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Short Bio of John Redpath: It wasn't all sweetness and light


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Before he became a sugar manufacturer, John Redpath helped build the Rideau Canal

 

Aug 19, 2007 04:30 AM

Donna Jean Mackinnon

Toronto Star

 

John Redpath's name lives on thanks to his sugar company, but the role he played in building the Rideau Canal is barely a whisper in the annals of Canadian history.

 

On the occasion of its 175th anniversary, the canal was named a World Heritage site earlier this summer by UNESCO, which called it "an engineering masterpiece" and a work of "human genius."

 

Redpath was the most prominent of the four contractors for the canal. A leading Montreal builder, he had risen from humble origins: orphaned as a child in Scotland, he started out as a stonemason.

 

About 10,000 men built the 201-kilometre canal, which starts in Ottawa below the Parliament Buildings and ends at Kingstone Mills, east of Kingston. Connecting wilderness rivers and streams at different levels, they had to cut through solid rock and endure many hardships, including malaria – which also afflicted Redpath.

 

When completed in 1832, the canal had 19 kilometres of man-made runs and 47 locks. It was the biggest canal in North America at the time. Today it's used for pleasure boating.

 

Redpath also constructed several of Montreal's most important buildings, including Notre Dame Cathedral. It still stands a testimony to his skill and reputation. In the 19th century, it was rare for a Catholic diocese to award a contract as lucrative and prestigious as a major cathedral to a strict Presbyterian.

 

Redpath's climb to wealth and power rivals that of another Scottish immigrant, U.S. steel baron Andrew Carnegie – a name known to all Americans.

 

Redpath was born near Edinburgh in 1776. At 13 he was apprenticed to stonemason John Drummond. Ten years later, Redpath immigrated to Lower Canada with three male companions. They arrived in Quebec City in the coldest year of the 19th century – it's remembered as the year without a summer. Food was scarce, and there wasn't any work. Penniless, the four Scots walked to Montreal – most of the way in bare feet, to save their shoes for job hunting.

 

"John started digging toilets," says Richard Feltoe, curator of the Redpath museum and author of Redpath's biography, A Gentleman of Substance. "Then he invests his money into hiring men so he can do bigger jobs, and soon he has a little business. By the time John is 40, he is a multi-millionaire."

 

In 1826, the supervising engineer of the Rideau Canal, Lt.-Col. John By of the Royal Engineers, contracted the work out to Redpath, who formed a partnership with three other builders. They pooled their money and later reaped profits from shipping on the canal.

 

The Rideau was conceived as an alternative to the St. Lawrence River. After the War of 1812 against the Americans, the St. Lawrence, part of which borders the U.S., was considered dangerous and a threat to British security.

 

 

REDPATH'S JOB was to build a dam at Jones Falls, which meant blocking an active river. "He had stones hand-hewn three miles away and transported them to the site on rollers, just like the Egyptians did for the pyramids," Feltoe says. At 107 metres long and 20 metres high, the dam is the largest in the former British Empire.

 

When Redpath travelled to Montreal from Jones Falls for supplies, he'd ask his employees what they needed, and then filled their orders. "John always remembered what it was like to be at the bottom of the pile," Feltoe says.

 

Redpath's endeavours after the canal's completion included organizing a "secret" underground army in 1837 to fight (Louis) Papineau's Patriots, who were plotting against the British and planning to separate Quebec. Montreal's English-speaking businessmen saw this French aggression as a threat to their livelihood.

 

In the 1840s, Redpath went into mercantile trading. In 1846, England decided on free trade without consulting the colonies. This bankrupted Montreal's mercantile system, and Redpath lost millions. Eventually, he decided to go into sugar, investing every penny in building a refinery by Montreal's Lachine Canal.

 

When the Canada Sugar Refinery opened in 1854, it was Montreal's first industrial building. Sugar was kind to Redpath, who recorded a profit of $89,546.98 in 1860 – a huge sum in those days.

 

By 1867, Redpath was a man of influence. He served on the board of the Bank of Montreal, controlled policy for the Presbyterian Church in Canada, and was involved in Confederation. He financed education, job training and apprenticeship programs for the poor.

 

Redpath also found time to marry twice and father 17 children.

 

Shortly after his first wife died, he successfully courted Jane Drummond, the daughter of the stonemason with whom he had apprenticed. She was 19, and Redpath, 39.

 

Redpath died of stroke in 1869, at 72.

 

The refinery continued to prosper under the Redpaths until World War I, when the Canadian government took over the sugar industry. The business was somewhat revived in the 1930s, and then commandeered again by the government in 1939. By the 1950s, the industry was in ruins. British-based Tate & Lyle bought 51 per cent of Redpath shares, modernized the Montreal plant and built a new cane sugar plant in Toronto, on Queen's Quay E. In 1979, T & L bought all Redpath shares and operated the Toronto plant until February 2007, when it was sold to American Sugar Refining, Inc. But John Redpath's signature, the world's oldest trademark for a food product, remains on the packaging.

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Another Scotsman! :D Scots are well known for their penny pinching. You don't get rich by just throwing your money at things. That is probably one of the reasons why they controlled the Montreal/Quebec/Canada economy for years. (also likely why our business community doesn't invest too much, Scots don't like to part with their money, unless its to make more money!)

 

The Scots were probably the primary anglophone group who built the country in the 1800s and early 1900s. The English (from England) immigrated more to the US and Australia, but the Scottish seemed to choose Canada more often. Vous pouvez voir que je suis très fier de mon heritage Ecossais. :)

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