Sir Robert Gillespie Reid

Commercial Magazine October 1 1907

Sir Robert Gillespie Reid

Commercial Magazine October 1 1907

Sir Robert Gillespie Reid


Commercial Magazine


Vol XIV OCTOBER 1907 No 5

IN the recent distribution of Royal birthday honors, Mr. Robert Gillespie Reid, of Montreal and Newfoundland, was elevated to the dignity of Knighthood. This distinction was conferred upon him in recognition of his splendid achievements both here and in the Dominion and in the sister colony, where he is a sort of colonial colossus, a railway and steamship magnate who stands unequalled and whose other varied and progressive enterprises— in mining, lumbering, and the operation of dry docks, street-cars, electric lighting and similar industrial ventures, make him a unique figure in the front rank .of the captains of industry whose far-seeing and allembracing projects are revolutionizing the world in these latter days.

When the history of the marvellous progress of British North America the past thirty years comes to be written, the name of Robert G. Reid will be found linked with those of Donald Smith and George Stephen, the famous pioneers of the Canadian Pacific Railway, as what they did for the Dominion in opening up the silent places of the vast Northwest, he has done for our eastern neighbor with the Reid Newfoundland Railway in penetrating the untrodden wilder-

nesses of that Province and making accessible to the prospector, the investor, the sportsman and the tourist the varied attractions this longneglected island possesses, and the opportunities for the profitable employment of capital which it is now known to afford in abundance.

It is rather remarkable the principal figures in the stupendous enterprises which have rendered Canada so prominent since Confederation should all be Scotchmen and that the genius of the Scottish race should find such repeated expression in the development of the great Dominion. Thus, the Hudson Bay Company is officered almost entirely by Scotchmen. The Canadian Pacific Railway was projected and carried to a successful issue by Scotchmen. The Bank of Montreal has been made one of the world’s greatest financial factors by Scotchmen. The Allan Steamship Company —Canada’s special shipping line—■ owes its origin and its success to a Scotch family, and the forward march of Newfoundland along the highway of progress has been very largely due to this Scotchman—R. G. Reid—so prominent in railroading, the overshadowing business of the present day.

Robert Gillespie Reid was born in Coupar-Angus, Perthshire, in 1844, and belongs to the class of men who are the architects of their own fortunes. His father was the owner of

small linen mills, and the lad, after some years’ schooling, was apprenticed to a builder, who had leased quarries at Leys, three miles from his home. Here he learned his trade as a stone-mason, trudging daily to the works and back, with his dinner in his pocket. On attaining manhood he emigrated to Australia, in the days of the gold finds there. He and three others tramped some hundreds of miles through ,the bush to reach the gold “diggings,” as he had got a tip from a returning miner, who had made his pile, as to where a promising lode existed, and the mining law in those times required at least four persons to combine to secure a claim. His chums, on arrival, though, were dissatisfied with the prospect and decided to abandon it. He, however, was of different mettle, and as he could not secure the claim by himself, he turned to his trade and took a contract to build a bake-oven at the goldfields, the first ever seen in that locality.

Recalled to Scotland, after three years in Australia, by the death of his father, Mr. Reid next crossed to New York and after studying industrial conditions there, concluded that Canada offered him a better field for the employment of his talents. Accordingly he moved to Ottawa, where he took several contracts in connection with the erection of the imposing Parliament Buildings there. From that he went to Buffalo, where he built the International Bridge and returning to Ottawa, constructed a series of ridges on the railway line between that point and Montreal, which is now owned by the C.P.R. Then he carried out the renewal of a number of bridges on the Grand Trunk Railway and next proceeded to Texas, where he built all the bridges on the International Railroad from Austin to Laredo. It was an easy transition from this to the carrying out of similar work on the Southern Pacific Railway, west of the Pecos and one hundred and fifty miles into Mexico. Some of these undertakings were remarkable engineering feats. At Austin, where a treacherous bottom and rapid current had

baffled all efforts to establish piers and masonry, he succeeded in overcoming these obstacles and in very quick tim£ had the whole installation complete, the structure standing to-day as a monument to his skill and unswerving determination. At Eagle Pass, again, he spanned the Rio Grande with one of the finest bridges of modern times, an abiding testimony to his workmanship and talents. Yet another famous bridge which owes its erection to him is that across the Delaware Water Gap, one of the “sights” of that region. To this bridge attaches a story illustrative of the man. The contract had actually been secured by another builder, who had then induced Mr. Reid to join him in it. When the latter inspected the site he observed to the other: “We shall lose about $15,000 on this job.” Next morning the partner had decamped, but Mr. Reid built the structure himself and met the losses it involved, though he had not signed the contract at all when his partner disappeared.

This fealty to his pledged word has marked his whole career and has won him the unqualified esteem and confidence of all those with whom he has been associated in business ventures. His fame as a bridge-builder in the South was now so widespread and his work so satisfactory that the projectors of the C.P.R. induced him to return to Canada to undertake not alone the construction of their most difficult viaducts, but also the building of the heaviest sections of that railway itself along the north shore of Lake Superior. It was one of the most difficult divisions of the great trascontinental road, piercing through a rugged and broken country where deep gorges had to be spanned by mighty structures of stone and steel, and the frowning Laurentian cliffs gashed with yawning rock cuts and cavernous tunnels. Mr. Reid, though, carried this herculean task through with the thoroughness and fidelity which attended every work he undertook and to which his invincible resolution inspired him. By the promptness and

perfection of his labors here he came to be recognized as among the leaders in his business in Canada and and was admitted to the fraternity of sturdy empire-builders who have graven their names deep into the history of Canada by the bands of steel with which they girdled the continent from ocean to ocean.

But there were still great achievements for him to accomplish. It was now 1890, he was a millionaire, and his three stalwart sons, William, Harry and Robert—had come to manhood, and were able and efficient helpers to him in his various undertakings. East of Cape Breton lies Newfoundland, separated only from it by the 90 miles of Cabot Strait ; and as a railroader he was aware that Newfoundland was struggling with an almost hopeless railroad problem. In 1881 the island colony had decided to build 80 miles of track to skirt round Conception Bay and connect St. John’s and Harbor Grace, the two principal towns, and the numerous hamlets between, this being the most populous portion of the island. An American Syndicate had secured the contract, but had defaulted thereon, and some English bondholders completed the line and were operating it through a liquidator. The Government next attempted to build a line of 26 miles from Whitbourne, the central point on the former, to Placentia, but this proved so costly, because of political control, that no further essay in that direction was possible. An extension north to Notre Dame Bay, the great copper producing region, was now called for, and despairing of any more hopeful prospect the Colonial Government sought contractors abroad for the accomplishing of this work.

Among those who tendered was Mr. R. G. Reid and his offer was satisfactory beyond even the hopes of the Newfoundland Cabinet, for he agreed to build the line for $15,600 a mile and to take in lieu of cash the Colony’s 3V2 p.c. bonds in payment for his work. His proposal was closed with at once and he started oper-

ations before the ink was dry on the signed contract. Fortunate it was for Newfoundland that she had a man of Mr. Reid’s financial stability and resolute determination in the early days of the, for her, colossal enterprise she had engaged in, because the first five years of his labors were attended by a series of setbacks almost heartbreaking in their cumulative effect and calculated to make a less resolute contractor abandon the whole venture in despair. In July, 1892, the major portion of the town of St. John’s was destroyed by fire, 11,000 persons being left homeless and the property loss being twenty millions with insurance of but onefourth that amount. The effects of this disaster were felt far and wide throughout the colony, and Mr. Reid was seriously hampered in his undertaking in consequence. Eighteen month later, at the end of 1893, a general election was held, which saw the Whiteway Ministry returned with a reduced majority, but a series of election petitions were filed, which, on coming to trial in due course, caused the unseating of seventeen out of twenty-three of the Liberal members. When the first two seats were vacated the Ministry resigned, hoping to nullify the proceedings thereby, but the Governor refused to sanction dissolution, and the Liberals retorted by declining to pass a Revenue Bill. The bitterest partisan warfare was waged at home—in the press, in the courts, in the constituencies and in the legislature; public credit was impaired abroad; a truncated Parliament and a makeshift Ministry were collecting duties without warrant of law under cover of a warship’s guns ; timid investors were unloading the colony’s securities at a paralyzing rate in London ; and a railroad contractor was midway through the interior, trying to carry on his appointed task, but distracted by the reports of the political warfare behind him, which threatened at times to bring down the whole financial fabric of the colony. This, indeed, very nearly happened at the end of 1894, when the memorable bank crash

came, which proved the climax of all these troubles. The Colony’s local banks went to pieces, many mercantile firms closed their doors forever, thousands were reduced to beggary, panic swept the island to its farthest shore and the Government had to pawn its securities at 50 cents on the dollar to raise the wherewithal to meet the interest due in London on the public debt on December 31, and thereby avert bankruptcy.

I11 this emergency, Mr. Reid proved a true friend to the Colony. He was mainly instrumental in inducing the Bank of Montreal to establish itself in the island and become the Government’s financial mainstay, and he assisted materially in arranging for the rehabilitation of many crippled commercial concerns. Then, when the Colony’s delegates, a few months later went to Ottawa, to seek terms of union for the Colony with Canada, he acompanied them and lent the influence of his powerful interests in the Dominion towards bringing about this result. Finally, after the negotiations for union failed, and when the present Premier, Sir Robert Bond, undertook his mission to Montreal and London to endeavor to raise a loan for the Colony, Mr. Reid went with him, and at Montreal introduced him to Hanson Brothers, Canadian agents for Coates & Co., London Bankers, and they successfully arranged with them the financial treaty which enabled Newfoundland to restore its shattered fortunes. During the negotiations, a cablegram was received from the Colonial Ministry that the Government Savings Bank was in difficulties, and the Hansons and the Bank of Montreal arranged to supply the necessary funds to satisfy all claims for withdrawal of deposits.

The straits to which Newfoundland was reduced at that time can be imagined from the fact that Sir Herbert Murray, ex-Chairman of the British Board of Customs, was sent out to dispense a relief fund of $250,000, appropriated by the Imperial Government towards the alleviation of distress throughout the island,

and was expending it in the construction of public works, paying those engaged at the rate of 50 cents a day. The Colony’s credit stood at zero in London, and a large banking firm which had agreed to purchase a substantial block of Mr. Reid’s bonds refused to do so. He was traveling in Egypt then, his health having been impaired by the difficulties of railroad construction through a wilderness like Newfoundland’s, and the strain of such a series of setbacks, and on his return to England, found that this default had been made. By that time the crisis had passed in Newfoundland, and the Colony was no longer regarded as hopelessly bankrupt, and the bankers were profusely apologetic and desirous of taking up the securities. But R.eid said “No; you have broken your word and gone back on your bargain. I will not give you these bonds now.” And he held them himself for eighteen ■ months longer, before he sold them; while the moral of this, as impressed upon financial men, was that here was a capitalist who regarded a pledged word as sacred and lived up to that principle.

In Newfoundland he had, two years previously, demonstrated in striking fashion his adherence to it. His original contract with that Colony was to build 200 miles of railroad northward to Notre Dame Bay. Before this section was completed the Government were so well satisfied with his work and with the prospects of future development which the opening up of the interior indicated, that on his recommendation they decided to extend the road to Port-aux-Basques, at the Western extremity of the island. This meant another 300 miles, through an unknown country, which had never yet been surveyed, yet Mr. Reid signed a binding contract to build the line through this wilderness for the same price and under the same conditions as he had constructed the previous section. But the Government would not consent to operate the entire railroad system for a term of years, for the vicissitudes the Colony had undergone had convinced the

Ministry that when the railroad was completed and handed over to them to operate, they would have a “white elephant” of enormous proportions to deal with and that the operation of the line as a State venture would be ruinous financially. Mr. Reid agreed to operate the system for ten years without cost to the Colony, taking as his only remuneration 5,000 acres of selected land per mile or between 2,500,000 and 3,000,000 acres in all, in alternate blocks on both sides of the track or elsewhere throughout the Colony, if that failed to provide sufficient, apart from swampy or barren areas. This offer the Government gladly accepted and thus it was that Mr. Reid became a great land-owner.

This negotiation was attended by the incident which proved Mr. Reid’s fealty to his pledged word. The pourparlers were taking place in winter in St. John’s. The only civil engineer on the staff who had even traveled over the western part of Newfoundland was summoned to the city from the railroad to impart to his chief all the information. After remaining two days he started back again. He had to proceed to an advanced post on snowshoes and while doing so was beset by a tremendous blizzard which piled snow across the barren uplands forty feet high. When its cessation permitted him to venture abroad again he made for the nearest telegraph station and wired Mr. Reid to have nothing to do with the contract to operate a railroad across Newfoundland in winter, instancing his experience as a proof that no road could ever be kept open the whole year round.

His advice, though, came too late. Mr. Reid had given his word to undertake the contract, and though that instrument had yet to be ratified by the Legislature, he would not draw back. It is very doubtful, however, if the history of railroading the world over contains a parallel instance to this—where a contractor undertook to construct 300 miles of railroad through a country that had never even been surveyed ; and also contracted to operate it afterwards, notwithstanding winters of almost

Arctic severity, and in defiance of the advice of his most experienced engineer. It is further characteristic of Mr. Reid, that by a lavish expenditure the past ten years, practically elevating the whole of his track on the exposed plateaus some three feet, he has eliminated the question of snow blockades seriously interrupting his winter traffic.

Succeeding the “Bank Crash” in Newfoundland, came a period of widespread ‘depression in business which the magnitude of that disaster rendered inevitable ; and drastic retrenchment in the shape of reduced salaries and diminished appropriations for the public service, equally inevitable if the Colony was ever to regain its former stability. The reaction of these conditions on the general industry of the island was to render it stagnant and the outlook gloomy and the reflection of this was the overthrow of the Whiteway or Liberal Ministry at the general elections in the autumn of 1897 and the return of the Winter-Morine or Conservative party.

Since 1901 Sir Robert Reid (as he now is) and his three sons have converted all their possesions and franchises in that colony into a limited liability corporation, the Reid-Newfoundland Company, with a capital of $25,000,000, but the stock is. held by them. He is himself the President and his sons are the directors and executive officers, who have, taken off .his shoulders the burden of the multifarious details of the varied phases of this gigantic enterprise. They have 6,000 square miles of lands in all parts of the Colony—lands rich in mineral, forest and farmstead wealth, silver, copper, iron, pyrites, lead, asbestos, slate and petroleum are amongst the products Mr. Reid is obtaining from the bowels of the earth ; his mills have been sawing lumber for years and he was one of the principal holders of the lands acquired by the Harmsworths for the pulp-making plant valued at $5,000,000 which they have established at Grand Falls. He still retains, moreover, pulp areas even more valuable

than these and which are destined ere long to be the seat of one of the greatest pulp-making projects in the world. For the settling of his railway line he offers the most liberal inducements, as the more settlers who locate there, the better for him. He is pursuing an active campaign in the United States and Canada for the development of tourist and sportsmen’s traffic, and from early spring until late in November the inrush continues—salmon fishers in the earlier months and caribou hunters in the late ones, with an army of tourists the whole time, great numbers of whom now take the Reid steamer that plies all summer to Labrador to enjoy the scenic beauties of the peninsula.

He has always been foremost in assisting in the establishment of other large industries in the island. As one of the principal stock-holders in the Dominion Iron and Steel Company, he was largely instrumental in inducing that corporation to purchase the iron mines at Bell Island, Conception Bay, from which it now derives its supplies of ore for its smelting works at Sydney, C.B., and he is one of the proprietors of the Newfoundland Timber Estates Company (with Mr. Whitney, of Boston), which is operating extensively in the island. He is likewise financially interested in the sealing, whaling and varied manufacturing industries of the Oldest Colony.

With such activities in progress •and still greater in prospect, the part that Sir Robert Reid and his sons are playing in the maintenance of the prosperity of Newfoundland is not to be lightly disregarded. They are by far the largest employers of labor in that island and the extent of their prospects is constantly expanding.

Sir Robert Reid has been most generous in his benefactions to Newfoundland, and no deserving object, great or small, meets a refusal from him. Towards the Victoria or Woman’s Wing of the General Hospital at St. John’s Lady Reid contributed $5,000; his own contributions and those of his sons to every philan-

thropic movement are given anonymously and must amount to thousands of dollars annually.

That so signal a career should be crowned by so signal an instance of Royalty’s favor seems eminently fitting. Here in Canada his business merits had already won him recognition from the financial world, by his election to a directorship in the two greatest institutions of the Dominion—the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Bank of Montreal ; and his philanthropic efforts by his choice as a director for the Montreal General Hospital. In Newfoundland he is no less highly esteemed, having enjoyed the cordial esteem of successive Governors and leading public men of that Colony. The present able Governor, Sir William McGregor, who was himself elevated to the dignity of G.C.M.G. in the same honor list, the first Governor of Newfoundland ever to attain that distinction,, gave as the first function following upon the “Birthday” a garden party at Government House in honor of Sir Robert and Lady Reid.

Sir Robert Reid is a remarkable personality. Silent as the Sphinx, his voice when he does speak is soft and gentle, his manner is mild and quiet, without suggestion of bluster or modern pushfulness. Yet his whole being is instinct with the idea of reserve power. For some years he has been a martyr to rheumatism, contracted by hours of exposure in ice cold water at Grand Narrows while watching the completion of a critical piece of bridge-work and so cannot grapple with details.

That the new Knight may be long spared to enjoy the honor which so worthily and so appropriately crowned a career marked by such splendid achievements and destined to be of yet greater promise to Newfoundland, to Canada and to the Empire in the days to come, will be the wish of all who feel that the highest destiny of the Oldest Colony will be best promoted by a cordial union of interests between his enterprise and its people for the advancement of the island in which both have so much at stake.