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One of the Grand Old Men of Kent
By Robert Stuart Woods, Chatham Daily Planet, February 6, 1904, And Beers’ Biographical Record, 1904


The News and The Planet have oft time made referral to me as the grand old man of Kent and I suppose that, to some extent, the statement, at least in the application of the second adjective, does reveal a certain truth.

I am of Scottish decent in both paternal and maternal lines. My paternal grandfather was engaged in mercantile lines at St. John’s, Lower Canada. My maternal grandfather, the Hon. Alexander Grant, familiarly known as Commodore Grant, was a member of the ancient family of that name in Scotland and came to Canada as a midshipman under Lord Amherst in 1759, being appointed to the command of a sloop of war, and taking an active and honourable part in the exciting events of those early days. Later, he became Commodore of the western lakes, and at the time- of his death had been an officer of His Majesty’s service for nearly fifty-seven years. Commodore Grant was one of the seven men called by Governor Simcoe to the first legislative council and was the third member of the first executive council of Upper Canada; and in 1805-06, he was Lieutenant Governor of the Province.

Although both my grandfathers were reared in the strict faith of the Scotch Presbyterians, both of them wedded French-Canadian wives of the Roman Catholic faith, bespeaking a liberal trait of which I am most proud to have had passed on to me.

My father, James Woods, was a barrister at law at the Montreal Bar. In 1800, he came to the District of Hess ent and Essex] and took an active part in public matters. My mother was Elizabeth, seventh daughter of Commodore Grant.

l am the fourth son of my parents and was born at Sandwich, Essex, Ontario, in 1819. I was educated in that district until reaching the age of seventeen, when I went to Hamilton where I continued my studies. The course of study in those days was somewhat limited as compared with the curricula of modern schools, but what was lacking in extent was amply compensated for by thoroughness.

In 1837 came the Rebellion, and I was proud to be included in the force under Col. McNab that went to the relief of Toronto as one of "The fifty-six men of Gore". This description deriving from the name of the steamer Gore by means of whom, on the first day of the Rebellion, the city was saved from Mackenzie’s forces. I continued with Col. McNab throughout the campaign and one of the exploits of that force was the cutting out of the Caroline of which I have written an extensive historical account.

I later pursued my legal studies under Judge O’Reilly, M Hamilton, and was called to the bar in 1842 and was made a Queen’s Council by the Earl of Dufferin in 1872.

In 1850, I came to Kent and was not long in realizing that were there to be any substantial growth to the place, there then must be the year round ability for the movement of commodities and freight, as well as modern telegraphic communications. Of these, alas, the county was totally without. In those days people and goods came to Chatham by way of the river ships, and by stage, but in the winter months freight could not be moved due to the freezing of the river and lake waters. During certain seasons even the stages could not pass along the crude mud trodden trenches that, in that era, were fraudulently represented as roads. I knew there must be change and I immediately commenced my agitation for a rail line to be built to connect the Niagara frontier with the facilities of the Michigan Central Railway at Detroit, which had existed since 1849, and by this means connect the Mississippi to the Atlantic. A connection of the roads of the east and the west. To accomplish this eventuality, the charter held by the Niagara and Detroit River Railway must first be displaced by act of parliament as it would not have been possible to induce its holders to build were not this action taken. I then was able to convince the Hamilton people to construct the Great Western Railway (C. N. R.) from that place to Windsor passing near Chatham enroute.

People today have no contemplation of the commercial advantages made available to our town and district with the commencement of rail service in 1854. Thusly, year round shipping, travel and communication became available and the low prices induced by competition during the season of navigation was a further advantage.

Being at fairly the mid-point of the distance between western New York State and the opening districts of the Midwest States, Chatham became a point of commerce along this line and the growth of our town was thence insured.

Knowing full well that competition amongst business is best for all concerned and a great inducement to manufacturing concerns, I diligently worked to convince the principals of the Canada Southern to construct their rail line through Chatham and all but succeeded in doing so when, to our great misfortune a bonus was not approved and the Canada Southern chose, instead to run their right-of-way south of Chatham, through the village of Charing Cross. This action, I believe, was the one greatest error in judgement ever made by our community in its history, for the advent of a second trunk line would have been an incentive to growth the extent of which had never before been seen by Chatham interests. It was then my resolve that a grave miscalculation of this magnitude would never again be visited upon the people of our town, and for this reason I devoted my complete energies to the approval of bonusing for both the Erie and Huron (C. S. X.) and the Ontario and Quebec (C. P. R.) when they were in their formative stages in 1879 and 1889 respectively. The subsequent industrial boom of our city has been the direct result.

Events from our early days led me to believe that a ship canal to Lake Erie would have several advantages from both a military and commercial point of order.

In March of 1857, the first public meeting for the discussion of possibility for the construction of such a canal was held, and a bill concerning the St. Clair-Rondeau ship Canal passed the legislative council. For three years subsequent to this many meetings of stock holders were held, and foundations for its creation were laid, but the outbreak of civil strife in the United States proved the demise of the proposal. This was, as in the loss of the Canada Southern, a most unfortunate event for Chatham as it was my opinion, and one held jointly by many others in business circles, that such a canal would have meant to Chatham what the Welland Canal has for that region.

Roads, as deplorable as Kent’s were and continue to be, are another of my concerns. Commerce as versatile and accommodating as it is wont to be, cannot move upwards, or in any direction for that manner when it is mired to its eyes in mud and the provision of this local for that irritant is a most generous one. It was for that reason that! successfully proposed the frontal system of county road construction in 1887 and which, since, has become the provincial model.


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