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Aug. 13, 2022

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Clark County History: Charles Brown

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It was the strangest house for a frontier town. Built about 1866, the Second French Empire-style structure at 400 W. 11th St. in Vancouver still stands out today for its flat roof and a door oddly facing outside from its second-floor sans balcony.

Known as the Charles Brown House, no one is sure who built it. It might have been Charles’ father, Samuel W. Brown (1819-1908). An 1874 deed transferred the domicile from Alonzo Cook, a Vancouver lawyer, to Charles. Perhaps Cook built it. Its original history was lost in the 1890 Clark County Courthouse fire.

The elder Brown hauled his family from Illinois, where he had served as sheriff of Knox County, a state representative (1854-1856), mayor of Galesburg (1857), a newspaper publisher and founder of Lombard College. While mayor, he met the future president when he debated Stephen Douglas at Knox College in September 1858. After his election, Abraham Lincoln named S.W. Brown “receiver of public moneys” and sent him to Clark County in 1861. The Brown family crossed the Isthmus of Panama and arrived in Vancouver that summer. Immediately, S.W. Brown involved himself in city politics and was elected mayor of Vancouver.

His son, Charles Brown (1850-1901), received his education locally but spent time in San Francisco learning the printing trade. When he returned to Vancouver in 1874, he married Rebecca Slocum (1844-1910) at the Brown House. Like his father, he was at the city’s political center.

The younger Brown served as a city councilman, county treasurer four terms and auditor. Vancouver elected him mayor in 1887. When his father and L.M. Hidden founded the Vancouver, Klickitat and Yakima Railroad, Charles Brown became secretary, Hidden vice president and S.W. Brown president. The investors built 13 miles of track to Brush Prairie before they sold the railway.

Elected president of the First National Bank in 1891, Charles Brown inherited a bank lacking funds to cover loans, making it nearly insolvent. Edmund L. Canby, the bank cashier, had worked there eight years. The Panic of 1893 likely weakened the bank more. At some point, the pair altered the ledgers to disguise the insufficient funds. Their ruse continued for a decade, sending Charles Brown into depression.

In 1901, bank examiner J.W. Maxwell uncovered the fraud and confronted both. Canby grabbed a pistol from the desk. Maxwell tried to disarm him. Canby escaped to another room, gun in hand, seemingly to kill himself. Brown went to talk to him. Canby sobbed because the pistol didn’t fire. The examiner filed a complaint. Sheriff John Marsh went to serve Brown and Canby. When he couldn’t find them, he organized a search party.

James Mundy, one of the searchers, found Brown and Canby on their backs, side by side nearly touching. Brown’s palm gripped the pistol. Not seeing other solutions, the two made a suicide pact.

Sadness shrouded the Brown House the day Charles’ family held funeral services there. Many friends from Vancouver and Portland came to pay respects. Notably absent was his father, who claimed illness. Charles Browns’ daughters believed him to be a dreamer better suited for poetry than banking.

They buried Charles Brown in the Brown family plot in Old City Cemetery on Mill Plain. His father followed him there seven years later.


Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.

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