The Secret of Van Horne’s Success
C. Lintern Sibley
“It has always been a profound belief of mine that the things which people regard as next to impossible are the easiest things to do. Consequently I have always set myself out to perform the next-to-impossible wherever I have run against it.”
AS one who has had the privilege of many a happy visit to the home of Sir William Van Horne, and of many happy hours of intimate conversation with him on all kinds of subjects, I may, perhaps, be able to give an appreciation of the unofficial side of his character that will interest many who only knew him as a mighty force in transportation and finance in Canada.
First, a little anecdote. I called on him one day immediately on his return from one of his periodical trips to his beloved land of Cuba. We were sitting in his study—or, rather one of his studies, for he had two in his Montreal home—when in walked his handsome, little grandson. He had come to welcome his grandfather home.
The face of the great man beamed with love and pride. “Hello, my little fellow,” he said, “Come and give grandpa a kiss.” The two hugged one another in a loving embrace.
“I want you to play horses,” said the little boy.
“Do you?” said grandpa. “Well, come along, then.”
Down on his hands and knees went the great Sir William. The boy sprang on his back, gave him a wallop in the place where a wallop should properly be applied, and cried, “Gee up!”
And then I saw the man who built the Canadian Pacific Railway, the man who had won fame and wealth and honor such as comes only to few men in any age, galloping around the room on his hands and knees, playing the fractious, high-spirited horse for the uproariously-delighted boy who rode him.
The noise attracted other playmates of Sir William. In ran a couple of his dogs, scenting fun. They were mad with delight when they saw what was doing. Barking at the heels of the spirited thoroughbred, they made him snort, and kick, and shy, and cavort in great style, so much so that if the horse hadn’t forgotten at times that he was a horse, the third in the line would certainly have broken his neck.
There you have an illuminative picture of Sir William at home. The incident was typical of him. No man ever had a happier, more joyous home life than he. He was worshipped by every member of his family, and he worshipped them. Life for him was a glorious banquet, full of zest and enjoyment, and always, to the full extent of his power and his happy personality, he made it a glorious banquet for those who were near to him.
T T IS intimates included people of every A A walk jn life. His extraordinary achievements, and the high station to which he attained, never made him selfconscious. He liked people for what they were, not for what they had. People, without wealth, title or social distinction were admitted to his intimacy equally with the highest in the land, and were entertained by him in his home in the same wholehearted and regal way. Just as he was the joyous companion of his grandson, so he was the joyous companion of all in whose personality he found a responsive chord, irrespective of any other consideration.
And what an amazing wealth of interests he had in business, finance, science, art, literature, and travel to attract him to people in numerous walks of life!
He could talk entertainingly, and often with an amazing profundity of special knowledge, on almost any subject. And
his anecdotes and reminiscences were legion.
HOW did this man, who was of humble origin, and who started earning his own living at the age of thirteen, achieve such wonderful success in business, and such wonderful artistic and intellectual success as were his? He told me once what he considered was the secret of his success.
“It has always been a profound belief of mine,” he said, “that the things which people regard as next to impossible are the easiest things to do. Consequently I have always set myself out to perform the next-to-impossible wherever I have run against it.”
He gave me many instances. I will relate a few.
His first great task in Canada—the building of the C.P.R.—was one. He passed over generalities and came to an instance. There was the building of the line in the then terrible country north of Lake Superior.
The C.P.R. had run out of funds—had hardly a dollar in hard cash to its name, and didn’t know where to raise any more. It was necessary to pour an army of workmen into the North Shore country, and keep them at work there for months. How was the company to pay them? Everybody said it was next to impossible.
“Then that’s the easiest thing to do,” said Sir William.
He set his mind to work, and he found a way. It was in the fall. The country would soon be ice-bound and snow-bound. If he were to get together a great army of workmen, and pour them into the country north of Lake Superior where the line was to be built, why almost as soon as they got there, the ice and snow would come, and they would not be able to get out, if they wanted to. And, of course, if the ice and snow prevented them from getting out, it would equally prevent the paymaster from getting in ! Consequently he would be in a position to get the line built without having any money in immediate sight for paying the men who built it!
And that is actually what he did!
“Of course,” he remarked, “the next next-to-impossible thing was to get the money in the spring. Fate came along and helped me there, as Fate has a habit of doing when you attempt the next-toimpossible. I have always said that the C.P.R. ought to erect a monument in honor of the Riel rebels. For it was the Riel rebels who really brought about the building of the C.P.R. The first rebellion pointed out the need of connecting Eastern and Western Canada by railway for military purposes. Thus the idea of the C.P.R. was born. The second rebellion show’ed the importance to the country of the line while it was actually being built, and showed the importance when most people were regarding it as a piece of stupendous and utterly superfluous folly.
“For just at the time when I was beginning to wonder what scheme to adopt to raise the money to pay the men, and thinking I had run up against something at last that actually was impossible, along came the second rebellion. The need at once arose for transporting troops from the East to the West. I had just got enough of the work done to be able to offer the new C.P.R. line for the purpose. By hook and by crook we managed to transport the troops over the new line, and to save the country. The tremendous importance of the line had been dramatically illustrated. There was no trouble after that in getting the money. But it was not known how I had counted on the ice and snow keeping the paymaster out while the army of men was working on month after month in expectation of his coming.”
T HAVE already published a story he A gave me of how he came to build the railway in Cuba. That story, by the way, was another of his illustrations of the comparative ease of performing the nextto-impossible. Visiting Cuba just after the Spanish-American war, he conceived the idea of building a railway across it. When he set about the job, he discovered that it was next-to-impossible to do it. Five companies, two of them American, already organized for this purpose, had found it absolutely impossible. The trouble was this. A United States military governor had been placed in charge of the administration of the country. Neither the Spanish authorities nor the people themselves were able, therefore, to grant a charter. Equally the American
authorities were unable to do so owing to the Foraker amendment, which prohibited the granting of public franchises in a place under military occupation.
“Splendid!” exclaimed Sir William. “Here’s a job to my liking.”
He immediately bought up land right across the island for a right-of-way for his railway, in one case buying an estate of 30,000 acres “at a clip” because he could not otherwise get the strip he wanted.
As nobody could prevent him from building a railway on his own land, he set to work building the line in sections. There was one obstacle, and he knew it from the start—he would ultimately have to get a charter to connect these sections across the public roads of the island. He built his different sections, and had the railway all completed except for them. By generous treatment he had got the whole people enthusiastic for the project, and also utterly downcast when they found that the railway, almost ready to open for traffic, had to be abandoned, because it could not be carried over the highways.
Petitions to the Military Governor to help the people to get this great boon of a railway into operation began to pour in—secretly helped along by Sir William’s agents.
SIR WILLIAM had a plan all the time, and when conditions were ripe he went to the Governor. He told of the money he had spent in the enterprise. He referred to the public clamor for the line. He asked for a charter.
The Governor was obdurate. The thing could not be done.
Sir William refused to believe that a man of the Governor’s great ability and experience—he must be a man of great ability and experience, he said, or he would never have been entrusted with such an important charge on behalf of the United States—he refused to believe that a man of the Governor’s great ability and experience could not find a way out of the difficulty. He was sure that if the Governor would only give the thing careful thought he would be able to help him in the great, the ruinous difficulty, in which he (Sir William) found himself, and would be able forever to earn the gratitude of the Cuban people. And so on.
The Governor was impressed by Sir William’s confidence in his ability and experience.
“Now just think the thing over,” said Sir William, “and I will come back tomorrow morning, and hear what you decided in the matter.”
From the Governor Sir William drove off in post haste to a lawyer friend, who happened to be the Governor’s confidential adviser.
“I have reason to believe,” he said to this lawyer, “that the Governor will be sending to you shortly for your advice over the question of my railway. Now the trouble is, as you know, that it is impossible to grant a franchise. Suggest to him that he grant me a revocable permit to extend the railway over the public highways.”
Sir William knew that once he got a permit, business and public considerations
would make it most inexpedient ever to revoke it.
Even while he was talking to the lawyer, a summons to the. latter from the Governor arrived.
The next morning Sir William called on the Governor. “Well, have you found a way?” he asked.
“Yes,” replied the Governor. “How would a revocable permit do?”
A revocable permit! Sir William was horrified at the idea. Build a railway on a permit that might be revoked at any time? Impossible! Not to be thought of! He argued and expostulated.
But the Governor was adamant. ■ There was no other way.
“So I accepted a revocable permit,” remarked Sir William. “I died hard,” he added, with a whimsical smile. “But I took good care to die.”
And his railway was connected over the public highways, he said, with the nearest approach to greased lightning he had ever witnessed.
The psychologic insight he showed in dealing with the Cuban people and the military Governor was characteristic of him.
He always sized up his man, and dealt with him accordingly.
TT E once told me, with every evidence A A 0f enjoyment and satisfaction, of his famous bouts with Goldwin Smith. At one period during the building of the C.P.R. there was a bitter right-of-way controversy. Goldwin Smith took sides against the C.P.R. and attacked that company with all the ability and trenchant argument of which he was capable. Sir William recognized that he had an exceedingly able, adroit, and influential opponent. It was of vital moment that Goldwin Smith should not win out. It was also obvious that there was a strong danger of his doing so. There was only one thing to do—shut him up.
Sir William recognized that this was next to impossible. He laid his plans accordingly.
Every argument that Goldwin Smith put forward Sir William replied to. But he replied to it not by argument, but by abuse.
“I replied to his arguments,” he said, “by abuse, couched in the most violent language permissible to publish in the newspapers. Goldwin Smith was a scholar of refinement and delicacy. I knew that if I answered him in violent and abusive language he would consider it beneath him to be engaged in such a vulgar brawl. I decided that every time he put his sensitive nose out of his silken nest I would drop a lump of mud on it. The plan succeeded. Goldwin Smith declined to engage in a public controversy with such a vulgar fellow as I was. Incidentally the C.P.R. won out.”
I AM afraid that Sir William’s experiences with politicians were not very happy ones. Yet he did turn politician. The principle on which the last election was fought stirred him out of himself. He came out as a most strenuous opponent of reciprocity. He even went so far as to join the politicians on the platform.
He made his début as a public speaker before a crowded audience in the Monument Nationale, Montreal, and made a capital speech which was all the more effective because it did not come with the glib fluency of the practised orator.
This reminds me that he took great pride in literary expression. He believed in compressing into the smallest possible number of words the greatest possible amount of information or feeling, as the case might be. When newspaper men called on him for an interview he would sometimes talk to them for a couple of hours, giving them a prodigality of “good stuff.” Then he would summarize the whole thing in one written paragraph and forbid them to publish one word beyond the paragraph he had written. No amount of argument or pleading would prevail on him to allow anything of what he had been saying to be added to this paragraph. Nothing that could be added, he maintained, could strengthen the impression that that one paragraph was intended to convey as to his opinion on the subect under discussion. The following message which he wrote as an interview on the death of King Edward will show with what grace and succinctness he actually could express himself in one paragraph:
"The awful event Is stunning in its suddenness, and I can hardly so soon collect my thoughts to express my sense of the loss to the country and to the world. Certainly the death of King Edward will be more universally felt and mourned than that of any other sovereign, save Queen Victoria, since the world began. It has come at a most unfortunate time for England—a time when the political situation needs so much his able and tactful guidance.”
A S is well known, Sir William Van Horne was one of the most enthusiastic collectors of art on the continent.
His house on Sherbrooke street,
Montreal, is from basement to roof one luxurious museum of examples of old and modern masters of painting, carving and ceramics. Indeed, it is one of the most famous private collections in the world. Sir William was himself an artist of extraordinary ability, and a connoisseur of recognized authority. He was a member of the council of advisers of the wellknown connoisseurs’ periodical, the Burlington Magazine, of London.
It is outside the purpose of this sketch to attempt to enumerate any of his pictures. Sufficiënt to say that many of the most famous artists who ever lived are represented in the collection, and one picture alone, Velasquez’s masterpiece—a life-size portrait of Philip IV. of Spain— is valued at over half a million dollars. I have been with him on occasions for five or six hours at a stretch, going through his collection with him, and listening to his entertaining talk on art and life. And, so extensive and absorbing is the collection that never have I come away, after all those swiftly-passing hours among it, without fæling that I had after all but
merely glimpsed it. It is an astonishing thing that one man alone could crowd into one lifetime all the thought and knowledge and energy that must have gone to the acquirement of so extraordinarily extensive and representative a collection— and that man one of the busiest captains of industry who ever lived. For this was not a collection made for him. He did it himself, every object being the result of his own personal selection and judgment; often acquired only as the result of a long journey overseas. And the cost of it!
“I suppose,” I said to him one day, “that you don’t know what you really have spent on the collection?”
“Oh yes, I do,” he replied, “I know exactly what it has cost me.”
“Well, how much?” I asked. We had been talking too freely for him to regard the question as an impertinence.
“Well, it’s so much,” he replied, “that I wouldn’t like to tell a soul how much.
But I’ll tell you this. The collection is worth two million dollars at the lowest.”
Considering that one canvas alone out of hundreds of famous pictures, many of them the artists’ masterpieces, is worth half a million dollars, he must have priced his collection at an exceedingly modest figure.
TT E had one room full of his own paintings, for the amazing thing was that in odd moments of his crowded life he had taught himself to paint, and paint with extraordinary power and felicity. There was nothing amateurish about his work. He had the power and the sureness of touch that enabled him to paint a lovely landscape or seascape in from one to three hours. One of his pictures took around eight hours to do, and he thought that a remarkably long time.
Nobody, he said, ever taught him to
paint. He considered that nobody with a talent for painting wanted an instructor ! “Buy paints and get to work is the way to learn,” he remarked. “That is what I did.”
In addition to his landscapes and seascapes he leaves behind him an extraordinary legacy of his own art. He made it his practice to keep posted up to date an illustrated catalogue of his ceramic.and other objets d’art, of which he had thousands. He always made a thumb-nail water-color sketch of every piece he purchased. This was in his day book. Each of these sketches was a perfect facsimile in color and even in microscopic detail. In the case of pottery not only was the crackle in the glaze faithfully depicted, but even the “sub-crackle” beneath the glaze. As opportunity afforded, he followed up this thumbnail sketch by a “life-size” water-color drawing for the main catalogue. As still life paintings I have never seen more perfect examples of the painter’s art. He showed me a thick volume of this catalogue that he was just completing. It had in it, not only a painting of each piece, but a written description as well, with its history, and everything interesting pertaining to it.
“I have over forty volumes like that in my strong room downstairs,” he said.
“What, all your own work?”
I exclaimed, astonished.
“Yes,” he replied. “And all that work has been done as a recreation, in odd moments. I always felt that I could not spare time for odd work like this until after ten o’clock at night, and all this catalogue has been done after that time. Some day,” he added with a smile, “when people see that they will think it is the whole life work of one man. And it has only been done in the spare moments of a man whose life work has been something very different.”
By the way, it may be remarked that Sir William was a man who needed very little sleep. In fact, so little that he maintained that sleeping was only a habit, and one in which he only indulged for an hour or two at a time. He would think nothing of working through the whole night.
Occasionally when I called at his house he would be engaged. On such occasions he would say, “Just wander around the house and look at the pictures. Go wherever you like. I will be with you as soon as I get through.”
On one such occasion he found me in his long gallery upstairs, looking at a model of an old warship of the sailing era.
“Ah, you’ve found my latest treasure!” he exclaimed. “I’ve just got that over from Europe.” And then followed another amazing revelation of the man’s catholicity of taste. He had, I found, a collection of over eighty of the original models of English, Dutch, and Spanish warships—the original models from
which some of the most famous fighting ships in naval history were built. Ships that have long since disappeared!
“I started collecting them many years ago,” he remarked, “before the idea of the historical value of these models had seemed to strike anyone. I have now the finest collection of these models in existence.”
AND so it went. One was always geting amazing new revelations of the many-sided character of this king among men.
It is a far cry from art to salt. But I am tempted to give another story of another revelation. The conversation somehow passed to butter.
“At one time Canada could not turn out butter to compete with the world— not as regards quality, I mean,” he said. “As it was so important that Canada’s butter should be exported at good prices,
I set to work to study butter. I found that the real fault lay with the salt that was used. Canada’s butter was the worstsalted butter on the market. So I studied salt.”
And then he launched into a scientific disquisition on salt.
To make a long story short, he found in Canada exactly the kind of salt that was wanted. That was the famous Windsor salt, the industry which he was instrumental in founding.
“The result of using that salt was that from being the worst-salted butter on the market, Canada’s became the best,” he said, “and the whole quality of Canada’s butter henceforward was equal to the world’s best.”
O IR WILLIAM VAN HORNE seemed equal to every problem and every task with which he was ever faced. The full story of what his energy, his optimism, his courage, and his genius have done for
Canada will never be adequately told. It has been a fortunate thing for the Dominion that it has been the country in which he has worked out his life’s tasks.
His loyalty to those with whom he was associated was unbounded. He was proud of them, proud of their achievements and their success. Of Sir Thomas Shaughnessy, his life-long comrade and successor in office, he was particularly proud.
“I feel,” I once heard him say, at a meeting of the shareholders of the C.P.R., “that I have done one good thing for Canada, at any rate—I brought Sir Thomas Shaughnessy to this country.”
And every one who was ever intimate with him will say, I think, with the physician who attended him in his last illness, that “He was the kindest man I ever knew,” and with Sir Thomas Shaughnessy that his was “A great mind, a great heart, and a lofty soul.”