Odds ‘n’ sods: Vancouver’s last ‘think tank’ on their thoughts of The Jolly Taxpayer

The Jolly Taxpayer in the mid-2000s.The Jolly Taxpayer in the mid-2000s.

VANCOUVER — If there’s one way to spark the interest of a geologist in downtown Vancouver, just mention “The Jolly Taxpayer,” and their eyes will light right up.

For most people, the Taxpayer was just a seedy hotel and dive bar, painted a deep cherry red and wedged against the former B.C. and Yukon Chamber of Mines on Hastings Street. But for the hundreds of geologists working the downtown core, the Taxpayer was the heart of the industry — delivering its lifeblood in quaffs of beer, banter and Monday night meat draws.

The Taxpayer and its connection to mining had deep roots, considering the business in the 1930s — originally a hotel called “Invermay” — was owned and operated by Merritt G. Gordon of the colourful Gordon family.

The Gordon family, including Merritt’s brothers, ran The Commercial Hotel in the Harris district of Saskatchewan in 1910. The business hit its peak when one of the brothers sparked a ruby rush after a local prospector came into the hotel bar and showed him some red “pellets” taken from a rock 20 miles away. 

The brothers profited greatly from the thousands of people flocking to the region, and went so far to establish a saloon and restaurant in three large tents to accommodate the miners and their various appetites.

It took a while before it became known the rubies were just worthless garnets, and after the hotel burned down in 1923, the family split up and Merritt headed to Vancouver, where he started the Invermay. 

The midnight torch changed hands on occasion and continued burning until 2006, when the Taxpayer was demolished, leaving its patrons scattered and despondent in the neighbouring alleyways. A handful of geologists were able to regroup, and they have since sought a weekly refuge at a local pub named “The Railway Club,” in an effort to keep industry camaraderie in the face of urbanization and iPhones.

The Northern Miner met with the group, who jokingly refer to themselves as one of Vancouver’s last “think tanks,” and interviewed them on what life was like back in the jolly days of the Taxpayer.

The Northern Miner: Why was the Taxpayer so important to the mining industry?

The Think Tank: There wasn’t any Internet, so the only way you heard the news was by reading the newspaper or networking with your peers. For us in the industry that meant picking up a copy of The Northern Miner and the George Cross newsletter, then heading to the Taxpayer to talk shop and see what everyone else was up to. It wasn’t just socializing, that place was actually critical for us.

TNM: Who used to go there?

TT: At first it was just a place for miners, but then the brokers caught on, and came around listening to what the geologists fresh out of the bush were saying about their projects. At the other table were the government guys from next door, and floating around the groups were the prospectors pitching their projects. They usually rented the rooms upstairs, so were around all the time. If you were lucky, you’d stake your claim of a table before the local bike couriers took the remaining seats. The place ran steady from 10 a.m. every day, except in the summers, when everyone was out in the field — it was no man’s land then. But in the fall, the crowd would slowly trickle in and resume their positions.

TNM: What did the Taxpayer look like on the inside?

TT: I remember shelves of books we called “the library,” but the books were actually cut in half and glued to the wall alongside a giant stuffed marlin. There was also a back door in case you didn’t want to be seen coming or going, and a pay phone in the corner, with a sign hanging over it saying “no deals under $1 million.”

TNM: So were deals actually made there?

TT: Absolutely. The phone was always tied up. One day a few brokers brought down their own phone, plugged it straight into the wall and made that corner their office. If you searched for the Taxpayer in historic press releases, it’ll come up a number of times stating the deals that went down there. The problem was getting out of there with business, and still managing to stumble home in one piece.

TNM: Was a lot of non-public information leaked?

TT: Without a doubt. It was different back then. Geologists would come back from the field all the time carrying rock and core samples into the bar saying: ‘Hey, look what we found!’ In a way, the Taxpayer was their first press release.

TNM: What were the most memorable times at the Taxpayer?

TT: Well, you’d be lucky if they were “memorable” in the morning, but the stories you can actually recall are hilarious. I still remember the time when International Curator had a project in the Baja California and their stock was going really good — up to $17, which you could never do nowadays. The guys in the company would all bet each other at the bar what the stock would close at on Friday. One week, the bet got up to over a thousand dollars. So on pay-up day, the loser arrives at the Taxpayer with bags and bags of loonies, and dumps it all on the table. The loonies just got dispersed into beer, and never went into a single pocket. Everyone won that night.

And the Monday night meat draws were unforgettable. A lot of us were unemployed for a while during the downturn in the 1980s, so the draws gave us an opportunity to bring home groceries for the week. Or at least it gave us a great excuse to tell our wives, so we could go out on a Monday night.

TNM: So what has changed now?

TT: Vancouver has gone too upscale, and there aren’t many dive bars left where you can hang out all day. Everything became a Joey’s, and beer began to cost three times as much. The Railway Club was the only place we had left to turn, and we’re still quite concerned about our future here, too. The train that circles this bar doesn’t even run anymore, and we take that as a sign of things to come. The only other places left are the ones where we’d end up having to get tattoos to enter, but we’ll keep coming here until the taps run dry, and leave that as our last resort.

— Editor-in-chief’s note: Readers are always invited to submit their firsthand, lighthearted or poignant remembrances of mining and exploration tales that can run as an ‘Odds ‘n’ Sods’ column. Please send them to the editor-in-chief at tnm@northernminer.com.


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