first offices in Vancouver; we were waiting for the C.P.R. office to open; that was why we were there; there was no rush; we just walked in when the office opened that morning; Ferguson was first; he had his hand on the handle of the door.”

The speed of the growth of A G’s investments can be seen in the valuation of the assessed value of his property, In 1887 it was $20,000, in 1889 it was $100,000 and in 1891 it was $140,000. In that year his holdings were the sixth largest in the city.  In 1892 Mr Ferguson appears with a good credit rating, described as a ‘capitalist’ – the only person to bear that title out of 65 pages of names and credit ratings (although J W Horne, whose holdings were worth slightly more, was given that description in the City Directory).

Carrall and Powell Streets in the 1890s – Royal BC Museum

After the Ferguson block was rebuilt A G erected several other buildings that we know about (and perhaps more). In 1889 the Fripp Brothers (R Mackay Fripp worked with his brother, Charles, from 1889 to 1891) designed a three storey office and retail building on Hastings Street, on the corner of Richards. A G apparently selected lots on the corner of Hastings Street; another conversation with Major Matthews recalled that he owned the land where the Standard Building was built (see the entry on J W Weart). The building is shown below; it was on the southwestern corner, and became home to the Bank of Commerce.

In 1893 it was announced “A G Ferguson is to build a very handsome block on the corner of Hastings and Richards streets. It will be fitted with electric heaters and all modern Improvements.” Either construction was delayed or this is yet another building on the corner of Richards and Hastings, as an 1899 newspaper also reported a building for A G Ferguson, this one on the northwest corner of Hastings and Richards. This was probably the very handsome Bank of British North American building that was later taken by Spencer’s Department store and demolished in the 1920s.

Ferguson block, south western corner of Hastings and Richards – City of Vancouver Archives

In the same year he had the Fripp Brothers design an addition to the Whiteway designed Ferguson Block on Powell. (This suggests the block may not have been sold off soon after it was completed as is suggested in the Heritage Designation).

The Boulder Hotel in 1901 (City of Vancouver Archives) and today

In 1890 the same architects designed a two-storey stone faced hotel, the Boulder Hotel, which is still standing today on the corner of Carrall and Cordova Streets. Henry Gibb, a contractor specialising in stone cutting was first employed in Vancouver working for A G Ferguson, so is quite likely to have been involved with the Boulder. A G is described as the contractor responsible for erecting his own buildings, so his seems a far from hands off role. At some point between 1901 and 1910 a third storey was added, and today the Boulder is being restored. “There were very high ceilings in the Boulder. They had a fad for high ceilings then, the higher the ceiling the fancier the store; they had a fad for, well, sixteen feet ceilings were common.”

Like many of the other early merchant and developers in the city, A G Ferguson adopted a civic role as well as a business one. On the business side in 1887 he was a Director of the Coquitlam Water Works Company, supplying water to Port Moody, English Bay and places in between, and to New Westminster. The 1888 Engineering News-Record noted that “the Act of Incorporation provides that no Chinese are to be employed on the work”. A G was the only Vancouver based shareholder; most were from Victoria. In 1894 he was one of six petitioners establishing the Consolidated Electric Railway and Light Co.

A G had significant interests in mining. In 1894 it was reported“The Cinnabar Mining Co, Ltd, of Vancouver, has just been granted incorporation under the Companies Act, with a capital of $100,000 in $1 shares. The promoters and provisional trustees are R G Tatlow, A G Ferguson and C 0 Wickenden.” In 1895 he incorporated the Argonaut Gold Mining Company with two other partners, capitalised at $500,000 with two claims, the Eleanor and Londonderrry in the Kootnay area. In 1897 he held the mining rights to a mine on Ten Mile Creek at Slocan Lake and it was reported that “high grade ore is being taken out”.

His most prominent civic role was as Chair of the first Parks Board. Major Matthews recorded this history “Mr. Ferguson was an American, and when he was elected a park commissioner, while others were sworn in, he was excused that ceremony. He took such an interest in Stanley Park that, when the annual sum appropriated by the Council for its upkeep and development was exhausted, he himself invariably paid the bills to the end of the year. Being a civil engineer, he gave the grades for grading the roads in the park, acted as park foreman, and practically gave all his spare time to it, the other commissioners being agreeable to leaving it to him. Ex-Alderman Michael Costello told me that one year it had cost Mr. Ferguson five thousand dollars.”

A G’s sister-in-law, Grace Dixon, who was living with the family in 1891, married Henry Ceperley, another important land speculator and developer in the city who had arrived from his native New York in 1886. “Mr. Ferguson had no children of his own, nor had Mrs. Ferguson. Mr. Ferguson left a portion of his estate to his sister-in-law, Mrs. Ceperley, with the suggestion that, when she had no further use for it, it should be left to the city of Vancouver, and this gave us, ultimately, the Ceperley Children’s Playground at Second Beach. I believe Mr. Ferguson stipulated in his bequest that the money should be used for a park for children.” These days Ferguson Point in Stanley Park serves as a permanent reminder of A G Ferguson’s generosity.

Not all A G’s civic involvement was smooth sailing. In 1894 the Colonist reported “The new water commissioners will have to be elected by the people of Vancouver. It was thought by the council of 1893 that the waterworks could be far more profitably handled by three commissioners than by the Water and Light committee. Consequently Messrs A G Ferguson, R H Alexander and Cambie were elected by the people. The council of 1894 however, had scarcely been sworn in when they amended the Waterworks Commissioners’ by-law in such a way that the commissioners would have to receive all moneys for water works purposes through the hands of the City Treasurer. The commissioners were not satisfied with partial control, stating they were little better than a council committee. They resigned after holding office two weeks.”

A G Ferguson enjoyed an active social life as well as his business and civic duties. He was the first president of the Terminal City Club in 1899 (although the city’s merchants had been meeting together from 1892). He had a luxury steam yacht, the Nagasaki (probably built in Japan). He was the judge for the 1893 Vancouver Boat Regatta, on the executive committee of the citizens’ carnival committee in 1896 and in 1897 the second vice-president of the Camera Club. (His neighbour, Henry Abbott was president).

In his later years there are fewer mentions of Mr Ferguson, although his house is still standing, with his family living there in 1902. On 12 August 1902 The Colonist reported “Mrs. Ferguson, wife of Mr A G Ferguson, died at her home on Saturday. Mrs Ferguson was among the earliest residents of the city and prominently connected with charity work”.

In 1903 no building addressed as 815 Hastings is listed. In 1902 Arthur Ferguson was an attorney living in Omaha, Nebraska at the time Alfred Graham Ferguson’s final will was made in May of 1902. A G Ferguson died on the second of June, 1903, in San Fransisco, having been very ill for several months.

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.