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This Day In History: An economic depression devastates Vancouver

Jonathan Rogers went on to become one of Vancouver’s most prominent citizens

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Vancouver has always had its share of boundless optimists. But it hasn’t always been all wine and roses; the city has a history of booms and busts.

This first big bust was in the early 1890s, when a boom accompanying the arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1887 ended during a worldwide economic recession.

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“There was a slowdown in 1891-2, there was (economic) doldrums, and there was a smallpox epidemic that closed the ports for awhile,” explains heritage expert Don Luxton.

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“In 1893, a bank panic hit the States, and that just kiboshed everything. Timber prices dropped, everything dropped, it slowed right down.”

It got so bad that people considered pulling up stakes and leaving town.

“Vancouver was so new, everybody was going, ‘Why are we here?’ ” said Luxton. “What’s the future of this stupid place if a few years after we get the railway it turns turtle on us?’”

Things were so dicey that the Hudson’s Bay Company took out an ad reassuring people of the company’s belief in Vancouver.

“There may be seasons of depression,” said the ad. “But there is a silver lining to every dark cloud, and beyond it the sun is shining brightly in the development of British Columbia.

“In the progress of this fair Dominion, the Pacific Terminal City will play no unimportant part: its course will be onward and upward. Believing this, we have cast our lot in with it, and hope to share in its prosperity.”

In winter 1894, legend has it that there was a meeting where prominent citizens argued about whether to stick with the fledgling city or move.

Unfortunately, a search on Newspapers.com failed to turn up any mention of a public meeting on Vancouver’s future. It could be it wasn’t an official meeting, it might have been an informal gathering at a bar.

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Vancouver pioneer Jonathan Rogers, circa 1916. George T. Wadds/Vancouver Archives AM54-S4-: Port P1442 Photo by George T. Wadds /sun

In any event, the hero of the meeting was a young Welsh immigrant named Jonathan Rogers, who gave a rousing defence of Terminal City.

“He spoke and expressed his faith in Vancouver,” said a book on Rogers that was published after his death in 1945. “He told the meeting that since he believed the depression was general, he was staying. Moreover, he intended to build, and already had two blocks underway.

“There were men that called him a fool, but his courage heartened others, and they decided to stay and carry on. For many old-timers, that night marked a turning point in their careers.”

The first mention of one of the buildings Rogers was constructing was in the March 9, 1894, Vancouver Daily News Advertiser, which could mean the meeting was around the first week of March. The first Rogers Block is still around at 301 West Hastings St., next door to the Dominion Building.

Rogers initially ran a paint store out of the building, a handsome three-storey brick structure that currently houses a Cannabis Culture store and the New Amsterdam Cafe, which describes itself as “an authentic cannabis-inspired lounge.”

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When Vancouver’s economy recovered after the Klondike Gold Rush in 1896, Rogers’ faith in Vancouver was proved correct. He went on to become one of Vancouver’s leading citizens: when he died on Dec. 8, 1945, The Province ran a story headlined, “Life of Pioneer Tells Story of City.”

Rogers immigrated to Canada from Wales when he was 22. He wasn’t related to B.T. Rogers of Rogers Sugar, who was American.

He came west on the first Canadian Pacific Railway passenger train to arrive in Vancouver on May 23, 1887. He bought up four lots, the beginning of a real estate empire that peaked with the 10-storey Rogers Building at 470 Granville St.

Aside from convincing people not to leave town in 1894, Rogers’ biggest legacy is at English Bay. He was on the Vancouver park board for 26 years, and came up with the idea of buying up all the waterfront houses that were initially on the bay waterfront, tearing them down and turning the waterfront into parkland.

When he died he left $100,000 to the park board, which built Jonathan Rogers Park at 7th and Columbia streets in Mount Pleasant.

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Jonathan and Elizabeth Rogers in costume for a rededication of Stanley Park, Aug. 25, 1943. Vancouver Archives AM54-S4-: Port P1436.1 sun
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The Rogers Building at Pender and Granville streets in 2012. Photo by Ian Lindsay /Vancouver Sun
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Written on back: Robert Christopher Rogers Malkin, aged 2 1/2 years, son of Lt. Robert E. Malkin and Mrs. R.E. Malkin, with Jonathan Rogers. Photo by George T. Wadds, 1318 Granville St., Vancouver. Vancouver Sun
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Undated photo of Jonathan Rogers, a pioneer developer in Vancouver (the Rogers building is at Pender and Granville streets) and later an alderman and park board member. No relation to the Rogers Sugar family. PNG
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Hudson’s Bay Company ad in the Jan. 11, 1894 Vancouver Daily News-Advertiser. Vancouver was in the midst of an economic depression at the time, and The Bay ad expressed confidence in the economic prospects of the city, which some people were thinking of leaving.

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