Such was the crowning triumph in the
life of one who, forty-seven years previously, had arrived in Canada a
poor but well-educated Scots lad, and who started his career in that
country as a clerk-apprentice to the Hudson~ez_rsquo~s Bay Company at a salary of
£20 a year and his food. When he died, his estate was valued at over
The romance of Lord Strathcona~ez_rsquo~s
life lies in the fact that it covers the whole period of the romantic and
extraordinary development of Canada from an almost trackless wilderness to
a mighty and prosperous Dominion within the British Commonwealth of
nations. When Donald Smith went to Canada in 1838 in a small sailing ship,
the voyage occupied forty-four days. Before the end of his life he
frequently made the same journey in a week in a liner owned by the company
of which he was a director.
In the fourth decade of the
nineteenth century more than half of Canada was a game sanctuary of the
Hudson~ez_rsquo~s Bay Company, owned and ruled by that ancient corporation of
Gentlemen Adventurers solely in the interests of the fur trade. Even when
Donald Smith had been over thirty years in the service of the Hudson~ez_rsquo~s Bay
Company, and while on the site of Winnipeg, in what is now Manitoba, he
refers in his correspondence to a projected visit to Ottawa as "leaving
here for Canada."
Infancy of the Dominion
The Dominion of Canada was created
as an idea in 1867, twenty-nine years after Donald Smith had arrived in
that country, but in reality its western boundary ended at Ontario. All
beyond, namely Rupert~ez_rsquo~s Land and the North-West Territory, was the
ancestral estate of the Hudson~ez_rsquo~s Bay Company. So well established was the
proprietorship that the Government of Canada, in 1868, sent a deputation
to England to treat for the purchase of one-third of the area of Canada
from the Governors of the Company.
The transfer was completed, through
the good offices of the British Government, on terms which ended the
monopoly of the Company while still permitting it to retain considerable
land from which, as the country was opened up to settlement, it stood to
gain its principal revenues, rather than from the age-long trade in furs.
~ez_mdash~Much could be written to show how primitive was Canadian life, and how
unpeopled that vast and rich territory when Donald Smith first set foot
there. The contrasts furnished by the changes in his own long life must
suffice for the purpose.
A Tradition of the Family
He went to Canada well-equipped. He
had education and character. There was a tradition in his mother~ez_rsquo~s family
that one of his hardy Scottish ancestors had learnt to write by tracing
his letters with a stick in the ashes that fell from the peat fire in his
father~ez_rsquo~s cottage on the hillside. But in Donald Smith~ez_rsquo~s boyhood there was
a good school in Forres, where he was born in 1820, and he left it well
grounded in Latin and mathematics to enter at once a lawyer~ez_rsquo~s office in
the same town.
In after life, Lord Strathcona often
said that the reason why poor Scots boys so frequently rise to distinction
in all parts of the world is the native love for learning in even the
humblest, and the excellence of the old-time Scottish schoolmasters.
Donald Smith~ez_rsquo~s first job in Canada
was counting rat skins. The Governor of the Hudson~ez_rsquo~s Bay Company at that
time was an autocrat who studiously kept his subordinates in their place.
On one occasion Donald Smith, after getting no reply to his letters asking
for permission to see a doctor, as he feared he was threatened with
blindness, left his post for this purpose without permission. As a
punishment he was banished to Labrador, and ordered to make the journey
thither in the dead of winter, and to start within thirty minutes.
For an instant the young man
hesitated, bitter words came to his tongue, and the temptation to throw up
his job suggested itself. Then came to mind the old battle-cry of the
clan, "Stand fast!" and Donald Smith controlled himself, and within the
allotted half-hour had started on the terrible journey, which took months
to complete on snowshoes.
Reduced to Eating Moss
One of his Indian companions died on
the road from hardship, and Donald and the other Indian were reduced to
eating moss. The Scotsman won through, and lived to be the successor of
the autocratic governor who had so sorely tried his patience and
No one could possibly have imagined
that this young Scotsman, who was destined to remain for twenty years in
the desolate isolation of Labrador, had any chance, under such conditions,
of ever rising to the eminence he afterwards attained. There was a postal
service only twice a year. Such a position as that of factor in the
Hudson~ez_rsquo~s Bay service in Labrador was considered even by the officers of
the company as little better than banishment for life.
But Donald Smith possessed qualities
which enabled him to rise superior to any circumstances, and in course of
time he became chief trader. Then he married, and before long had
established a home the like of which for comfort and even luxury had never
been seen in the whole of Labrador. He was the first man to establish a
farm, a vegetable garden, and a flower garden in that country; the first
man to construct a proper road; and he introduced the first wheeled cart
ever seen there.
The Wonder Farm of Labrador
He imported from the north of
Scotland cows, sheep, horses, poultry, and garden and farm seeds,
fertilized his land with fish, and, short as the summer was, grew crops
and flowers which filled the Indians, fishermen, and his own colleagues
and visitors with astonishment. Plants which would not mature in the open
air he grew under glass. Labrador had an area nearly five times that of
Great Britain, and not in all that vast country could there be found a
farm like that of Donald Smith~ez_rsquo~s.
Long afterwards Lord Strathcona used
to say that he had never felt lonely during the whole of his long service
in Labrador. Even the wild flowers of the country provided him with an
interesting study. But naturally his chief interest was his work in the
fur trade, and he made his post profitable beyond all precedent, owing to
his good management and his extraordinary enterprise in developing new
sources of revenue.
When Donald Smith started work in
Canada at £20 a year, be adhered strictly to a standard he had set
himself, namely to save at least half his income. As he rose in the
service he continued to practise thrift on a larger scale. Factors in the
Hudson~ez_rsquo~s Bay Cornpany then received a definite share of the profits, and
even before he had begun to figure in public affairs Donald Smith had
saved several thousands of pounds. He invested the money in some of the
prominent commercial enterprises which began to be formed as Canada
started to rise to a position of importance in the world.
As the Americans say, the thrifty
factor got into these profitable enterprises "on the ground floor." Such
was the reputation which even at that time he had gained for commercial
shrewdness, that other factors entrusted him with their savings for
investment according to his own judgment. Thus his influence in financial
circles soon grew to importance.
The turning-point in Donald Smith~ez_rsquo~s
life occurred when his services were transferred from Labrador to
Montreal. From comparative isolation he now found himself in the centre of
all the commercial activities of Canada, just at the moment when the
country was entering upon a new era of expansion. Here he had already
become associated in financial matters with his cousin, George Stephen
(afterwards Lord Mount Stephen), at that time a successful business man in
A delightful story is told about the
first meeting of these two men. Fresh from Labrador, and carrying a new
carpet bag of a pattern and colouring like a futurist painting, Donald
Smith entered his cousin~ez_rsquo~s office, while his wife and child, their arms
full of brown paper parcels, stood outside in the road. The successful
city man was none too pleased to be so unexpectedly confronted by his
relation in such an unorthodox manner, especially in his place of
business. Smith, himself, could not understand why his cousin seemed so
uneasy about his presence in the office.
However, the acquaintance thus
formed was soon improved upon, and these two cousins afterwards found fame
and fortune together, as associates and co-partners in some of the most
daring and successful enterprises ever conceived in Canada, particularly
in the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway and the St. Paul,
Minneapolis and Manitoba Railway.
When Donald Smith took charge of the
Montreal office of the Hudson~ez_rsquo~s Bay Company, it was at a time of crisis in
the history of the venerable institution, and also of Canada itself.
Following the purchase of the territory of the Company by the Dominion,
difficulties arose when the Government sought to extend their jurisdiction
westward into the prairies. There occurred in Manitoba the revolt of the
French and half-breed inhabitants, known in Canadian history as the Riel
Rebellion. The seriousness of such a situation may be realized when it is
said that the means of transportation were then so primitive that an armed
force could not be transported to the scene of the rebellion within a
shorter period than ten months.
Donald Smith was now recognized as
the most able and influential man in the Hudson~ez_rsquo~s Bay service, and the
Government of Canada sent him to the West as a commissioner to try and
pacify the rebellious colonists.
End of the Rebellion
Largely owing to his efforts in
shrewdly dividing these lawless elements, even when he was a prisoner in
the rebel fortress, and by restraining the extremists, what was
practically a bloodless revolution fizzled out. Manitoba was made a
province of Canada, and Donald Smith was elected a member of its first
Then followed his great adventures
as a railway builder. When he arrived in Canada there was not a single
mile of iron railway in all that vast country. It was not until 1847 that
the first consignment of iron rails was imported from England, for use on
a few miles of tram-roads running over wooden tracks, upon which were
nailed a flat surface of iron plates. The first of these Canadian tram
roads, over which the carriages were pulled by horses, was opened for
traffic in 1836.
Donald Smith and his associates had
to overcome stupendous difficulties and discouragement in building, and
especially in financing, the pioneer railway across Canada. The first
train to undertake the through journey of more than 2,900 miles from
Montreal to the Pacific coast left Montreal on the 28th June, 1886.
First Ocean to Ocean Railway
The completion of the first
transcontinental railway across Canada was, however, not only a triumph
over physical difficulties of an almost insuperable character. It was much
more. It represented a piece of empire building of the utmost importance,
not from a geographical point of view alone, but also in a political
sense. The building of the Canadian Pacific Railway saved Canada for the
No estimate of the character of
Donald Smith and his associates in that daring and gigantic enterprise,
that regards them only as great men of business and overlooks the
political importance of their life-work, can be either complete or fust.
Their names are worthy of being included among the greatest empire
builders of the past.
It may come as a surprise to many
readers to be told that there was at the period referred to a very real
danger that the United States would annex not only the western prairie
country and British Columbia, but even the whole of what is now the
Dominion of Canada.
In the first place, there was not
that fullness of sympathy and understanding of Canada on the part of the
Motherland which the man who afterwards became Lord Strathcona did so much
to promote during the later years of his life. Then there was a strong
feeling of enmity in the United States against England arising out of the
Alabama episode and other incidents of the American Civil War. Even after
British Columbia joined the Canadian Confederation, there was a very
strong separatist movement in that province, owing to the fact that the
promised railway to link them with the Atlantic had not materialized.
American Eyes on Canada
The American Press in the
eighteen-sixties contained many articles in which the annexation of Canada
was openly advocated. Britishers to-day refer often to our great ideal:
One Flag and One Empire. So did the Americans of that period. It was said
by them that the time had come for the consolidation of all the peoples on
the American continent, from the Polar Seas to the Gulf of Mexico, under
one Flag and Government~ez_mdash~that of the United States.
Sir John Macdonald, the great Prime
Minister of Canada, once wrote that he was convinced beyond any doubt that
the United States Government was at that time resolved to do all it could,
short of going to war, to obtain possession of Western Canada.
It was quite natural that envious
eyes should be cast on that great and fertile territory by those in the
victorious Union who considered that in the war between the North and the
South England had sided in certain ways that were provocative of very
great bitterness with their enemies.
Canada~ez_rsquo~s Inhospitable Seaboard
The isolation and uninhabited
condition of the Canadian West at that time is almost unrealizable by us
to-day. Apart from Indians, there were only a few thousand inhabitants in
the Canadian North-West. Neither Canada nor England could then have
defended that country by force of arms. It was practically impossible for
troops to reach the Western plains in the winter time from the Atlantic,
except through the United States. The only methods of transportation were
sleighs in the winter and canoes in the summer.
During the Riel Rebellion, the
probability of the rebel half-breeds receiving military support from the
Fenians in the United States was a very real danger for a while, and even
in 1869 a Committee of the United States Senate left it on record that the
annexation of Western Canada was "but a question of time."
Now that the friendship between the
great American nation and the British Empire is so firmly established,
cemented as it has been by the blood of both peoples in the World War,
these references to a period long past can be made dispassionately, and,
indeed, the events in question are now regarded only with curiosity.
"An Unbroken Series of Colonies"
They are mentioned here merely to
throw into bolder relief the great services to the British Empire of Lord
Strathcona and his friends, whose indomitable pluck and perseverance in
building the first transcontinental railway realized the vision of the
Scottish pioneers of the Red River and of some of the greatest English and
Canadian, statesmen~ez_mdash~namely "an unbroken series of colonies, a grand
confederation of loyal and flourishing provinces" stretching from the
Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.
Curiously enough, when Donald Smith
and George Stephen bought the half-built derelict and red-with-rust St.
Paul and Pacific Railroad, and completed it, about 1878, there followed a
veritable "invasion" of Canada from the United States, but it was a
peaceful invasion of farmers, hungry to take up cheap land in the fertile
prairies of Manitoba.
That movement northwards has
continued to this day, and the hundreds of thousands of American farmers
who have entered Western Canada have always been prominently associated
with its development, and by their enterprise have helped very materially
to make the prairies one of the largest and most productive granaries of
the British Isles.
Completion of the "All Red Route"
In still more recent times Lord
Strathcona and the great railway company which he, more than any man,
helped to build, figured in the realization of another of the grandest
dreams of empire. In 1891, the famous "Empress" line of steamships,
comprising the finest liners on the Pacific, was inaugurated in connexion
with the transcontinental railway route. When, in 1903, the same company
acquired a fleet of steamships on the Atlantic service, the "All Red
Route" westward between the Motherland and the Orient became a splendid
and successful reality.
When he was eighty-six the "Grand
Old Man" of Canada, as Lord Strathcona was called, speaking of his
connexion with Canadian railways and steamships, said that in looking back
it seemed to him only a few years since he had heard on every hand the
gloomiest prophesies of disaster when he was engaged in building the first
railway across Canada.
He could afford to smile at the
recollection of such prophets of woe, whose very names are already
forgotten. He, too, would prophesy, in his turn. But how different was the
vision of this Greatheart from that of the prophets of the ~ez_lsquo~seventies! A
few years more, said Lord Strathcona, and he hoped to see steamers
crossing from Great Britain to Canada in three and a half or four days,
and travellers from England transported to the Pacific in eight days
Lord Strathcona did not live to see
this dream of his old age realized, but there is little doubt that it will
be realized, and, perhaps, before long.
The crowning romance of Lord
Strathcona~ez_rsquo~s life was undoubtedly his wonderful career as High
Commissioner for Canada in London. He was seventy-six years of age when he
entered upon the duties of that exalted position, and yet he continued in
office for another eighteen years, winning for himself and Canada such
renown as would have assured his place in history even had these eighteen
years covered the whole of his public career.
His venerable figure, his strong
personality, and the amazing vigour of his speeches in public impressed to
an astonishing degree all who saw and heard him. He was regarded as the
very incarnation of the spirit of Canada. At a bound he became one of the
best-known and most popular figures in the public life of London. He did
everything on a grand scale.
Strathcona~ez_rsquo~s Regiment of Horse
When the South African War broke out
in 1899 he raised the famous mounted regiment, afterwards known as
Strathcona~ez_rsquo~s Horse, and asked the Commander-in-Chief of the Army in Canada
to draw on his account to the extent of £150,000 for the purpose of
equipping this unique contribution to the Imperial Forces. He was greatly
embarrassed when his name appeared as the donor, as he had wished his
connexion with the matter kept secret, and the mounted regiment to go
forward as a gift from Canada and not from himself.
This was no affectation, whatever
cynics might think. As a matter of fact, Lord Strathcona was always a most
secretive man. He was known to remark to his closest associates, "Nothing
is secret when more than one knows it."
He was a man of boundless
generosity, and many of his benefactions were never made public. He had a
great sympathy for human suffering, as was shown by his many princely
gifts to hospitals, and he regarded the medical profession as the most
blessed of all. The Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal, which he and Lord
Mount Stephen built and endowed at a cost of nearly £400,000 is only one
of the many institutions of the kind which he enriched.
Although Lord Strathcona spent so
many years in the wilds of Labrador, there was nothing of the rough
backwoodsman about his personality or manners. He was a courtly, polished
man. Even in Labrador his courtesy to everyone with whom he came in
contact was as pronounced as his thrift.
Ability as a Letter Writer
No one could write a better letter
of business, congratulation, or condolence. He was a master in the art of
composition. Punctilious in official and social life, Lord Strathcona
delighted in hospitality. No host ever succeeded better in giving his
numerous guests the impression that he was mainly concerned about their
personal comfort, and his thoughtfulness and activity in promoting the
happiness of every visitor who came under his roof was extraordinary.
During his long term of office as High Commissioner, the community of
interest between the Motherland and Canada increased enormously under his
One of the remarkable traits of his
character was that he appeared unconscious of the customary limitations of
old age. He purchased a great sporting estate at Gencoe when he was
eighty-five, and lived to see many of the trees he planted there grow to a
considerable size. When he was over ninety the light in his office in
Victoria Street, London, was often burning at 10 o~ez_rsquo~clock at night, and he
was still at his desk. Sometimes, when he was about eighty-five, Lady
Strathcona would call at the office late in the evening, because her
husband had evidently forgotten all about his dinner!
Man of Abstemious Habits
He was a most abstemious man. Not
only was he a non-smoker, but he was also a moderate eater, and in his old
age his custom was to eat a light breakfast, and then work all day without
anything to eat until dinner at seven, or eight, or even ten o~ez_rsquo~clock.
One peculiarity of his habit of
remaining late at the office should be mentioned. If Lady Strathcona was
out of town the High Commissioner would invariably write to her late every
night, and he would never allow anyone else to post that letter, always
going out to do so himself.
He had extraordinary good health,
and even when nearly ninety went out in all kinds of weather. Once, on a
bitterly cold day, he stood for an hour and a half on Victoria Station, on
the occasion of a royal departure, wearing only his uniform. His friends
felt concerned, as many a younger man had contracted pneumonia through far
less exposure, yet Lord Strathcona turned up at the office next morning as
well and as energetic as ever.
In his old age, Lord Strathcona
suffered somewhat from deafness, due to having stood too near a small
cannon when it was fired from his yacht off Oban. But he said himself that
he had noticed no appreciable weakening of his physical powers until he
met with a carriage accident in British Columbia when he was eighty-eight
years of age. To the very last month of his life he remained in harness.
Lord Strathcona could not bear to waste any of his time.
In the early autumn of 1913 he had
paid what proved to be his last visit to his Glencoe seat, returning to
London accompanied by Lady Strathcona. At that time there was no
indication that before long he was to suffer the greatest bereavement of
his life in the death of his most devoted wife.
Severance of a Loving Union
Early in November Lady Strathcona
contracted what at first seemed a common cold which, however, developed
into influenza and pneumonia, and after an illness lasting only five days
she died, thus ending a marital partnership that had been entered into
more than sixty years before.
Lord Strathcona died on the 21st
January, 1914, and was buried beside his wife in Highgate Cemetery,