History · South Vancouver · Vancouver

Treasure House Ransacked

It was a one paragraph item in the August 8, 1955 edition of the Vancouver Sun noting that a house formally owned by Ezak Nep at 878 SW Marine Drive had been wrecked by people looking for a supposed fortune hidden somewhere in the house.

I made a note in my book of perpetual research and carried on with the report I was researching. Sometime later I was looking at some old maps and remembered the address and was curious as to the location of this so called treasure house. Turns out 878 SW Marine Drive didn’t exist, so a quick search for Mr Nep turns up another article about the supposed treasure house with the address as 978 SW Marine Drive, this article mentions a treasure of 200,000 dollars secreted away by former owner Harry Bishop. Of course, there were no Harry Bishops that lived in or anywhere near the property however, the directories do cough up a Harry Bissette* and his wife Lilly living at 978 SW Marine between 1926 and 1947.

* Bissette, Bisset and Bissett are used in various records, we’re using the newspaper spelling.

At this address, Bissett is listed first as a real estate broker, then retired and finally as a poultryman. His acre and half property is now part of today’s Eburne Park and under an off ramp from the Oak Street Bridge. Harry’s second wife died in 1947 and the property was sold that year to the Nep family who had recently moved out from Manitoba and opened a kosher meat and poultry store in the 3300 block of Cambie Street. Harry disappears from the directories.

So who was Harry Bissett?

Well, a bit of poking around finds Harry Gordon Bissett born in 1866 in Ohio to Robert and Jane Bissett living in Vancouver as early as 1891. The census for that year lists him as a hotel clerk and single, though later that year he would marry his first wife Annie. By 1896 he is the proprietor of a saloon called the Mining Exchange and it seemed to be a cut above your average bar with Bissett encouraging prospectors to drop off ore samples for the occasional exhibit. Business seemed to be good and soon he was planning to expand to a new location. He was involved with the city’s social and sports life and when the Vancouver lacrosse team beat their arch rivals the Salmonbellies for the 1896 championship, Bissett gave out pocket watches with gold chains to team members. Joe Reynolds, a member of the team, recalled in 1935 that ‘Dick’ Bissett made the offer to the team if they won and that he still had his watch and that he continued to use it daily.

In 1899, ‘Dick’ Bissett was in the papers talking about his new Miner’s Exchange planned for the south west corner of Seymour and Hastings with a design by architect William Blackmore. The Daily World commented that “It will be of one storey, but with high exterior front and ceilings, the idea being to make a feature of the billiard room and like arrangements where skylights are almost indispenibe. The front entrance will be by a vestibule, on one side of which will be a cigar store and on the other a barber shop. The front doors will be of massive oak, 20 feet high. Beyond the inside corridor there will be the bar, which, it goes without saying, will not be outclassed on the coast.” The bar was successful and plans for an even larger premises on Hastings Street near Cambie were unveiled in 1907. However, Bissett got caught by the ongoing real estate frenzy in the city losing out to a group of Winnipeg investors who paid out a load of money to break his lease and develop the Hotel Astor instead. Bissette was associated with the new Astor Hotel for a short period before moving on and taking over the popular Merchant’s Exchange saloon. His original Miner’s Exchange at Seymour and Hastings had been sold and would become the site of the Weart Building, the neo-gothic office building better known today as the Standard Building.

Outside of business, 1907 was an eventful year for Bissett. The Province reported in May on the dramatic rescue of a man accidentally pushed off the gang plank of the North Vancouver ferry St George that was delivering an enthusiastic crowd to Vancouver for a moonlight cruise. After swimming under the boat to avoid the propellors the fellow “swam down alongside the ferry and Mr. Fred. Elliott tried to grasp him, but the distance was too great. Mr. Dick Bissett of the Astor then came to his assistance and held Mr. Elliott by the heels as he reached right over the ferry, and even then the swimmer was only able to catch hold of one linger. However, this was sufficient, a line was procured, and the exhausted man ladled out. He was hurled down to the engine-room and given a good rubbing down…” Mr Alexander Davidson of North Vancouver did recover after his ordeal and most importantly, his pocket watch was recovered the next day by a diver sent down to search for it.

Bissett ran his new bar for a number of years before moving into real estate in 1913 – not the best time to get into the game given the severe depression at the end of that year – which he stuck to until 1929. Tragedy did visit once more with the death of his wife Annie in 1914 who he’d married in 1891 and had three daughters; Mabel, Gladys and Beatrice and two sons, David and Harry.

He moved to the south Vancouver property in 1927 the year he married his second wife Lilly. She was born in his home state of Ohio, though lived in St Louis, MS, and they tied the knot across the border in Whatcom County. He was 57 and she was 56 and after being ‘retired’ for a few years Bissett became a successful poultryman, raising as Joe Reynolds thought “marvellous chickens” on the property. Lilly passed away in 1947 and she was buried in the family plot back in St Louis.

In January, 1952 Bissett passed away and his obituary mentioned his only surviving relatives as his daughters Mabel and Gladys. There is nothing to indicate that Bissett was hiding hordes of cash in the house and the Neps had almost a decade to try and find whatever it might have been. So probably another unfounded urban myth the origin of which has been lost to time. But it did lead us to an interesting character from the city’s settler past.

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