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Waterfront Station Vancouver Circa 1920

The Olympic Sailor Who Navigated Vancouver’s Property Crash

The gold rush wasn’t just a boom for California. The entire West Coast of the North American continent was welcoming new visitors from around the world, all looking to find riches beneath the rocky soil. But it wasn’t what was underneath the ground that made many of their dreams come true. Much of the wealth created after gold was found in the frontier country didn’t come from gold, it came from real estate. Nowhere was this more true than in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Even before the gold rush, the town known as Grandville was growing. It was chosen by the Canadian Pacific Railroad to be the endpoint of its first cross-country rail line. But the railroad granted the town this distinction and the company leveraged its influence as much as it could. They first announced that the terminus of their monumental track would be at the nearby town of Port Moody. Upon hearing this, the new residents and real estate speculators of Grandville lobbied the company to change its mind. In the end, the city signed away around half of what is now Vancouver, including almost all the downtown peninsula to the railroad. 

Even the town’s name was changed to appease the railroad. The President of the Canadian Pacific Railroad (with a particularly presidential-sounding name) President William Cornelius Van Horne thought that Grandville was too boring of a name. Instead, he wanted it to honor the British navigator (read: colonizer) George Vancouver. So the name was changed and the railroad company made a fortune from their newly desirable land.

As immigrants came to Vancouver during the gold rush they likely learned about real estate before they did gold mining. Legend has it that there were more real estate offices at the time than grocery stores. It was a regular occurrence to be confronted by real estate agents on the street trying to sell forested lots on the outskirts of town. One newspaper at the time wrote “The bare fact of a man’s coming to Vancouver by train was almost sufficient introduction. Inside of an hour every real estate man in the place would know his business in Vancouver, and probably whether he had any family or hereditary diseases.”

For a lot of early buyers, this speculation turned out to be wildly successful. In the late 1880s and early 1890s properties were being flipped monthly for huge gains. Property values were climbing so fast that prevailing wisdom was that you could not go wrong speculating on property. A phrase popularized in the era was “you’re a mug if you invest in anything else.” The investment fever and the general population growth in the area sustained these gains for quite a while. In 1905 $1 million in building permits was issued. By 1908 this had reached $6 million. By 1912 they peaked at a stunning $20 million, which when adjusted for inflation is still the high water mark for development in the city even today.

But the longer a bubble grows, the more air there is to let out of it. The US government created the Federal Reserve, increased the money supply, and raised taxes. This sends the global economy into a recession. It also was enough to tip Vancouver’s precarious property values off a coastal bluff. Thousands of property loans were being defaulted on, commercial rents declined by half, and real estate prices fell by an unthinkable 90 percent. One of the area’s largest banks, Dominion Trust Company, had just finished a new commercial building. They were not able to find even a single tenant and were pushed into bankruptcy. The company’s vice president shot himself inside of his mansion before it was repossessed. 

It is here where we meet our unlikely hero Ronald Maitland. He was an area local, grew up constructing home made boats in Burrard Inlet north of town. His resourcefulness caught the eye of a manager at a real estate and insurance company called Macaulay Nicolls and he was hired as a bank clerk at the age of 16. Eighteen years later he became a partner. He had cautioned the company to be cautious of too much real estate exposure and even persuaded them to branch out into other services like maritime insurance. When the crash hit it was this conservatism and diversification that made it one of the only survivors in the Vancouver real estate industry. 

Macaulay Nicolls was one of the companies that helped piece back together what was a broken real estate industry in Vancouver and grew to be one of Canada’s leading real estate firms. Eventually, it joined Colliers in 1984. Ronald went on to race an eight meter sailboat called the Santa Maria in the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. His team lost every race but went home with a silver medal because only the Canadians and Americans participated in the event that year. Over and over in his life he seemed to always find a way to make something out of nothing.

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