“Whenever [politicians] don a sanctimonious face, the more pious they look, by jingo, that’s the time to watch the blighters.” —John Dean.
NEWS ITEM: This month Tsartlip First nations students successfully petitioned the province to rename John Dean Provincial Park, LÁU,WEL.NEW/John Dean Provincial Park. Pronounced Tlay-wil-nook, it means “place of refuge” in the language of the WSANEC peoples…
Businessman, economist, philanthropist, eccentric and Victoria’s ambassador of goodwill, they called John Dean. The bearded lifelong bachelor who was born in Stratton, Cheshire, on Dec. 17, 1850 and was orphaned at the age of eight, left school at 12 to become a builder’s apprentice.
Migrating to Canada in 1873, he arrived in Victoria after 12 years in Toronto, Texas and Louisiana. The CPR was then under construction and the enterprising contractor immediately placed a winning bid for the building of nine 60,000 gallon water tanks.
It was the 35-year-old Dean’s first business venture in the young province and, as he recalled many years later, he never looked back.
A firm believer that fortune favours the bold, Dean made one wise investment after another which enabled him to devote more and more time to an awakening interest in civic affairs — and to conduct a lifelong feud with bureaucracy.
Not that all of Dean’s business schemes had gone according to plan, however. Like the time he decided great things were going to happen to the tiny hamlet of Prince Rupert. Undoubtedly the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway’s decision to make Rupert its western terminus had influenced Dean’s crystal ball. Whatever the case, he hurried north in search of opportunity and saw thundering Khatada River Falls.
In 1960 Wiggs O’Neill recounted in the Northern Sentinel how Dean, with a rowboat and Indian boatman, had investigated the lower Skeena River and approaches to Prince Rupert then hired O’Neill as guide to explore around Khatada River Falls.
In the falls’ roaring spray, Dean decided that this was the power source for up-and-coming Prince Rupert.
Recording a water right, he and O’Neill staked a piece of land for the future electric station and left for Victoria to begin preparations. With the Grand Trunk’s announcement it was placing the townsite on the auction block, he returned to the hamlet having earlier suggested by mail that he and O’Neill team up and buy lots.
“I had a few shekels saved up, so agreed to the proposition. John came north and I met him as arranged. We walked all over the business section and picked out our choice selections and John returned to Victoria to await the big sale.
“Both he and I had visions of great wealth.”
When sale time came the eager partners met in Vancouver to discuss how much they would offer for each lot. “After that was thrashed out, John said (he always called me Billy for some reason), ‘Now Billy, you better let me do the bidding as I have had a lot of experience in this sort of thing. When I left England as a young gaffer I first went to the United States and went into contracting around New Orleans.
“’We had to buy materials and used to attend auction sales and do a lot of bidding and I got a lot of experience. Bidding efficiency is something you have to get by experience.’”
Completely ignorant of the ways of big business, O’Neill had nodded consent. Dean then had whispered the secret of successful bidding.
“Billy,” he said in his nasal tone, “we will get as near the front as possible so we will be heard. A fellow often loses a bid by not being heard, being too far back.”
At the crowded auction they’d swaggered to the front where Dean confidently explained the master plan: “When our first choice selection come up, I’ll start if off easy, about half-price of what we agreed on, and when some other fellow butts in with a bid, I’ll shoot the works and stagger them all and we’ll get our property. That’s the secret of knowing how to bid.”
The partners had then leaned back confidently, thumbs in vests, to await the start of festivities. Minutes later, their first selection, two adjoining lots, were offered. Like a shot Dean was on his feet, finger stabbing skyward as he sang, “Five hundred dollars!”
Before he regained his seat, a voice from behind boomed, “Five thousand!”
Wheeling about, mouth agape, Dean scanned his opponent then mumbled to O’Neill, “Billy, the danged fool is crazy.”
To which his awed partner had numbly agreed. John Dean never had a chance to stun the crowd with his second bid, as O’Neill ruefully admitted half a century later: “We were hundred-dollar men in a thousand-dollar environment.”
But John Dean wasn’t one to stay down and he hastened back to Victoria to press his plans for the Khatada Falls power plant, and obtained a provincial government franchise to supply electricity to Tsimpesan Peninsula. Now the bustling entrepreneur endured tardy shareholders and, exasperated, he sold out to Montreal interests. Dean’s impatience ultimately proved to be a blessing as, when the company at last began construction, it found the newly incorporated City of Prince Rupert was opposed to a privately owned utility. It took two majority elections to resolve the issue, when another company, this one based on Extall River, received the franchise.
Perhaps it was this lengthy battle that prompted Dean’s antipathy with politicians. Before leaving Rupert he’d cautioned O’Neill, “Billy, I hope you never have much to do with politicians, for they are a pretty ‘crumby’ crowd. Whenever they don a sanctimonious face, the more pious they look, by jingo, that’s the time to watch the blighters.”
Perhaps his unending animosity towards elected officials dated from his own entry into the world of politics in Rossland. Then a real estate agent and mining broker, he’d been elected alderman in 1900 and mayor three years later.
Moving to Victoria in 1908, he opened a real state office on Government Street until retiring from active business in 1912.
For the next 30 years he waged a single-handed battle against governmental inefficiency and pomposity, becoming an internationally recognized authority on civic management. Time and again his skirmishes with city hall amused and aroused Victorians. With a rapier-like wit and pen, and armed with facts gained from his world travels, John Dean crusaded for improved government and a more beautiful city through preservation and planning. Even his most frequent targets couldn’t remain angry with the expostulating Englishman.
Ironically, although few of his cherished beliefs were implemented during his lifetime, the years have proven him right on several points, his crystal ball having yielded more than golden business opportunities — the shape of things to come.
“I think it is safe to say,” wrote the late Ainslie J. Helmcken, 52 years ago, “that his was the first and most insistent voice advocating the adoption of a plan of city management for Victoria. He contested mayoralty election twice, and was defeated twice. But he kept chipping away at the subject and the influences created by a man so full of vigour, a fine student of civic government and management was felt to a far greater degree than was realized in his lifetime.”
But for all of John Dean’s indefatigable efforts in the form of pamphlets, letters to members of parliament and exhausting research into more efficient management of the public purse, the seemingly hopeless fight left its scars on the aging warrior.
According to William Newton, a close friend, “Personal egotism was not involved. He had witnessed the disappearance of the natural beauty of the environs of his home during the 58 years of residence through the haphazard encroachment of commerce and industry and through the erection of unsightly military barracks. He had more faith in professional planning by architects and engineers than in the ideas of the average elected councillor, hence he campaigned for the appointment of a professional city manager.”
In 1946, during one period of disillusionment, he’d bought a plot in Ross Bay Cemetery and had a tombstone erected bearing what’s become his famous epitaph: “In memory of John Dean. Born Stretton, Cheshire, England, December 17, 1850. Died…
“It is a rotten world, artful politicians are its bane. Its saving grace is the artfulness of the young and the wonders of the sky.”
Then, in a typical about-face of spirit, he’d sent friends a photograph of himself posing proudly beside the widely discussed stone.
Mr. Newton had met Dean years before at his summer cabin atop Mount Newton when the latter had sought permission for boy scouts to use the property, 80 acres of first-growth timber, as a campsite.
“I found him in his log cabin, close to the summit. John Dean was an ardent naturalist and consequently spend a good part of each summer on Mount Newton. In those days the summit could only be reached on foot over somewhat difficult trails. He was a little hesitant about granting permission to the scouts to overnight campsites on his property for he feared vandalism.
“His fears were soon dissipated when he examined vacated campsites of the Sidney Boy Scout Troop under Freeman King, the scoutmaster. Not a tin can or a piece of paper was visible.”
So impressed with the youngsters was he, in fact, that he became an ardent supporter of the scouting movement. Thus, when he’d had his tombstone erected in 1936, the reference to the “artlessness of the young”.
In 1931, by order-in-council, the 80 acres of unspoiled wilderness atop Mount Newton became John Dean Provincial Park. Afraid that his virgin paradise might be despoiled by land developers, he’d given it to the province.
This magnanimous gesture had been preceded by some soul-searching, said Mr. Newton, Dean having been “a bit concerned when he was informed that the government would build a road up to his property if he turned it over to them as a public park. He told me that more vandals travel in cars than on foot and consequently was in favour of the construction of bridal paths only to reach the proposed park.
“It was only after we had discussed fire, the greatest of our forest vandals, that he agreed to turn over the property as a park without a road construction ban. He realized that fire fighting equipment could not reach the forest area at the summit in time if a road up to park was not constructed.”
Ever a favourite with reporters, Dean’s birthday became an annual news event in his last years. Each Dec. 17, newsmen would respectfully call on the grand old man at Seascape, his rambling home in Esquimalt overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Olympic Mountains. On his 90th birthday in 1940, the Colonist reported, “one of Victoria’s most public-spirited citizens” was spending the day quietly at home as he has “not had robust health for some time…although he is getting about much as usual, and takes his customary keen interest in current events and happenings”.
He’d just finished addressing and stamping 250 letters to members of parliament explaining his views that Esquimalt wasn’t treated fairly by the federal government, “but quite frankly admits he does not expect them to do any good”.
When newsmen called the following year he was busy distributing his estate. “My principal interest lies in disposing of the means I have to the best purpose for those in need.” He’d been sending $100 monthly to stricken relatives in England for the duration of the war.
Three months after his 92nd birthday, John Dean, grand old man and goodwill ambassador, was gone and another newspaper editorial summed up his immense achievements in two sentences: “His was the philosophy which ungrudgingly accepted the proven dictum that only by studying all sides of any question thoroughly could the sum of human knowledge be increased.
“And if he occasionally exerted his will on causes not popular at the moment, nobody questioned his sincerity of purpose. Time will be the judge.”
And so it has.