Robert Clark

Robert Clark

Researching the earliest years of the Vancouver Board of Trade turns out to be more interesting than we’d anticipated. Most of us know at least a little of the history of The Board’s first president, David Oppenheimer (who was also the city’s second mayor), but another figure pops up in those early years whose name has almost vanished into an undeserved obscurity.

He was Robert Clark, a city alderman and haberdasher, who chaired the September 22, 1887 meeting of businessmen out of which The Board emerged.

Clark’s early years in Canada were eventful. They’re described in a 1906 book titled British Columbia Illustrated. His granddaughter, Gwen Newton, a vice-president at Raymond James, the Vancouver financial advisors’ firm, loaned us the book. It includes an article about her grandfather. It shows that people whom you might imagine have led uneventful lives—Clark was a haberdasher—may turn out, in fact, to have had many adventures.

Clark was born in Lanarkshire, Scotland in 1845. His first job was in a grocery store, but then he learned the ship-builder’s trade, and in May 1871, at age 25, he left Scotland for Canada to work for a Captain Dick at Fort Frances.

How he got from Fort Frances to Lake Manitoba—where he would, incidentally, make a contribution to Manitoba history—is a harrowing tale, too long for a full description in this article. In party with a few other men he walked many days through the Lake of the Woods area until the moccasins he was wearing fell to pieces off his feet. Close to starvation, the party trapped a few muskrats but, happily, just as they were about to tuck into them they stumbled into a lumber camp where they were fed and sheltered.

“Refreshed by their meal and their night’s rest,” the account continues, “the party started out the next morning.” Clark had now put on a pair of high-heeled boots, but “they were not easy to walk in for the country had been flooded with rain and the ground was inundated with water and slush. For a long distance the party had to wade and the boots rubbing Mr. Clark’s heels took all the skin off. The next morning, because of his sore heels, he was unable to keep up with the party and was obliged to take off his boots and socks and walk for sixty miles in bare feet through snow and brush.”

They stopped one night at a place called Point Lachine, “lying on the floor wrapped in their blankets,” then carried on another 36 miles to Winnipeg. Ten miles of that was wading through ten miles of water ice cold and from six to eighteen inches deep.”

For two or three weeks after this Clark was very lame, but as soon as possible he began active work. He built the first steamer that sailed on Lake Manitoba!

“Going into the forest he picked out the trees, hewed the lumber and with help whip-sawed the lumber. He then built and launched the boat and delivered her to the owners, a craft one hundred feet in length.”

Clark then moved into the States and worked in various cities until he came up to Victoria in 1875. In 1880 he opened a men’s wear store in Nanaimo, moved it to Yale a year later. His Yale store burned down. In the spring of 1886 he came to the brand-new city of Vancouver, and opened a men’s wear store on Hastings Street. It was the city’s first. That’s the store in the photo above, with Mr. Clark standing in the entrance.

And a year later he headed the committee that created The Vancouver Board of Trade. For more on the early years of The Board, click here »

View the activities of The Vancouver Board of Trade through the years by clicking on the links below:

1888 1889 1890 1891 1892 1893
1894 1895 1896 1897 1898 1899
1900 1901 1902 1903 1904 1905
1906 1907 1908 1909 1910  
1926       1932 1933
1935 1936 1937 1938 1939 1940