Memorable Manitobans: James Henry Ashdown (1844-1924)
Born at London, England on 31 March 1844, son of William Ashdown and Jane Waitling, brother of George Ashdown and A. L. Ashdown, he arrived in Winnipeg in 1868 and began a business as a tinsmith. In 1870 he purchased two lots on the corner of Main Street and Bannatyne Avenue, the location of the Ashdown retail store for over one hundred years. Ashdown’s successful real estate speculation, combined with his business acumen, made him a millionaire by 1910. By 1875, business had expanded into both retail and wholesale operations until in 1881 his worth was over $150,000. He established branch stores in Portage la Prairie and Emerson, and employed over seventy-five people and later opened a store in Calgary, North West Territories (now Alberta) in 1889. He settled in the then affluent part of Winnipeg known as Point Douglas, along with W. G. Fonseca, Robert and Stewart Mulvey and Dr. Schultz.
He was elected to the Winnipeg Board of Trade in 1879 along with president A. G. B. Bannatyne, W. H. Lyon, vice-president, and D. H. McMillan. He was active in a number of projects in the expansion of the city. The construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, as the main intercontinent mode of transporting goods across country, prompted Ashdown in 1878 to propose that the city offer a bonus of $300,000 toward the construction of a bridge across the Red River from Saint Boniface and to build the desired railway to the western boundary of the province. The Manitoba and South Western Railway Company was created to carry out this proposal and to guarantee that the Dominion Government change the route of the Pacific Railway from Winnipeg westward. In 1897, Winnipeg wholesalers won a major concession, thanks in part to Ashdown’s efforts as chairman of the Freight Rates Committee, to introduce a “Traders Tariff” that ensured that they paid freight charges no greater than those paid by eastern companies.
In 1900, Ashdown sent a whole train through the west loaded with 800 tons of building material and general hardware, with each car labelled, “Hardware from J.H. Ashdown”. This spectacular stunt raised the interest of eastern Canadian ans well as American companies to the commercial opportunities in western Canada. In 1904, the J. H. Ashdown store in Winnipeg burned down and was immediately replaced with a new one that was considered to be the finest hardware store in Canada. Throughout the years Ashdown’s Warehouse supplied every conceivable kind of merchandise, including its own “Diamond A Brand” goods. The building was the first structure in the Exchange District to undergo conversion to residential use.
On 10 February 1876, he married Susan Crowson at Winnipeg. They had five children: Lillian Ashdown, Florence Hattie Ashdown (b 1878, wife of C. P. Banning), Harry C. Ashdown, Emma Louisa Ashdown (b 1887), and Laura May Ashdown (b 1892). The family lived at 529 Wellington in Winnipeg.
In 1910 Ashdown was listed by the Winnipeg Telegram as one of Winnipeg’s 19 millionaires. He was a founding member of the St. Charles Country Club, in 1905, and was also a member of the Manitoba Club. He was a Director of the Great-West Life Assurance Company from 1892 to 1900, and a Director of the Northern Crown Bank in 1911. In 1907, Ashdown was elected mayor of Winnipeg and served for two years before being replaced by William Sanford Evans. Winnipeg was hit by a recession in 1907, as an indirect consequence of the Wall Street panic in that year, with construction hardest hit during that period. Ashdown travelled to Montreal, New York and London with hopes of selling bonds in order to payoff large loans from the banks but was unsuccessful. Various developments within the city such as the Louise Bridge construction, a gas plant and a hydroelectric plant at Pointe de Bois would have to be postponed until better times.
Ashdown died on 5 April 1924, but the firm he founded remained in family ownership until 1971. He is commemorated by Ashdown Street in Winnipeg, and Ashdown Hall at the University of Winnipeg. There are scattered papers held at the Archives of Manitoba.
The Leading Financial, Business & Professional Men of Winnipeg, published by Edwin McCormick, Photographs by T. J. Leatherdale, Compiled and printed by Stone Limited, c1913. [copy available at the Archives of Manitoba]
“James H. Ashdown, pioneer citizen and merchant, dies after brief illness,” Manitoba Free Press, 7 April 1924, page 1.
This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.
Page revised: 22 October 2017
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