Manitoba History: Two Railway Titans Meet at Winnipeg, 1909

by Margaret Arnett Macleod

Number 53, October 2006

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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The main incident I have to relate, as told by James J. Hill, has no importance historically except as it reveals a little emphasised quality in the character of an eminent Canadian—Lord Strathcona (aka Donald A. Smith).

Donald A. Smith, aka Lord Strathcona
Source: Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, 1987/363-S-58/2A.

The incident has to do with certain contacts of Lord Strathcona and James J. Hill—two builders of early Canada, two mighty railway magnates of their time, their first meeting and their last. Hill’s interest in western Canada began with his steamboat line from St. Paul to serve early Winnipeg: Strathcona’s, with his first visit to the West as a government commissioner in the Riel Insurrection of 1869.

The scene of my story is many years later, a Winnipeg Canadian Club luncheon on 25 August 1909, so I will sketch in a little background: the first business association of the two men in the 1870s in connection with a railway being run north from St. Paul (later their St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railway), and their clever strategies in getting hold of it for almost nothing from the Dutch bondholders when it went broke. It is said that the pair banked largely for the success that finally came to them in the matter, on having the Dutchmen come from their compact well-developed Holland, see for themselves, and use their own judgment in setting a value upon rusted abandoned rails, running over endless unoccupied prairies in a country still wild enough to dismay even the stoutest heart.

Later, one recalls Hill’s railway lines criss-crossing and developing western states, his great acquisition, the Northern Pacific Railway, and then in 1901, how the great [Edward E.] Harriman interests (with a larger end in view), tried to take it from him—a terrific and historic conflict in which the great USA fortunes of the day were involved.

The Winnipeg Canadian Club luncheon, in honour of Lord Strathcona, which was held in old Manitoba Hall on Portage Avenue, is recalled by the Club as one of the outstanding occasions in its history.

The British Association for the Advancement of Science was meeting in Winnipeg at the time, and Lord Strathcona, the President (and Canada’s High Commissioner), had come from London to preside at the sessions. The previous year, seizing the opportunity of Lord Strathcona’s coming visit, Mr. Thomas R. Deacon [Winnipeg mayor from 1913 to 1914] had been commissioned to extend to Lord Strathcona in London, an invitation to speak also to the Canadian Club. At the time he demurred saying he had crossed the Atlantic fifty times and thought he would leave it at that, but later he accepted the invitation.

The Club in a happy gesture invited James J. Hill to come from St. Paul to meet his old friend and also speak at the luncheon. The Press that day saw fit to ignore the reminiscences of the two men when they spoke so we are greatly indebted to Mr. T. R. Deacon, Chairman of the Club’s Reception Committee on the occasion, for writing it down.

Railway entrepreneur James J. Hill
Source: J. J. Hill Reference Library, St. Paul, JJH886.

Winnipeg was en féte, and it is said, never gave a greater or more enthusiastic welcome than that to Lord Strathcona on this four-day visit. The day of the luncheon came. Mr. Hill arrived by special train, accompanied by his son, Louis Hill, president of the Great Northern Railway, and by his automobile (still a rarity in Winnipeg) and his chauffeur. They proceeded to the City Hall where a civic welcome to Lord Strathcona was in progress on a platform erected at the front entrance. At its finish, Mr. Hill was brought out to receive his official welcome after which the two friends, who had not met in years, fairly fell into each other’s arms, oblivious to the cheering crowds about them.

A short drive was scheduled to precede the luncheon, but the guests of honour, scorning a waiting carriage, hopped agilely into Mr. Hill’s car and started off. They were striking figures as they drove away; two grey bearded old gentlemen, sitting erect end dignified, each wearing a grey hat: Lord Strathcona in a silk “topper”; Mr. Hill with a widebrimmed sombrero-like Stetson.

The crowds milled on over to Portage Avenue and Manitoba Hall. The hour set for the luncheon arrived and several hundred Club members and special guests jammed the hall and waited—but no honour guests; Louis Hill became very uneasy until he learned that his father’s car and chauffeur were also missing. Club members, invited guests, the Lieutenant Governor, the Club president and a distracted Reception Committee waited on. At last, nearly an hour late, the two gentlemen turned up making no comment, and the luncheon began. The chauffeur later revealed that on getting into Mr. Hill’s car, they circled a few blocks to lose the crowds, and then on Lord Strathcona’s instructions, drove out to the site of his old home, Silver Heights, where the two friends had a “confab” under the trees and could not be pried away.

“Seated at the table,” comments Mr. Deacon, “with the Lieutenant-Governor and Club president between them, the two distinguished guests with their beards, and hair worn longer than was fashionable, looked like two shaggy old buffaloes.”

Later, members and friends who could not be accommodated at the luncheon crowded in to listen to the speeches. Lord Strathcona, as Canada’s High Commissioner, made a most interesting speech on matters of moment to the country and to his audience. But first, he opened his talk by telling of his first meeting with his old friend, James J. Hill.

“On a cold stormy winter evening, in March 1870,” he related, “after having been practically a prisoner of Louis Riel at Fort Garry for some time, I was returning to Ottawa, headed south over the prairie by dog-team, when we met a similar outfit going north. The drivers stopped and the travelers introduced themselves. We knew each other by reputation, but that was my first meeting with James J. Hill of St. Paul. We chatted a few minutes then decided to make the most of the encounter and camp together for the night in the shelter of a nearby gully running down to a river. Hill and I occupied one tent, our drivers the other.”

What subject was uppermost in the minds of these two men, what topic relating to the rich untapped West they discussed on into the night, with far-reaching vision, may be surmised from Lord Strathcona’s concluding sentence. He finished by saying impressively: “The Canadian Pacific Railway was born that night, in that tent on the frozen prairie”—an illuminating statement in the light of subsequent events in the building of the CPR.

James J. Hill greets his old friend Donald A. Smith on the steps of the Winnipeg City Hall, August 1909, while mayor Sanford Evans and other dignitaries look on.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Edgar J. Ransom Collection 479.

When Mr. Hill rose to speak he seemed hesitant in his opening remarks, then as though having made a decision he launched out holding his listeners enthralled, his eyes at times flashing fires at others, soft with sentiment. He spoke of his “great joy and great privilege in being asked to join in paying tribute to one who has done more for the North-West than any man living—Lord Strathcona. Gentlemen,” he went on, “His Lordship has told you of our friendship of forty years, and I now want to tell you something I have not told before about this friend of many years, this eminent guest you are honouring today.

“You will doubtless recall reading about that Black Friday in my career, eight years ago, when certain financial interests tried to take the Northern Pacific Railway away from me.” He was referring to the Harriman interests in 1901, and he went on to describe how the Harrimans gradually ran the price of Northern Pacific stock up from a few dollars to an incredible high of $500 a share; then in a single wild hour that seemed to turn the financial world insane, they ran it up to $1,000 a share—a catastrophic disturbance that rocked the financial capitals of the world.

Mr. Hill continued: “I had used all available resources in the fight. I could do nothing more. In that wild hour I was finished. I saw the result of my life’s work evaporating. I was sitting, alone, in my room at a New York hotel, in black despair. It was the darkest day of my life.

“Presently, a rap came on the door and a messenger handed me a cable. I have that cable with me today,” and reaching into his pocket he pulled it out and read it to his entranced listeners. It was from Lord Strathcona whom he had not seen in years, and it read: “Harriman interests have cabled offering $1,000 a share for use of my Northern Pacific stock at approaching meeting to which I have replied ‘My stock is in vaults of (such and such) Trust Company in New York at disposal of my friend James J. Hill to whom I am cabling my proxy for use at coming meeting.’”

The speaker paused. Men, spellbound, were leaning eagerly over the tables to catch every word as he went on: “For me, the clouds had suddenly parted and glorious sunshine was streaming through, scattering my desolation. I was saved.”

Tears were now rolling down the cheeks of the two old friends. It was an affecting scene. Tears glistened too, in other eyes; and Louis Hill, president of a great railway (who was sitting opposite to his father), covered his face with his handkerchief, put his head down, and unashamedly, wept.

Mr. Hill, regaining his poise, continued: “Shortly afterward, I received the cable containing the proxy and by the use of my friend’s shares, I was in control of the stock. The Harrimans did not even come to the momentous meeting.” Then glancing over at Lord Strathcona who was listening intently, Mr. Hill finished: “Through the years since, I have a number of times tried to get a bill for that proxy, but the matter has either been evaded, or my letters have been ignored. That, gentlemen, is my tribute to my friend, my tribute to your distinguished guest today, Lord Strathcona.”

Page revised: 17 June 2012