Three Generations of Stephens

Linton Eccles April 1 1913

Three Generations of Stephens

Linton Eccles April 1 1913

Three Generations of Stephens

The following article is the third of a series of family sketches which will be published in MacLean *s from time to time. The main purpose of the series is to tell the story of the notable success achieved by some prominent Canadian families in the professions and in business enterprises, and to present the underlying factors and elements which have contributed to their success. In this article the career of the Stephens family is reviewed.

Linton Eccles

THE reputation of the Stephens family depends up to now upon the contributions of three of its male members, one to each of the last three generations. The first of the three was the founder of the reputations, and founder of the family itself, so far as we and posterity are concerned, though the average Canadian does not know much about him. He was Harrison Stephens, for years a leading merchant of Vermont, who migrated to Montreal eighty-five years ago, and continued in business for years more as a leading merchant.

Harrison Stephens lived about seventy years too soon to be elevated to a C. P. R. directorship, or to have a seat on the governing body of a St. James Street bank. But he was by way of being a remarkable man, nevertheless. He knew what he was doing when he quitted Vermont for the commercial capital of Canada. Grandfather Stephens may have been a United Empire Loyalist, but apparently he didn’t make much bones about it. He probably had a shrewder reason for moving northward, for it is certain that he did not waste his time mooning around to try and find or found Acadia, No, sir, he came straight to Montreal, and he came with the intention of staying right there. And that was in 1828, when you hadn’t to pay fifty cents a square foot for building land away back of Mount Royal, or on the city side of the bluff, either.

For years the old man carried on a profitable business both in Canada and in the United States. In Montreal he was a wheat broker, though he soon learned to play a winning hand in the real estate game. At one time he even owned property in Wall Street, New York City, and he lived long enough to regret the fact that he sold out and realized only a thousand per cent, on his originaHnvestment. It was an object-lesson in the expensiveness of being in a hurry that he never forgot, and he left the lesson as a legacy to his son and his son’s sons. Llarrison Stephens was a forerunner of that considerable body of thinking men whose grounded opinion it is that" Montreal will be some day another New York, and he inaugurated the family policy of acquiring and holding on to property near the heart of the city, with this future development in mind.

When this enterprising Vermonter first came to Canada there was no extradition law between this country and the United States, and the Bank of Montreal, then an infant institution wobbling on infancy’s uncertain legs, turned him down when he wished to open an account. Accordingly, his practice was to bank his gold in Albany, N.Y., and the considerable payments that he received for his wheat exports he used to send by water and then on horseback to the capital of the adjoining state.

Harrison had many personal friends in the Northern States, and when the Civil War came his sympathies were expressed in no uncertain fashion. He was willing to go much farther than expressing his feelings on paper, for twice he wrote to Lincoln offering to

equip a regiment for him in Canada to help the North fight the South, and twice Lincoln refused the offer. It is not surprising, therefore, that out of his strong pro-Americanism, Stephens named his son after the first president of the republic. This son, himself, served for a time

as attaché with General Sherman of the United States Army during the later stages of the Civil War, and the friendship between the Sherman and Stephens families was kept up for years.

Which introduces us to the second

Stephens of note, George Washington, by baptism, the second son of Harrison and his wife, who was Sarah Jackson.

It is an ironical coincidence that the last two of the three Stephenses are in recollection and on record for achievements outside and independent of which the family fortune was made.

Which is noticeable, because the fortune is still the most tangible thing about the family. The Stephens pile is as big and as safe as may be reasonably expected of fortunes, even moderately millioned fortunes. It swells to

at least four and a procession of six noughts of dollars in Montreal real estate alone, and as most of us know, there is solid safety enough in Montreal real estate that is located not on or near the South Shore nor back of beyond

the Back River where farms are alleged to be building lots.

The biggest thing about the big Stephens fortune is that it is in real real estate—land that has been growing in price, just as long as the Metropolis

has been growing in population, which is quite some while. Pehaps if it had been left to the third of the Stephenses to acquire this longitudinally large lump of wealth that is more considerable than coin, somebody else would be

camping on it to-day and watching the price steadily go up. In our slower East, “buys’* that turn over the biggest money on the original outlay have to be kept warm in the family for a generation or so.

Such a block as that fronting Dor-

ehester Street West and St. Monique Street in Montreal, for instance, has been a carefully preserved egg in the Stephens family nest. Nor can it be hatched yet ; it must be preserved for a while longer. It belongs, this round million of the total of four millions, to the G. W. Stephens Estate, of which the

executors are G. W. Stephens, who was “Junior,” and his step-mother, during whose lifetime it cannot be divided.» Some day the Dorchester Street West block will be let out on to a willing and waiting market. Some day it will' be bidden for, fast and furiously. And

some day some syndicate or some one will draw a cheque of something more than two million dollars in payment of the privilege of owning it. So, some day, the G. W. Stephens Estate will be worth at least five millions instead of at least four millions.

Although he had a lot to do in creat-

in g value for these millions, George Washington Stephens is remembered by a few graybeards in the Metropolis, and by others who are not graybeards, but have been told about things as they used to be when their fathers flushed in their prime, as a notable political house-

cleaner and as a leading figure in a celebrated legal case.

He was borne at Montreal in 1832, and after a fewr years at the High School, his father had him at work learning the hardware business. But George Washington conceived a fancy for law, and they sent him to McGill, where he took his B.C.L. Just past his

thirtieth year he was called to the Bar, and he entered the firm of John A. Perkins, who was an eminent lawyer in Montreal. If Stephens had not been with Perkins it is hardly likely that he would have had anything to do with the celebrated cause of Connolly versus

Woolryeh, which established the validity of a marriage between a white person and a native celebrated according to the Indian custom.

It is worth while to turn over the heap of musty, red-tape tied records to get an outline of this big legal battle. One. William Connolly, born in 1768 at Lachine, as a youth went to the

North-West, where he pioneered through many years. Whilst in the West there lived with him as his squaw the daughter of an Indian chief, whose formal consent to the union was given. Connolly, for 28 years was faithful to the native woman, who bore him six children. Then in 1831 he brought her and her family to Lower Canada and

civilization. A year later he left her, obtained a dispensation from the then Bishop, and married according to Roman Catholic rites, his cousin, Julia Woolrych, with whom he lived until his death in 1849. He willed all his property to Julia Woolrych and their two children. Trouble came after the old man died, when his two families came to law to decide where they stood in parcelling out Connolly’s estate. The case of the Woolrych heirs was that

the union with the Indian woman was not a legal one.

Judge Monk decided that a Christian marrying a native according to native usage could not exercise in Lower Canada the right of divorce or repudiation at will, though he might have done so among the Crees. The native marriage, therefore, was valid and recognisable

by the Quebec Courts, and the plaintiff named in the case, a son of Connolly by the chief’s daughter, was entitled to his proper share of the estate. Perkins and Stephens were the counsel for the plaintiff, and much of the legal sparring fell to George Washington Stephens, who then had been practising at the Bar for only four years. It was as good as a Parnell case to him, and his professional career was as good as made.

But, in spite of the rather brilliant

reputation he had rapidly built up, Stephens threw up what looked like a sure future thing at the Bar, and stepped out of the profession of law. Por this apparently inexplicable step there was a reason, and the reason was the Harrison Stephens Estate, real estate which was advancing in value even then, and which wanted managing. But, whatever the law business lost, the citizens of Montreal were gainers, for this professor in his prime was freed to start his seventeen years’ term on the City Council. And it is on this particular period of his life that his reputation with us rests.

There have been a lot of hard, and many of them deservedly hard, things said against Montreal’s City Councils’ past, immediately past, and present. This is no place to add damns to the indictment, but this much can be commented: the late George Washington Stephens would have enjoyed to the full spending his civic term with the Council as we have known it. And nobody who desires to have clean municipal government would cavil at the comment that it would have been a good thing for Montreal if George Washington Stephens could have so served his native city from 1896 until now.

They used to talk a lot about sidewalks in George Washington’s—that is to say, George Washington Stephens’ —day. They are not through talking about sidewalks yet, and the average newspaper reading elector wonders probably when they will be through. But in George Washington’s (Stephens’) day, they used to talk sidewalks good and hard and often. And George Washington (Stephens) talked them as good, as hard and as often as his nearest three competitors. Which was good for him, good for the sidewalks, and good for the public that has to pay for them.

He has been compared to the late Sir Richard Cartwright, but the comparison, if anything, is slightly in Stephens’s favor. Old Senator Warhorse, not unlike a few other politicians, wras apt occasionally to exaggerate. George

Washington—please take it for granted that we are not now discussing that other bearer of the name who became first president of the more or less United States—George Washington drew his deadly effectiveness from the fact that he knew how to stick to and hammer onto plain, bald facts. He was fully as ready and as caustic in debate as was Sir Richard, but his opponents could not make him lose his head nor his hold upon his facts. They say you couldn’t possibly get him away from them, and certainly the friends of the contractor in the Council had good reason for avoiding, if they could, his points of argument, for Stephens was not nicknamed “Watchdog of the City Treasury” for nothing. George Washington himself may have known a lot concerning military matters when he was through licking the British, but his namesake in the Stephens family could have made him look like thirty cents in a bout of argument in which sidewalks were the titbit.

This same Stephen was labelled Liberal in politics, and he entered the Provincial Legislature thusly tagged in 1881, as representative for Montreal Centre. He lectured to the Assembly on economy as he had lectured the Council, and when he was beaten at the polls in 1886, his political admirers made occasion to show their continued faith in him by giving him a presentation of silver plate. He went back to the Legislature in 1892 as member for Huntingdon County and he was placed without portfolio in the Marchand Administration. G. W. Stephens Senior, was one of the founders of the Good Government Association, and later did some pioneering on a colonization commission. His first wife was Elizabeth McIntosh, daughter of an Aberdeen merchant settled in Montreal.

Their second son, although like his father, Montreal-born, was also called George Washington. I don’t think he much minds it, either. Industrious magazine men are busy these days in examining with microscopic mien the threads of the reputation uf the greatest United Stateser. Some day I should

not be surprised to read that one or other of them has proven to his own satisfaction that the original and only George Washington did, really and truly, tell just one little lie. But they never will be able to write down Washington as anything but the figure of his times. And, anyway, that doesn’t prevent George Washington Stephens from being a good Canadian, and for what already he has been able to do for Canada most Canadians would forgive • him if, when he gets a son, he named him after father and grandfather.

Our George Washington Stephens is four years and four months short of his fiftieth birthday, and is yet younger than was his father when the Watchdog went for the Legislature and got there. It is an interesting speculation what the ex-Chairman of the Harbor Board will break into when he returns to the Metropolis from his three months’ jaunt in Europe, which, at the time of this writing, is still proceeding. He is slated for Mayor of Montreal, for the Legislature, for more imposing company at Ottawa, besides a whole heap of other jobs on the side. He is credited with a desire to go back to an old love of his young manhood, journalism, though this time he could jump at once on to the proprietorial perch ; and there are lots of sillier things than that he might do. But, speculation aside, Montreal and Canada have not finished with G. W. Stephens, any more than G. W. Stephens has finished with them. Meanwhile, he will have his hands fairly full in managing the family inheritance, and the straightening out of an estate that contributes yearly to the city taxes thirty-five thousand dollars is no sinecure. Besides which he has to handle the million or so of his own self-made fortune.

_ Major Stephens, helped loyally by his two associates, Messrs. C. C. Ballantyne and L. E. Geoffrion, was given a fine chance of, and succeeded in, making some local, not to say national history. They showed in seven years what they could do with Montreal’s joke of a harbor, which is a joke no longer, but acknowledges New York only as first

best on the Atlantic frontier. There were old Montrealers who were disappointed when the son of his father seemed to shun civic distinction. The Major, possibly, laughed up his sleeve at them, for he improved on the old man’s record by beating the City Council and its paid experts in several notable deals in which the Harbor Board came out on top.

No doubt he was helped largely in his Harbor Board work by the experience he had gained of the ways in which things are run in other countries. Llis father started him out well by sending him to Europe, after he was through McGill, to round off his education. For a time he was in business in Germany’s great port of Hamburg, doing quite an export trade with South American ports. Returning to Canada, he had some experience in the iron and steel trades, and then he joined his father in real estate and in the management of his grandfather’s estate. With the rediscovery of the commercial possibilities of rubber, G. W. Junior found a profitable opening, and he soon became the brain behind the Canada Rubber Company and the Canada Consolidated Rubber Company. Then, after a short term in the Quebec Legislature as representative of St. Lawrence, gnd some useful work as one of the three Protestant School Commissioners, he wTas appointed to the Chairmanship of the Montreal Harbor Commission.

This was no hole-in-the-corner, no soft-j ob-f or-an-unknown appointment. Major Stephens had made it his business to study harbors. He had gone out of his way to study them. In addition to his experience of Hamburg, in 1899 he visited the principal ports of Britain, Germany, and France, and at the end of his trip he sat down and compiled from his copious notes a book entitled “Harbors and Their Development,” which served the very useful purpose of locating the attention of government people at Ottawa and elsewhere upon the author. Immediately following his appointment Major Stephens went on a more detailed tour of inspection. He even was allowed,

through the personal influence of the Kaiser, to go over the famous Kiel Canal system. Another treatise on harbors was the printed result. Later he made a visit to Russia especially to study methods used there with ice-breaking steamers, and of course, he had in mind the exigencies and possibilities of the St. Lawrence channel.

When the late Harbor Commissioners commenced their duties with the New Year of 1907, there Avas only one modern shed on the wharves of the St. Lawrence, and that Avas owned by the Allan Line. Further East there was grain elevator No. 1, and that was about all there was to interrupt the citizens’ view of the river. The waterfront looked about as busy as a strip of the Sahara desert. If the ex-Harbor Commissioners are given credit for nothing else, they must be given credit for lining the waterfront with freight and passenger sheds and other structures that, remember, are used. They, of course, with the co-operation of the great steamship companies that were anxious to compete with the Allans for the Canadian trade. Rotting timbers and tumbledown shacks they have replaced by piers and revetment walls of enduring concrete. Grain elevator No. 2, the largest concrete elevator in the world, with a normal capacity of nearly three million bushels, and towering two hundred feet into the sky, will remain as a monument to their endeavors. They have increased the capacity of the old elevator by fifteen hundred thousand bushels, and replaced its wooden Avails by concrete ones. The addition of three thousand feet length of dock space to the port’s facilities is another considerable item of the Harbor Commissioners’ work. Their crowning achieA7ement. was the recent inauguration of the huge neAV floating dry dock, and, had they been allowed to complete their plans, they would have commenced this spring a new bridge over the St. Lawrence, joining the city to the South Shore by way of St. Helen’s Island.

All these drastic developments in the port of Montreal and those staled, are but a feAV of what have been carried out or commenced, have not been made a moment too soon. In fact, considering the extraordinary growth of the harbor traffic, many of these improvements should have been started at least twenty years ago. It is as well here to put on record once more, figures to prove this statement:

For the year 1912 the exports from Montreal Harbor were $87,679,422, an increase of 16 millions over the preceding year. The imports Avere worth $148,977,605, or 19 millions more than those for 1911. In customs duties there was collected $24,552,598, an advance of four millions upon 1911. During the 1912 navigation season, from April 30 to December 3, 415 foreign-going vessels, with a total tonnage of 1,790,518 tons, reported at the office of the port warden. So that it was high time a move was made to re-create the port’s facilities.

Popularly known as “Major,” G. W. Stephens really holds the rank of Lt.Col. retired in the 3rd Field Battery of the Royal Canadian Artillery. He was offered the position of second in command of the first Canadian contingent in the South African War. but as he Avas the only son over age, his parents prevailed on him not to go. He Avas in charge of the Canadian Contingent at the Coronation of King Edward. He married (three years ago), in Paris. Rosalinda Bissachi di Belmonte, an Italian lady of great accomplishments and a near relative of the Duke of Belmonte.

It is quite possible that some work is waiting for Major Stephens A\eightier than the bossing of the Harbor Commission. but as to that Ave must “wait and see.” Until there is something bigger doing or done than the re-creation of the port of Montreal, that must stand as hi« star achievement. Meanwhile, there Avili be keen curiosity to see what he will do next.