Demolition order threatens one of Duncan’s historic buildings


The gabled two-storey building at the northeast corner of Craig and Station Streets, boarded up and unsightly for the past two years or more while undergoing repairs and renovation that have stalled, has been ordered by Duncan council to come down within 45 days…

Wednesday, I told you how Harry Smith invested the money he’d made by selling his mining properties on Mount Sicker to open the Duncan’s Emporium, then built what we’ve known in recent years as the home of the Red Balloon Toy Shop.

But this historic structure has known many businesses over the past century, some of them of significance to Duncan’s and the Valley’s development. Here it was that Harry started our first newspaper, the short-lived Duncan Enterprise. It wasn’t until he sold his store to Pitt Peterson in 1904 that he finally succeeded as a publisher, in 1905 – upstairs in the same building, in his former offices, as a tenant, renting from Pitt Peterson.

"Once more we come to you and ask you to assist us to establish the ‘Cowichan Leader’ which we hope to make a permanent part of this thriving and progressive valley," he wrote in his introductory editorial.

This time, for the first time, the papers were printed in Duncan. Still small in format, he was awaiting the arrival of a larger press with which he promised to "issue a clean, up-todate newspaper giving space to all matters of interest…"

The Leader began to grow in size and in revenue. With his sons as delivery boy and apprentice pressman, Harry served as publisher and printer for three years then agreed to merge his operation with that of O.T. Smythe, owner of the competing Echo. Just a month later, Harry was out of the newspaper business altogether.

Besides managing a mining brokerage, a store and a newspaper,

Smith had helped found the Duncan Volunteer Fire Brigade, the A.F.A. M.’s Temple Lodge, and managed the Duncan Opera House. But he was again restless. He prospected in the Cowichan Lake area and with a partner operated the first

steam launch on the lake. After divesting himself of all local business interests he tried working as a foreman for a construction company in Nome, Alaska before opening what’s said to have been Prince Rupert’s first store, in 1906. In Stewart, 1907-13, he prospered as a merchant but lost it all and, after a failed attempt at coal mining, 1915 found him in California, market gardening and mining for chromium. In 1924 he joined his son Marshall in Alice Arm. He died in the Provincial Home in Kamloops, aged 82, in 1942.

Pitt Peterson merged, in 1910, with W.P. Jaynes to build the city’s first department store, the

Cowichan Merchants Building.

Other prominent tenants in the old Emporium Building over the years have been the Island Drug Store, John’s Clothing and IWA 1-180. Furniture dealer and auctioneer R.A. Thorpe also operated here.

It was upstairs that manager A.W. Hanham opened the first branch of the Bank of British North America in 1905, he and his assistant making so much noise that newspaper publisher and fellow tenant Harry Smith shut down his press to investigate, then stayed to help. The bank didn’t stay long, moving into its own premises down the block (today’s Bank of Montreal) three months later.

During the First World War, when Duncan had the highest enlistment rate per capita in all of Canada, the latest dispatches from Europe would arrive at the telegraph office in the train station, to be printed out and hung in the windows of Island Drugs. This being before radio and TV, it was the quickest way for Valley residents to know what was

happening at the Front – and to learn of the latest casualties of their friends and colleagues. Some emotional scenes must have been enacted on the sidewalk here…

In short, this landmark building is one of Duncan’s oldest and most historic. After being damaged by a city-operated snowplow and, again, allegedly, during the city’s revitalization of Craig Street, the issue of liability is in the courts. After five years and extensive repairs at considerable cost, which include new foundations, the building remains boarded up, much to the dismay of downtown merchants.

Last week, the City issued a demolition order. If it does come down Duncan will lose one of its most prized heritage buildings. This may restore downtown aesthetics but it seems a shame that, having stood now for more than a century, and having had expensive repairs, Harry Smith’s Emporium can’t go on indefinitely.

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