San Juan Mining and Manufacturing Company

The factory produced a variety of industrial and household products, including shoe blacking, blue and black inks and metal polish

Victoria is a remarkable city for a historian to live and work in.

To start with, there are a number of extremely gifted people working in the heritage community – whether in paid positions, as volunteers, or simply as hobbyists. They always seem eager to contribute to one another’s research.

Victoria also has a remarkably rich and densely packed history. I am often heard to say that one of the reasons I love this city is that because it was so isolated in the 19th century the people who did decide to settle here were made of incredibly tough stuff.

The early pioneers of Victoria were hardy, often fearless, relentlessly entrepreneurial, clever and frequently quite eccentric. They were, in short, real characters.

I have a regular reader of this column, a fellow called Ron, who is a local history buff and often sends me notes and comments. A few months ago he sent me the image included here. It is of a tin of mechanical soap, made by the San Juan Mining and Manufacturing Company, which was based out of Victoria.

I had never heard of this company, but a quick glance at this image told me the tin was of early 20th century make, given the style of the graphics, text, and packaging.  Beyond that it was a mystery.

It turns out that being a history buff runs in families: Ron’s son Aaron had done a little research into this company and we arranged to meet so I could hear about it.

Aaron is a young man with a quick wit and a gift for writing. He has a variety of historical interests and had done an excellent job down at the B.C. Archives in ferretting out some information about this mysterious San Juan Mining and Manufacturing Company.

When he brought his notes out, I started to realize that this relatively obscure company had connections with two very famous names in our city and province’s history.

The San Juan Mining and Manufacturing Company was incorporated in 1905. It owned claims along the San Juan and Gordon Rivers, near Port Renfrew. These claims were rich in a number of minerals, but most notably alunite, an aluminium potassium hydrate mineral.

According to Aaron’s research, they had an office at 1210 Douglas St. (where Chapter’s is today) and a factory in Esquimalt, at the corner of Dunsmuir and Head streets.

The factory produced a variety of industrial and household products, including shoe blacking, blue and black inks, metal polish, Prussian blue alum, plate powders and, of course, mechanical soap.

Here is where this story gets really interesting: according to the company records, one of its founders was a man called William Fernie. Fernie gave his name to a town in eastern British Columbia and was largely responsible for the building of the railway through the Crow’s Nest Pass. He was also a prospector and miner, who contributed enormously to the development of the Kootney region.

In 1905, just around the time the San Juan Company was established, he retired to Victoria where he lived in a wonderful home on Oak Bay Avenue called Kimbolton (named for the place he was born in England in 1837).

Another name from Aaron’s research popped out at me. The company records list that in 1913, during the big pre-war real estate and economic boom, a man called John C. Newberry was listed as holding 50 per cent of the San Juan Company’s shares.

I can only assume this is the same John Cowper Newberry who is well-known in Victoria historical circles and whom my colleague John Adams has researched in the past. Newberry was at the head of his class when he attended Vic High in the 1870s, and was the winner of B.C.’s first Governor General’s medal for academics.

At the age of 16 he took up a teaching post at Craigflower School, but later settled in to life as a collector of customs for the port of Victoria. Cowper and Newberry Streets in the Gorge area are named for him.

Fernie died in 1921 and the San Juan Company went through a number of changes. In 1923 it became the Alunite Chemical Corporation. Then its record-keeping began to deteriorate and information becomes sparse.

In 1934, Newberry died, and it was around that period that the company finally began to fail. Amongst its limited records from that era were several letters from the government seeking unpaid dues and admonishing the company for not filing with the registrar of companies. By 1937 Alunite Chemical Corporation was bust.

This little story demonstrates how interconnected early Victoria residents were. This city had a small population, and the same names pop up again and again in a variety of intriguing enterprises. It feels appropriate that, despite Victoria’s large size today, this community of history buffs remains so close and connected.

– with thanks to Aaron and Ron Stefik

•••

 

Kate Humble is an historian and the education curator for the Maritime Museum of B.C. Questions can be sent to: khumble@mmbc.bc.ca.

 

 

Just Posted

PHOTOS: Playful pooches take over Bullen Park for free event Saturday, Sunday

Ninth annual Pet-A-Palooza featured a mud run, weiner dog races, puppy stampede and more

Take your opportunity to sing at the Royal Theatre

Great Canadian Sing debuts Sept. 8 with inspirational music, talented performers, singalong format

Victoria’s Other Secret not so secret anymore

How six Mount Doug teachers turned a lunch jam into $11,000 raised for charity

PHOTOS: Inside the opening of the expanded Westhills Stadium

The grand opening of the expanded stadium in Langford is on schedule for Aug. 24

Award-nominated Snotty Nose Rez Kids headline Indigifest 2019 coming to Victoria

Scheduled for Aug. 24, the event is a showcase of Indigenous musicians from around B.C.

70 years of lifting: Canadian man, 85, could cinch weightlifting championship

The senior gym junkie is on track to win the World Masters Weightlifting championship

Advocates ‘internationalize’ the fight to free Raif Badawi from Saudi prison

Raif Badawi was arrested on June 17, 2012, and was later sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in jail for his online criticism of Saudi clerics

RCMP, search crews hunt for 4-year-old boy missing near Mackenzie

George went missing early Saturday afternoon

Canadian entrepreneurs turning beer byproduct into bread, cookies and profits

Some breweries turn to entrepreneurs looking to turn spent grain into treats for people and their pets

Canada ‘disappointed’ terror suspect’s British citizenship revoked

Jack Letts, who was dubbed “Jihadi Jack” by the U.K. media, has been detained in a Kurdish prison for about two years

Chrystia Freeland condemns violence in Hong Kong, backs right to peaceful assembly

There have been months of protests in the semi-autonomous region

B.C. VIEWS: Log exports and my other errors so far in 2019

Plastic bags, legislature overspending turn out differently

‘It’s just the freedom:’ Paralyzed Broncos player pursuing life on the water

The former Humboldt Broncos goaltender, who started in the net when he was nine, was paralyzed last year

Canadians killed in Afghanistan honoured during emotional dedication ceremony

One-hundred-fifty-eight Canadian soldiers died during the mission

Most Read