Frontiers of Finance

Banking in a barber shop, banking in a barroom— those were the days when banking was an adventure

EDMUND E PUGSLEY February 15 1932

Frontiers of Finance

Banking in a barber shop, banking in a barroom— those were the days when banking was an adventure

EDMUND E PUGSLEY February 15 1932

Frontiers of Finance



Banking in a barber shop, banking in a barroom— those were the days when banking was an adventure

IN 1875 a seventeen-year-old lad walked into the Kingston Branch of the Bank of British North America and applied for a job, signing the name William Godfrey on his application. In 1925, when William Godfrey retired at Vancouver, B.C., there was closed a half century of banking history that is in many respects unique so far as Canada is concerned.

IIow this young Eastern Canadian shattered all banking traditions, shocking the Monetary Times of November, 1898, into declaring a vigorous protest against the lack of serenity and dignity under which the business was being conducted in British Columbia, makes interesting reading.

Born at Huntley, Ontario, May 19, 1858, Godfrey was moved from Kingston to spend ten years between Saint John, N.B.. and Halifax. N.S., and in December, 1890, was again transferred and promoted to manager of the new branch at the young city on the extreme west end of the new transcontinental railway. This office, he found on arrival, was merely an agency of the Victoria branch, but by the end of the year business had so increased that it attained full branch status, reporting to the Court of Directors in London, England.

Not According to Hoyle

AT THAT period business traditions were so conservative that when a young clerk in the Bank of British North America had the temerity to write to Dindon on his new typewriter, it brought Godfrey a reply to the effect that if “that young writer cannot pen a legible hand, he had best resign.”

In another instance a clerk suggested a simpler and easier way to avoid duplicate entries.

“Young man,” blustered the pompous inspector, “do you know that this work has been done in its present form for over thirty years?”

Small wonder, then, that when banks began to "jockey” for the coveted position of first place in a new town, the staid old banking world was shocked. What was to many a still greater wonder was the fact that such a conservative Old Country institution as the Bank of British North America should be first in the field in a number of instances. The reason for this constitutes the ensuing story.

Describing how a kind Providence materially assisted in securing much needed new quarters at Vancouver, Mr. Godfrey relates:

“Early in 1893, on a certain afternoon, a leading director of our bank, R. H. Glyn—who was also chairman of the Bank of New Zealand— was sitting in my office, a mere rabbit hutch, with General Manager H. Stikeman when, without the slightest warning, the stove pipe fell, making a perfect score on the head and shoulders of Mr. Glyn. Enveloped in soot and dirt, he was a sorry but comical sight. But that accident overcame all traditions for speed in obtaining action for a new building, for I received a communication at once to proceed with the matter of providing new quarters.

“It was then that I purchased the property at the comer of Hastings and Richards Streets with fifty-two feet frontage for $26,189, and arranged for the erection of a stone structure at a cost of $83,000, which was for many years considered the finest bank building in the Canadian West. It remained our headquarters until the bank was absorbed by the Bank of Montreal in 1918, being also the first clearing house. Operating under Royal charter, we had the coat of arms engraved in the entrance stone, and although the building has since been demolished to make way for a growing department store, this stone, with the coat of arms, is being preserved for museum purposes.

Mining Tow'n Banking

IN THE early ’Nineties mining activities were attracting wide attention to British Columbia, and I was instructed to visit the fields in the interior with a view to opening new branches. Our first mining branch ivas opened at Kaslo, the centre of silver activities in the Slocan district.

“This was followed in 1896 by our branch at Rossland, one of the most picturesque mining towns that ever sprang up in the West. Here, literally, a mountain of gold had

been discovered by a French-Canadian named Joe Bourgeois, although the actual location is reputed to have been foretold by a fortune teller some years previously.

“Bourgeois and his partner, Morris, had not the money for recording their claims, so they offered the centre claim to the mining recorder, Colonel E. S. Topping, as the price. The colonel accepted, and after examination of his claim was elated with it and renamed it the Le Roi. But though he felt that he had made a splendid bargain for the recording fee of $12.50, he did not, in his wildest dreams, imagine he held in his control a mine that was to produce millions.

“Colonel Topping struggled against heavy odds to develop his mine, eventually interesting Spokane capitalists who paid him $16,000 for a 16/30th interest. The first ore was packed out by mule to the Columbia River and shipped to the smelter at Butte, Montana. It showed a value of $84.60 per ton, and the Spokane men then bought Topping out.

“A period of adversity followed during which the owners well nigh regretted their deal. And it was during this period that a ragged prospector drifted into a clothing store in Moscow, Idaho, and induced the dealer to let him have a suit of clothes and a square meal for a block of 2,000 shares of Le Roi stock. The dealer tossed the certificates in the back of his safe and was amazed when, some five years later, he realized a value running into five figures for his Samaritan act.

“By 1898 the Le Roi owners had realized approximately $1,000,000 for their work, and then they sold it to a British syndicate for $4.000,000. The other four mines in this famous group were equally productive, netting mihions to their owners. In all, some eighty miles of tunnels were bored and thirty miles of electric railway constructed under this 625-acre

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Frontiers of Finance

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mountain, and at least $1,000,000 taken for every mile of work.

“Good values were also realized from the townsite of Rossland, a miner named Ross Thompson opening the townsite on his 160-acre pre-emption. Commencing at $30 per lot, property rapidly advanced to as high as $18,000 for thirty feet frontage, and ground rents reached a figure of $1,000 per year.

“There was one section, however, over which a difficulty in title ensued, and here a veritable circus of business was established and became known as Sourdough Alley.

The Barber Shop Bank

IT WAS into this hectic scene that we decided to plunge in 1896. Arrangements were made quietly, and we shipped equipment in, addressed to “Dr.” James Anderson

in order to allay the suspicion of our rivals. Mr. Anderson was to assist the newly appointed manager, W. T. Oliver.

“Not a foot of space was available on Columbia Street on our arrival, which was on a Friday night. However, it was determined to open for business on Saturday because our rival might arrive before Monday. So before midnight a deal had been dosed for the purchase of a barber shop.

“The barber, however, was loath to lose his Saturday trade, so a compromise was reached and Rossland citizens awoke Saturday morning to read a new sign in the barber shop:

The. Bank of British North America now

Open for Business on These Premises.

This Barber Shop Will Open at 12 o'clock.

“Bank in the morning, barber shop in the afternoon and evening!

“And in these surroundings what a lively scene ensued ! Fifteen hotels, twenty-five saloons and three wholesale liquor houses altered to the thirst of the hilarious populace, with three variety theatres furnishing amusement every hour of the week. Every known form of gambling was conducted, with prize fights and dog fights as a sideline.

“Conditions were such that leading residents decided it was time some form of regulations for law and order was instituted. To obtain this, it was necessary to petition the Provincial Government. Accordingly, a committee was appointed and given a grant of $200 each with instructions to go to Victoria and stay until they got results.

“Unfortunately the committee met many well-meaning souls at cities and towns en route, with the result that they arrived at the capital city in a very doubtful condition to press properly their claims for reform. However, history records the astonishing fact that they returned to their thriving city with the necessary documents in their pockets, although with but a hazy recollection of how they were obtained.

“Asked as to how it was done, one of the party later volunteered his opinion. ‘You see. the members of Parliament figured it out. this way: If these fellows are the committee of purity and reform, then, great heavens! what must the ordinary citizen be like?’ ”

First in Dawson

TN 1898, when it became certain that a 4 major discovery had been made in the j Klondike, the Bank of B. N. A. again ! decided to be first in the field if possible.

! As in the case of Rossland, it was found j that they would have a keen rival in the j Bank of Commerce. And although Mr.

I Godfrey's party preceded its rivals by two ! days at Rossland, it was by no means I certain that this could be accomplished in ! the rush to the far North, for the Bank of I Commerce had a distinct advantage in the fact that it was the official bank of the Mounted Police, and the latter had instructions to assist in any way possible the banking party to their destination.

To ensure arrival, Mr. Godfrey arranged ! for two separate parties to proceed to I Dawson, the first leaving Vancouver April 1,

: 1898. in charge of David Doig and routing i via Skagway, and the second leaving some weeks later and routing via St. Michaels at the mouth of the Yukon River. The latter was in charge of James Cran.

The first party met with success, arriving at Dawson on May 17 to establish the first bank in the Klondike city some ten days ahead of their rival, the Bank of Commerce.

Incidental to the signing on of the staff for this party, Mr. Godfrey relates that when there was but one position left open— that of messenger—a young man applied.

1 signing his name in a beautiful hand. Mr.

■ Godfrey referred his application to the head I office and received a wire to decline it for j trie reason that “there must be something ! wrong with a man who would be eager to ¡get so menial a position.” The applicant i later obtained a place as clerk on the staff j of the Bank of Commerce bound for the

same destination, and within a very few years thereafter the whole world was reading and lauding his poems, The Songs of a Sourdough, over the name of Robert Service.

Although Mr. Doig had received instructions to spare no expense in order to obtain ! his objective of reaching Dawson in the | minimum of time, yet his party experienced no picnic in their task. Skagway presented the first real difficulty and for a time it looked very much as though the expedition would meet an inglorious end right there at j the head of the Lynn Canal.

The plans called for proceeding via Dyea over the Chilcoot Pass, but on the boat’s arrival a report was received, telling of a terrible disaster on the pass in which hundreds of stampeders had been buried in a slide which effectually blocked the trail.

This meant running the gauntlet of Soapy Smith, the notorious outlaw of Skagway, with his organization of cutthroats, robbers and murderers.

Looking from their hotel window on the : first morning, the party witnessed a victim shot in cold blood and the murderer go on his way unmolested. And as further evidence of the supremacy of Smith, they saw guards stationed in strategic positions in all gambling houses, armed with shotguns, prepared to foil any attempt by a disgruntled victim who had been fleeced to make his escape or seek revenge.

Doig scratched his head and decided on a ¡ plan which would win by its very audacity ! when a less dangerous programme would be i likely to fail. He told his men to be pre| pared, and then he invited Soapy Smith ; himself to play cards with him.

All night long they played and drank j Scotch whisky; and although the Scot held a ! reputation, it is said, of never having met a j rival, he declared that Soapy Smith gave i him the closest run he ever had. At no ¡ time, Doig stated, was Smith unaware ofj Doig’s plan, yet he played on. alert, watch; ful, and no doubt inwardly admiring the ; nerve of the man before him whose party i was even then slipping out of town with the cash and supplies.

At last came dawn and with it a messenger to say that Doig’s party had reached the safety of the Canadian summit and the welcome protection of the Mounted Police, twenty-two miles distant. Silently Doig followed without molestation. But it was with a deep sigh of relief that he stepped over the border and joined his party.

Klondike Incidents

OF HIS recollection of the trail between Skagway and Lake Lindeman, Mr. Doig records that the stench of dead horseflesh remained vivid in his memory for a long time. Construction of the White Pass Railway was being rushed, but men were packing their own outfits, eager, crazy to press on toward their goal, with gold, gold as their one and only objective. Men from fifty to seventy years of age were seen carrying packs of as many pounds, relaying feverishly yet with painful slowness the half ton that Canadian law required them to Í possess before they could pass on. Men were sick and dying on all hands. Some, j indeed, were already dead. Some were returning, hopeless and broken. Some, ; without snow glasses for protection, had been blinded with the glare of sun on snow.

Of their hasty trip down river many incidents were recorded, one alone of which will suffice at this time. Mr. Doig was called upon to arbitrate between two ; partners who had agreed to separate. The ; outfit was divided without dispute until ! only the canoe was left. Doig was puzzled. But the men, themselves, solved this problem by sawing the boat across the middle j and boarding up the ends. And they both ! reached Dawson in safety, later to greet Mr. Doig.

At Dawson the Doig party sold their two canoes, which had cost $150 at Vancouver, for $900.

An unusual method of handling the currency at Dawson was followed by this B. N. A. party. Bank notes were taken in

unsigned by the head officials, who had authorized the two local nen to sign for them. Many thousands ol doliare were thus circulated in the North at that time, Canadian currency being keenly sought after in Alaska as well as the Yukon because oi its less cumbersome weight.

In the bank’s second year at Dawson a big fire burned the property to the ground with all its contents. To hasten fresh currency in over the winter trail, Mr. (Godfrey bought a ten-dog team at St. Boniface. Manitoba, paying $50 each for them. On arrival at Dawson the animals were worthless as the town was already seething with dogs.

A Bank in a Barroom

BUT the Klondike was not the only scene of mining activity in the West in 1898. In the Boundary district, a town called Greenwood sprang up on a townsite located by one of British Columbia’s best known mining men, now deceased, Robert Wood. In many respects Greenwood was a rival of Rossland, probably surpassing it in the sale of “wild cat” mines.

To this seething town with its twentytwo saloons and a proportionate number of amusements, came Mr. Godfrey in November, 1898, to open a branch office of the Bank of British North America. Undaunted by lack of ground space, he readily secured a comer in a barroom on Copper Street and dispensed currency over pool tables.

On this occasion the honors for first business were shared with .Mr. Morris of the Bank of Commerce, who opened on the same day in the Cosmopolitan restaurant, with oilcloth covered tables as counters.

“In December,” states Mr. Godfrey, “I deputed Mr. Cran, who had just returned from the Yukon, to open a branch at Ashcroft, where extensive hydraulic operations had commenced in the Cariboo district. Mr. Cran was well fitted for this work, having been earlier in charge of our first bank at Barkerville. Later we opened branches at other points such as Lilooet and 150 Mile House, which were important posts along the stage route on the famous Cariboo Road.

“Again in 1910, when the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway was pushing through to the Coast, we opened a branch at Fort George, with James Anderson again in charge. This party was obliged to travel the eighty miles, from the end of the stage line at Quesnel, by pack train. Our first business was done in the only store and soon after in our own tent.

“And when the steel reached Prince Rupert we established the first bank in the tent city, using a bed spring as a cage for the teller.

“On November 25, 1913, our branch at Agassiz had a narrow escape from being

robbed, this being the first attempt at any of our British Columbia institutions. The local merchant. Mr. Webster, had just finished his business in the bank and was about to leave w hen two men armed with rifles entered. Webster, acting on impulse, grabbed one of the riflec and knocked the , other high in its owner’s hands, slamming ' the door an instant later and tracing it with his foot. Two shots crashed through j the glass, one bullet grazing Webster’s nand. ! The bandits then fled.

“I later was deputed to present Webster with a gold watch and letter of thanks on behalf of the directors.

“On October 1, 1898, the first clearing house was established in Vancouver in our ; building and I was honored by being elected j its first chairman of committee. The first1 week’s clearings were a little over half a million, which was increased to sixteen millions for a corresponding week in 1925, the year in which I retired.”

A Dream Come True

TN 1918 the Bank of British North America

lost its identity in the Bank of Montreal, thus closing out one of the West's most romantic institutions. But there are a ; number of men holding high rank in banking circles throughout Canada today who j will attest to the sterling qualities of the ¡ Vancouver manager under whom they ! received able tutorship.

Among these are Jackson Dodds, general manager of the Bank of Montreal, who was many years assistant to Mr. Godfrey; Chief Inspector Gillard; W. T. Oliver, first manager at Rossland and now' first agent of the Bank of Montreal at New' York; R. C. Harrison, second agent at New York; B. C. Gardiner, head office, Montreal; and G. F. Laing, now manager of the Bank of Montreal at Vancouver.

When Mr. Godfrey retired in 1925, he left behind him a half century of banking activity that is probably unrivalled. He was also for forty years a member of the Vancouver Board of Trade, is a past president of the Canadian Club and the Pioneers’ Association and the Tourist Association, all of which testifies to his usefulness as a Canadian citizen.

Today, though retired and enjoying a well-earned rest, he sits in the same beautiful old home he erected among the huge fir stumps overlooking the Gulf of Georgia. But instead of the w'hite canvas sails and tiny steam vessels that first caught his attention there against the Western sky. he sees an endless stream of great liners and freight vessels, bearing flags of all nations, j plying in and out of this ever-growing harbor. And as he tugs dreamily on his ! peaceful old pipe he may well be pardoned if he smiles with satisfaction and nods his ; head, saying: “I helped, in my humble way, to bring this great dream to pass.”