The Railway King of Canada: Sir William Mackenzie, 1849-1923

The Railway King of Canada: Sir William Mackenzie, 1849-1923

The Railway King of Canada: Sir William Mackenzie, 1849-1923

The Railway King of Canada: Sir William Mackenzie, 1849-1923


During the first two decades of this century, Sir William Mackenzie was one of Canada's best known entrepreneurs. He spearheaded some of the largest and most technologically advanced projects undertaken in Canada during his lifetime -- building enterprises that became the foundations for such major institutions as Canadian National Railways, Brascan, and the Toronto Transit Commission. He built a business empire that stretched from Montreal to British Columbia and to Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo in Brazil. It included gas, electric, telephone and transit utilities, railroads, hotels, and steamships as well as substantial coal mining, whaling, and timber interests. For a time Mackenzie also owned Canada's largest newspaper, La Presse. He accumulated an enormous personal fortune, but when he died in 1923, his estate was virtually bankrupt as a result of the dramatic collapse of his Canadian Northern Railway during the First World War. In an era when the entrepreneur has come to be seen as a media hero and when struggles about the role of state enterprise in the transportation and energy sectors consume public policy debate, it is ironic that Mackenzie is largely forgotten by all but a few historians and railway aficionados. He left no papers to guide biographers. After a decade of gathering and piecing together fragments from an immense array of sources, Rae Fleming has written the first biography of the man that the German press extolled as the 'Railway King of Canada.' Mackenzie was wily, crafty, manipulative, and intimidating. Starting as a general contractor in Eldon Township in rural Ontario, he built a small fortune contracting for the CPR in the Selkirks in the 1880s and then moved on to bigger things. Along the way, he funded the first full-length documentary movie, was toasted by the House of Lords, received a knighthood from George V, and developed close friendships with the major politicians of his day, including Borden and Meighen. In a business biography intended as much for general readers as for a scholarly audience, Fleming offers a revisionist perspective on Mackenzie. He dispels the simplistic approach of those historians and journalists who have depicted Mackenzie and his partner Sir Donald Mann as melodramatic crooks who could have stepped out of the pages of Huckleberry Finn.


The trawling net fills, then the biographer hauls it in, sorts, throws back, stores, fillets and sells. Yet consider what he doesn't catch: there is always far more of that.

(Julian Barnes, Flaubert's Parrot [1985] 38)

William Mackenzie began his life on one of two dates: he always claimed 30 October 1849 as his birthdate; however, according to the parish records of the Reverend McMurchy, the Presbyterian minister who baptized William, the boy was born on 17 October. It's a small thing, this difference of several days, but it suggests the difficulties of recreating the life of a man born into a culture that relied on storytellers rather than accountants and lawyers to preserve community memory. In such a culture, the story of the birth was more important than the actual date of that birth. And in such a culture, the child often grows up with a love of storytelling.

The folk of Williams birthplace, Eldon Township, Victoria County, Ontario, loved to tell stories -- a trait that they brought with them from their native Scottish Highlands in the 1820s, '30s, and '40s. Their stories were of ghosts that arose from graves at night, of suicide victims buried in unmarked graves on which no grass grew, and of corpses that revived during a wake, frightening slightly inebriated mourners. They believed in the curse of the evil eye, and they were highly superstitious -- it was bad luck to sweep the kitchen floor after lighting the kerosene lamp, or to seat thirteen at a supper table. They developed maxims, often humorous and self- deprecating, such as 'If we were the makings of ourselves, we'd be a pretty perfect lot,' or 'Better the day, better the deed,' an apology for Sabbath labour. At the marriage of an older couple or a couple whose ages differed considerably, neighbours would gather at mid-

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