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Lord Strathcona

Lord StrathconaIn the old days of warring clans in the Highlands of Scotland, the Grants of Strathspey were summoned to battle by alarm fires kindled on the mountain tops of Craigellachie, and when the clansmen faced the foe their battle-cry was "Stand fast, Craigellachie."

It was at another Craigellachie, in the heart of the Rocky Mountains of Canada, that a distinguished descendant of the Grants, in 1885, drove the last spike which completed the construction of the first transcontinental railway in Canada. The event was one of the most important in the history of the great Dominion, for it welded indissolubly into one mighty nation a number of provinces and districts stretching for 3,700 miles across a vast continent.

The man was Donald Alexander Smith, the grandson of one of the Scottish Grants. Better known as Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal, this great Empire-builder of the Victorian era, and one of the founders of the Dominion of Canada, most worthily adhered throughout his life to his ancestral motto, "Stand fast."

On many occasions apparently overwhelming difficulties and discouragements had shattered themselves against his invincible patience and courage. And from none of his herculean enterprises did he emerge so triumphantly as from the stupendous task of building and financing the Canadian Pacific Railway, whose completion was signalized by the ringing blows on that spike in the rocky gorge of the Canadian Craigellachie.

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’s Bay Company at a salary of £20 a year and his food. When he died, his estate was valued at over £4,500,000.

The romance of Lord Strathcona’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’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’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’s Land and the North-West Territory, was the ancestral estate of the Hudson’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. —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’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’s cottage on the hillside. But in Donald Smith’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’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’s first job in Canada was counting rat skins. The Governor of the Hudson’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 endurance.

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’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’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’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’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 Montreal.

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’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’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’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 Legislative Assembly.

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 Empire.

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—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’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—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 ‘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 altogether.

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’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’s Regiment of Horse

When the South African War broke out in 1899 he raised the famous mounted regiment, afterwards known as Strathcona’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 guidance.

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’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’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, London.

[See "The Life of Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal," by Becklee Wilson (1915).]

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