Simon Leiser

Birth: April 9, 1851 in Kerpen, Germany

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

Biography:
At the age of 17 he came to America to apprentice in his uncle’s brewery in Madison, Wisconsin. There, at the age of 20 he met his 16 year old cousin Caroline, a gifted pianist and his future wife. The young couple married and moved to San Francisco. Simon obtained a contract from Capt. William Moore to build the 100 km Cassiar Trail connecting Telegraph Creek to Dease Lake.

He brought his younger brother Gustav from Germany to help him.
Jacob Lenz’s (Caroline’s father and Simon’s father-in-law and uncle) brewery business went bankrupt due to poor crops in the Midwest so Jacob brought his family to the interior to join Gus and Simon.

In 1880 the Cassiar gold was finished and Simon Leiser returned to Victoria where with a partner he opened a coffee and spice shop. He had a newly patented steam driven 3 horse power engine used to grind coffee and spices. He 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 in1897-8.

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 3 storey brick warehouse built in the Eclectic High Victoria Style. The Victorian Eclectic style of architecture 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 even on hot summer days allowing 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, then it was empty until it became an office building. It was renovated for condos and is a heritage building.

As his wealth and social statue grew, Simon became a philanthropist and active civically. 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, to build of the Grand Truck docks, and the Empress Hotel. He served on the board of the Royal Jubilee Hospital. Simon was the prime mover in 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 a wealthy and influential man and other Victoria residents. Victoria was one of the few cities in the world in which rioting took place. People vandalizing any business owned by someone with a German sounding name, including all the properties owned by all of the Leiser brothers. This even though Simon had been a productive citizen of BC for 40 years, a naturalized Canadian for 23 or that 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. Hunting of seals for their furs ended due to drawn out international negotiations involving Simon Leiser.

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

Inscription:
Leiser
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

Family Members:

  • Spouse
    • Caroline Lenz Leiser (1855-1935)
  • Children
    • Ella Leiser Hamburger (1874-1958) lived in San Francisco
    • Florence Harriet Leiser Oppenheimer (1877-1915) died in San Francisco
    • Jennie Leiser (1879-1880)
    • Amelia (Amy) Leiser Oppenheimer (1881-1961)
    • Hilda Leiser Guthman (1883 lived in Seattle
    • Herbert Leiser (1885-1953)
      Married May Thurston they had 3 children
  • Siblings
    • Gustav (Gus) Leiser (1856-1896)
    • Max Leiser (1862-1935)

The Victoria Historical Society
“The Leiser Brothers of Victoria, B.C.” by Ronald Greene,
http://victoriahistoricalsociety.bc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/The-Leiser-Brothers.pdf

Vancouver Island Masonic History Project: http://www.templelodge33.ca/VI%20Masonic%20History%20Project/Victoria%20Jewish%20Cemetery/Leiser-Simon.html

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