One hundred and thirty years ago today, workers drove in the last spike to complete the trans-Canadian railway. Gordon Lightfoot commemorated the event in this wonderful song.
After hearing it again, I got thinking of family history, and while our Scottish great-grandfather did not work on the railway, he did work lumber. You can read my earlier post here. It was hard, dangerous work, and sometimes very cold.
I’ve always been curious about Daniel’s employer, the Robinson-Edwards lumber company. Recently, I discovered that the company was based in Ottawa. In fact, W.C. Edwards, the company’s vice-president, also served on the Canadian Senate. A New York Times article, “Canadian Lumberman’s Mistake about Victoria’s Successor”, that I found here had this to say:
Senator and Mrs. W.C. Edwards of Ottawa were the recent guests of Mr. and Mrs. D.W. Robinson. Senator Edwards is Vice-President of the Robinson-Edwards Lumber Company and has extensive lumber interests in Canada. He was appointed Senator last Winter and has been prominent in political affairs in Canada for years. The following story about Senator Edwards is circulating in the lumberman’s papers.
W.C. Edwards, one of the newly appointed Senators, is a lumberman who operated far up the Gatineau River, and he tells this story in the Toronto Globe of a shantyman who had spent a couple of seasons working for him in the bush and was coming out again shortly after the death of Queen Victoria
At Maniwaki the shantyman made his first stop on the way down and in a chat with the hotel keeper asked what was the news since he had gone to the woods. “Oh, there’s nothing much new. I s’pose you heard up there that the Queen was dead?” “No, you don’t tell me that the Queen was dead. I’m sorry to hear that. She was a good woman, the Queen, and a good Queen too. Well, we’ll all die sometime, even the Queen.” After a respectful pause, he asked, “And who’s got the job now? Who’s the head now?”
“Oh, Edward’s the king now. It’s King Edward for the last three months.”
“Edwards the King! Well, well, you don’t tell me Edwards the King. He’s a big man in the lumber business but I never expected to hear of him become the King. What a pull that man Edwards must have with Laurier!”
It’s a charming story, but Edwards proved to be a typical politician out for his own glory and power. Anyway, by the time that story was written, my great-grandfather was company treasurer in Burlington, Vermont, during the logging heyday when there were vast lumberyards on the Lake Champlain shore. According to one source, “there is not a single extant building as a visible reminder of the immense lumber industry” of the period. Well, time marches on. At the height of its production, the company was huge.
That’s the fire insurance map of the sawmill. But all good things must come to an end, and the industry and company were in decline during the 1920s. Here’s what my great-grandfather wrote to my great-aunt Hazel on December 19, 1928:
My dear Hazel,
Xmas will soon be here, time goes quickly. It just seems to me that everybody is saying I must hurry on, for we are all on the dead jump and everything does seem to move too fast. I hope this festive season makes it happier for you. It is a treat to see everybody rushing here and there buying presents, and it must be wonderful if one could know how much is being spent in dollars and cents. Mama has got all her parcels done up, and I have finished with mine, and that is sending a check for uncle Kenneth. I always regret the smallness of my donation, and I always wish it was larger. I hope I have not reached the time when I must reduce, ill health and our present business will do that. It may come soon now. Our people at Ottawa evidently want to close the business here. They have said to continue until April 1, after that I don’t’ know but I keep on smiling just the same. I am enclosing a small check, hoping it will be of some service. Last year I was richer and had more to do with. I wish you would get well. The future ought to look good to you. We all have our blessings and I am sure if we would only stop and count them there would be many. Please remember us to Harry, and to you our hearts go out wishing all good things this coming year. Keep up your courage and all will be well. Wishing you a happy New Year and Merry Xmas.
Yours very affectionately, Pa
The company did, indeed, go out of business, and my great-grandfather lost his job. Here is what he wrote to my grandfather about it in a letter dated February 6, 1929.
My dear Bunker,
I received your letters and thank you very much for the same. I left my reading glasses at home, and have a hard time to write with the temporary set I have here. I was glad to get your prices for my duty, although I don’t think he will order until spring. Regarding the Brett affair, I do not know what to say. My advice on the spur of the moment would be to stay where you are for several reasons. The principal one is that I will be out of a job on April 1. I will then have to look elsewhere. I have received my notice to walk out then — that is April 1st. Your mother says she cannot go out of Burlington, so you see I am tied down. Anyway I have to work in order to live, and Burlington is a poor place to work out a new job. Mr. Smith still stays on, and all invoices are to be made at Ottawa. He is to be agent for W. C. Edwards and Co. Now then, how am I [to manage?] If I was able to lend or loan money in a new business [it would be fine]. I am up against it, as I am not in shape to be knuckled down at any job and I have not the means to carry on. Still I have hopes that I will be able to make it a go on a smaller wage. If I can only keep your mother and myself from having to go on you fellows, I will be tickled. Just now everything is blue and is not bright. I hope you will never experience anything such as I am going into. I cannot explain things in a letter but will when I see you, which I hope will not be long. Mother is keeping fairly well but this notice of quitting the job has been a great blow to her. Please remember me to Catherine and the children. I hope they are well.
Yours very faithfully, Pa
The poor man, who was in his seventies by this time, had worked hard all his life — most of it with the Robinson-Edwards company. Those were the days before retirement benefits or social security, and clearly W.C. Edwards didn’t feel the need to reward loyalty. My great-grandfather died May 1st, 1929 — just a month after he stopped working.
This November we have many things for which to be grateful — our jobs and our hardworking ancestors chief among them.
*Gordon Lightfoot, “The Canadian Railroad Trilogy”