The Railway King of Canada
Sir William Mackenzie, 1849-1923
During the first two decades of this century, Sir William Mackenzie was one of Canada’s best known entrepreneurs. He spearheaded some of the largest and most technologically advanced projects undertaken in Canada during his lifetime – building enterprises that became the foundations for such major institutions as Canadian National Railways, Brascan, and the Toronto Transit Commission. He built a business empire that stretched from Montreal to British Columbia and to Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo in Brazil. It included gas, electric, telephone and transit utilities, railroads, hotels, and steamships as well as substantial coal mining, whaling, and timber interests. For a time Mackenzie also owned Canada's largest newspaper, La Presse. He accumulated an enormous personal fortune, but when he died in 1923, his estate was virtually bankrupt as a result of the dramatic collapse of his Canadian Northern Railway during the First World War.
In an era when the entrepreneur has come to be seen as a media hero and when struggles about the role of state enterprise in the transportation and energy sectors consume public policy debate, it is ironic that Mackenzie is largely forgotten by all but a few historians and railway aficionados. He left no papers to guide biographers. After a decade of gathering and piecing together fragments from an immense array of sources, Rae Fleming has written the first biography of the man that the German press extolled as the 'Railway King of Canada.'
Mackenzie was wily, crafty, manipulative, and intimidating. Starting as a general contractor in Eldon Township in rural Ontario, he built a small fortune contracting for the CPR in the Selkirks in the 1880s and then moved on to bigger things. Along the way, he funded the first full-length documentary movie, was toasted by the House of Lords, received a knighthood from George V, and developed close friendships with the major politicians of his day, including Borden and Meighen.
In a business biography intended as much for general readers as for a scholarly audience, Fleming offers a revisionist perspective on Mackenzie. He dispels the simplistic approach of those historians and journalists who have depicted Mackenzie and his partner Sir Donald Mann as melodramatic crooks who could have stepped out of the pages of Huckleberry Finn.
- 1992, Winner - Fred Landon Award for the Best Book on Regional History in Ontario
Fleming has delivered a scholarly and sympathetic picture of the life of this influential and important Canadian. Anyone interested in Canadian parallels to rail expansion in the United States, in entrepreneurship, or in prairie-province settlement would profit by reading this work.
Fleming ... has produced a well-researched and readable portrait of an important Canadian businessman. He makes impressive use of archival and other materials to avoid being taken in by Mackenzie's stories, and offers some interesting perspectives on this businessman's public career ... The Railway King of Canada is a well-crafted and entertaining biography.
R.B. Fleming’s greatest success is his portrait here not only of a vibrant Canadian entrepreneur, but of a whole society moving through the last great age of progress before the First World War and the consequent sweep of Americanism that followed, destroyed our country’s inventive potential. It comes as a real shock to realize, as William Mackenzie’s biography ends, that Canada was once a land of men and women whose dreams were the dreams of giants. The Railway King of Canada is a splendid accomplishment.
1 Shanties, Schoolhouses, and Townhalls, 1849-82
2 Seeking Newer Worlds, 1882-91
3 The Electric 1890s
4 Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg, and Birmingham Trolleys
5 Dauphin Iron and Yukon Gold, 1895-8
6 Masked Ball, 1899-1903
7 “La Presse” and Other Affairs, 1904-6
8 Dark Moments, 1907-8
9 Drinking Life to the Lees, 1909-11
10 “Honour’d of Them All,” 1912
11 Fading Star, 1913-15
12 “An Unjustifiably Sanguine View,” 1915-17
13 Unsettling Affairs, 1918-23
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