Simon Leiser

JMABC L.08496
JMA: A_141

Birth: April 9, 1851 in Kerpen, Germany

Death: May 12, 1917 (age 66) in Vancouver, B.C.

At the age of 17 he came to Madison, Wisconsin to apprentice in his maternal uncle Jacob Lenz’s brewery. Jacob’s daughter, Caroline, was four years his junior, a gifted pianist, and future wife. The young couple married and moved to San Francisco. In 1873 they arrived in Victoria on the Prince Albert. Capt. William Moore hired Simon as a contractor to improve the 100 km overland trail Cassiar Trail connecting Telegraph Creek to Dease Lake.

Simon enlisted the help of his younger brother Gustav from Germany. They were joined by their uncles Jacob after his brewery business went bankrupt due to drought and crop failure in the American mid-west. The Cassiar gold rush ended in 1880 the Cassiar.

By circa 1874 Simon returned to Victoria where with a partner he opened a coffee and spice shop. They roasted coffee and spices and ground them using a newly patented steam driven 3 horse power engine. The business sold all the coffee and spices used in the Province.

Simon was able to raise money in San Francisco, Montreal, and with the financial help of some of Victoria’s business elites, in 1894 Simon created the Simon Leiser & Co. As business prospered he opened branch stores in the coal mining and lumbering towns on Vancouver Island (Ladysmith, Comox Valley etc.) Eventually he employed 100 people making Simon Leiser & Co. biggest firm of its kind on the island. The company sold supplies and food to miners during the Klondike gold rush in the Yukon in 1897-8.

The building at 524 Yates was the warehouse for the Simon Leiser & Co and was built in 1896 for $35,000. It’s is a three storey brick warehouse built in the Eclectic High Victoria Style. This architectural style dates from the 1870s through 1900 and features a fusion of elements from a variety of Victorian styles to create highly decorative surfaces. It was heated with hot water, totally fire proof and state of the art. The basement was well ventilated and had a cement floor which kept temperatures cool. This allowed them to store butter and other temperature sensitive items.

General offices, private offices, and cigar and tobacco rooms were located on the ground floor. Storage rooms were stacked full. There was an electric freight elevator to make it easier to handle the goods on every floor. Tracks run north-south and east-west for easy access to any part of the building. Merchandise loaded onto the platform from a north-south direction, could be rotated and reoriented in an east-west direction for unloading. Cargo could be handled with a minimum of time and labor. It was a grocery warehouse until 1960, and sat empty until becoming an office building. The building was then renovated for condos. In 1979 it was formally recognized as a heritage building.

As his wealth and social statue grew, Simon became increasingly involved in philanthropy and civically active. He served on the board, of the synagogue, organized the Victoria an Island Development Association, and served on the council of the Victoria Board of trade for 15 years. He was influential in getting a large amount of federal funds to improve the Victoria Harbor, and to build the Grand Truck docks. Simon was a member of the city delegation that went to the Canadian Pacific Railway with a proposal to build the Empress Hotel in Victoria.

Simon served on the board of the Royal Jubilee Hospital. He was the prime mover in creating the Victoria Opera House Co., a syndicate which promoted and built the 1200 seat Royal Victoria Theater, which opened on December 29, 1913.

On May 7, 1915 during World War 1, the a German U-boat torpedoed the RMS Lusitania off the Irish coast. 1198 people were killed including James Dunsmiur Jr. son of James Dunsmiur a wealthy and influential businessman and investor in the Simon Leiser & Co. Victoria was one of the few cities in the world in which rioting took place. Rioters targeted German businesses, which included all the properties owned by each of the Leiser brothers. The Simon Leiser & Co was damaged despite the fact that Simon had been a productive citizen of BC for 40 years, a naturalized Canadian for 23 and James Dunsmiur was a stockholder in the company.

In 1894, Simon bought two sealing schooners: the Wanderer and, the Favorite. Thinking that they were British vessels, American coast guard officials seized the ships. Having never been a British subject, Simon he filed a claim. He joined the board of the Victoria Sealing Co. to further his cause. Protracted international negotiations involving Simon, which were never adjusted, was a major factor in ending seal hunting in the province.

Simon and Caroline Leiser had 1 son and 5 daughters; two of whom married Oppenheimer brothers and lived in Vancouver. Simon went to Vancouver on a business trip, and suddenly on May 12, 1917 while at his daughter Amy Oppenheimer’s home, he died of a brain hemorrhage. He was 66 and was buried with Jewish and Masonic ritual in the family plot in Victoria’s Jewish cemetery. The business was sold to the wholesale grocers Kelly Douglas and Co Ltd.

Gravesite Details: Row E – Plot 57

In Loving Memory of
Simon Leiser
Born in Kerpen, Germany April 9, 1851
Died May 12, 1917
Caroline Leiser
Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Aug 26, 1855
Died June 9 1935
Mother / Father

Caroline Lenz Leiser (1855-1935)

Ella Leiser Hamburger (1874-1958)
Died in San Francisco
Florence Harriet Leiser Oppenheimer (1877-1915)
Died in San Francisco, buried in Jewish Cemetery in Oppenheimer family plot
Jennie Leiser (1879-1880)
Buried in Leiser family plot
Amelia (Amy) Leiser Oppenheimer (1881-1961)
Buried in Ocean View Memorial Park, Burnaby, B.C.
Hilda Leiser Guthman (1883-
Lived in Seattle
Herbert Leiser (1885-1953).
Married May Thurston they had three children.
Buried in Buried in Royal Oak Burial Park

Gustav (Gus) Leiser (1856-1896)
Max Leiser (1862-1935)

The Victoria Historical Society
“The Leiser Brothers of Victoria, B.C.” by Ronald Greene, page 8

Vancouver Island Masonic History Project:

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