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BLEWETT, GEORGE JOHN – Volume XIV (1911-1920)

b. 9 Dec. 1873 in Yarmouth Township, Ont.

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Original title:  II-79973.1 | D. D. Mann, Montreal, QC, 1886 | Photograph | Wm. Notman & Son

Source: Link

MANN, Sir DONALD (his marriage record gives the middle initial P., and until 1911 he sometimes used the middle initial D.), lumberman, railwayman, and mining promoter; b. 23 March 1853 near Acton, Upper Canada, son of Hugh Mann and Helen (Ellen) Macdonell; m. 9 March 1887 Jane (Jennie) Emily Williams (1858–1945) in Winnipeg, and they had a son; d. 10 Nov. 1934 in Toronto and was buried in Acton’s Fairview Cemetery.

Born in a log cabin to Presbyterian pioneer farmers of Scottish origin, Donald Mann was the fifth in a family of ten children. He received his elementary education in a local public school. A devout church member, he studied briefly to become a minister before leaving Acton at the age of 17 to work in the lumber camps of northern Michigan. After returning home to assist an older brother who had incurred financial difficulties when trying to extend the family’s farming operations, Mann departed to work in a lumber camp near Parry Sound, where, at the age of 21, he became the foreman in a small lumbering operation.

In 1878 Mann left for western Canada. The following year his lumbering experience helped him secure a contract to clear part of the right of way and cut railway ties for the St Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railroad, which was being built down the Red River valley to Winnipeg by an American syndicate that included James Jerome Hill*, whose birthplace was close to the Mann farm. Donald completed his work in December, and on Christmas Eve he assisted in bringing the first locomotive into Winnipeg. It had been floated down the Red River on a barge and was brought ashore over the ice on rails placed upon 16-foot ties cut and laid by Mann and his crew.

Mann’s work was interrupted by a serious illness in 1880, but the following year he organized a small team to cut railway ties in eastern Manitoba for the Canadian Pacific Railway, which was then being built by the Canadian government. In October 1880 the federal government of Sir John A. Macdonald* signed a contract with a syndicate, which included Hill, for the construction of the CPR to the Pacific coast. Hill, the only member of the syndicate with practical experience in building railways, recruited William Cornelius Van Horne* as the CPR’s general manager. A contract was then negotiated with the Minnesota-based Langdon, Shepard and Company for building, in 1882, 500 miles of track from the end of construction, about 100 miles west of Winnipeg, to Calgary. The firm preferred to hire men who had worked on American railroads, but Mann and his crew secured several contracts. The pace of construction was frenzied, for Van Horne was determined to set a new record by building 500 miles of main-line track in a single year. Mann and his team usually worked far ahead of the end of the line, clearing the right of way, cutting railway ties, and grading the roadbed, so he was not directly affected by the excitement and constant exhortations for greater speed in the track-laying operations. Langdon, Shepard and Company ultimately fell just short of the objective to lay 500 miles of track in 1882 (unless sidings and service tracks are included) but did extend the main line to Calgary the following year.

To complete the challenging sections north of Lake Superior and through the Rocky Mountains, the CPR relied on the North American Railway Contracting Company until November 1883, when that firm’s contract was cancelled and the CPR gave Van Horne direct control of these projects. His decision to retain the construction manager of each section, John Ross at Lake Superior and James Ross* (no relation) in the mountains, was a fortunate one for Mann, because both managers relied extensively on small Canadian contractors such as himself and Herbert Samuel Holt*, whom James Ross appointed as his superintendent of construction. Holt also held contracts on some of the most difficult projects, and he and Ross had frequent contact with Mann, who was again tasked with the advance work of clearing rights of way and building and grading the roadbed. His contracts were based, in part, on the amount of material to be moved, and there were different prices for the removal of loose dirt, rock, and hardpan, and for the addition of rocks and earth to fill low or swampy areas. If the estimates written into a contract were wrong, the contractor could either reap a large profit or suffer a significant loss.

While working in the Rocky Mountains, Mann had an unusual introduction to another contractor, William Mackenzie*, who was then building wooden bridges and trestles, including the huge bridge across the Mountain Creek gorge in the Beaver River valley. Mackenzie and Mann had each ordered shipments of mules, and a dispute arose when the animals got mixed up in the same pen. James Ross suggested that the two men take turns selecting mules, one at a time, and Mann got the better of the arrangement after his foreman, who knew one of the shippers, came up with a somewhat devious strategy to ensure that Mann would choose the best mules. The story of Mackenzie and Mann’s first meeting would be retold, and probably embellished, after the two contractors formed a successful railway-building partnership.

When the CPR’s financial difficulties [see John Henry Pope*; George Stephen*] resulted in serious delays in reimbursements for completed work, contractors could not pay their workers, and in the spring of 1885 many of them went on strike, precipitating a riot at Beaver (Beavermouth), B.C., in the Selkirk Mountains. Mackenzie, who was building the bridge over the Mountain Creek gorge, persuaded his men not to join the agitation and to guard the work already done, and Mann, at the end of track, was also able to hold his crew. Decisive action by Ross, Holt, and Samuel Benfield Steele* of the North-West Mounted Police, along with assurances that the pay car was on its way, helped bring an end to the strike.

The last spike of the CPR was driven by Donald Alexander Smith*, a director and principal shareholder, on 7 Nov. 1885, but most of the contractors, including Mann, Ross, and Holt, did not finish their work until the following year. They secured separate contracts to build the first 40 miles of the Winnipeg and Hudson’s Bay Railway (WHBR), which was to run northward from Winnipeg, through the interlake region, to a port on Hudson Bay. Mann and his crew also graded 25 miles of another Manitoba branch line. When the promoter of the WHBR ran into serious financial and political difficulties, Mann, Ross, and Holt each had a substantial claim against the railway. Ross and Holt abandoned the project, but Mann, who had a larger claim than the other two and greater confidence in the prospect of developing natural resources, including rich gypsum deposits, in the interlake region, bided his time and left his claim unresolved. Mann, Ross, Holt, and Mackenzie next signed separate contracts to build parts of the CPR’s “Short Line” across Maine to the open harbour at Bangor. In 1887 Mann and Mackenzie, who held contracts on adjacent sections of the line, decided to merge their operations. Each man had made reasonable profits on most of his own projects on the CPR’s mountain section, and they worked well together on the “Short Line,” although they encountered unexpectedly difficult soil conditions and barely broke even on the contract as a result.

In 1888 James Ross obtained a general contract with the Qu’Appelle, Long Lake and Saskatchewan Railroad (QLLSR) to build a line through the North-West Territories from Regina to Saskatoon and Prince Albert (Sask.) and invited Mann, Mackenzie, and Holt to join him. They would operate as a team, with each member having his own crew and special skills: Ross provided overall management, Mann prepared and graded the roadbed, Mackenzie built bridges and other wooden and stone structures, and Holt headed the track-laying crews. They worked very well together, and before finishing work on the QLLSR they negotiated a contract for the construction of a similar project, the Calgary and Edmonton Railway (CER), which they subsequently built north to Edmonton and south to Fort Macleod (Alta) from the CPR’s main line at Calgary. Thanks in part to the efficiencies gained by working together, the talented foursome made a substantial amount of money on their QLLSR and CER projects.

Further contracts proved difficult to secure after the completion of the CER in 1891, and the four partners went their separate ways. Curiosity and a search for new opportunities took Mann to South America and China, where, in Hong Kong, he got into a dispute with a minor European aristocrat, who challenged him to a duel. Mann, who had the right to choose the weapon, declared, “Very well, I am more familiar with axes than with any other weapon. We will fight with axes.” The challenger backed out. Mann’s hope of obtaining a lucrative contract in China was not, however, realized. He secured a seemingly profitable building job in Chile, but political instability and difficult terrain slowed the project, and he would later ruefully remark, “It took me seven years to make the $100,000 instead of four months.”

By 1894 Mann had returned to Canada. He focused his attention on opportunities in the west, where the WHBR, against which he still had a claim, had been reorganized that year as the Winnipeg Great Northern Railway (WGNR). The company still intended to build the line to Hudson Bay, thus providing an alternate and shorter shipping route for prairie grain that was bound for Europe. The federal government was willing to provide the WGNR with cash subsidies, a land grant, and a postal or transportation contract, while the Manitoba provincial government offered a subsidy of up to $1,500,000. Such assistance, however, would be forthcoming only after the railway was built and operating: the WGNR would have to find the money to meet construction costs. Traffic prospects in the interlake region were not promising, but farther west the Dauphin district of Manitoba was attracting settlers. Another concern, known as the Lake Manitoba Railway and Canal Company (LMRC), had a charter to serve that area but it had done little despite promises of federal cash and land grants as well as provincial bond guarantees.

Mann reasoned that it might be possible to secure the government aid promised to the WGNR and LMRC by building a railway that would serve settlers in the Dauphin district and could be used as the first part of a line to Hudson Bay, albeit along a more circuitous route than the one proposed by the WGNR. He gained control of the charters of the WGNR and the LMRC and then, in 1895, invited his three former partners to join him in building the LMRC from the town of Dauphin to Gladstone, a settlement linked by other railways to Portage la Prairie and Winnipeg. Holt and Ross declined, but Mackenzie accepted. To raise money for hiring crews and buying supplies and equipment, the LMRC could issue shares or bonds for purchase, but the securities of new railway companies were almost impossible to sell unless they were guaranteed by a government or an established financial or commercial institution. Mann knew the Manitoba government was eager to promote settlement in the Dauphin district and have a railway built to Hudson Bay, so he asked the province to guarantee his company’s bonds.

Premier Thomas Greenway* laid out difficult conditions: he would guarantee the bonds, but only if the freight rates set by the LMRC were subject to his government’s approval. Manitobans had long complained that the CPR’s western rates, which subsidized the company’s operation of extensive stretches of little-used track north of Lake Superior, were much too high. Lower rates on the government-assisted line that Mann and Mackenzie intended to build would force the CPR to match those rates and find other ways to deal with the problems of its line across the Canadian Shield. The Manitoba government could not, however, dictate that the rates be set too low, lest losses by the LMRC result in a call on the province to honour its bond guarantee.

Mann and Mackenzie accepted Greenway’s terms, and they sought to minimize the railway’s capital and operating expenses. The sale of the provincially guaranteed bonds covered basic construction costs as the 125-mile line from Dauphin to Gladstone was built in 1896, but only because the two men built cheaply, promising that they would make upgrades when traffic volumes increased. Operating costs were kept low, in part because the LMRC often used obsolete rolling stock obtained from the junkyards of larger and more affluent companies. In addition, numerous initiatives were devised to generate traffic. David Blythe Hanna, the little railway’s superintendent, was always eager to serve the needs of settlers, and brought out carloads of basic supplies that were sold at what it cost the LMRC to buy them and bring them west. Mann took a particular interest in promoting natural-resource developments, such as mining, which generated freight for the railway. As a result, the line turned a small profit despite its low (and locally very popular) freight rates.

In December 1898 the WGNR and the LMRC were amalgamated to form the Canadian Northern Railway. One of Mackenzie’s Toronto associates, Frederic Thomas Nicholls*, was named president, and the following July the company received a broad charter from the federal government that authorized the further expansion of the Canadian Northern system. It was widely assumed, however, that Mackenzie and Mann were merely temporarily unemployed contractors who had set up a company in the hope of profitably selling their ramshackle concern to the CPR or the Northern Pacific Railroad, an American rival. Instead, to the surprise of many observers, and with the assistance of the Manitoba government, now led by Premier Rodmond Palen Roblin, the two men acquired the Northern Pacific’s roughly 350 miles of track in the province, and by the end of 1901 they had extended their main line east to Port Arthur (Thunder Bay), Ont. The sale of bonds guaranteed by Roblin covered the basic costs of obtaining supplies and constructing the railway. This financial security allowed the Canadian Northern’s freight rates between Winnipeg and Port Arthur to be set much lower than those charged on the CPR’s route from Winnipeg to Fort William (Thunder Bay). The Canadian Northern rate per hundredweight was set at 10 cents while the CPR rate at the time was more than 14 cents and had been as high as 28 cents in the 1880s.

These developments transformed the Canadian Northern from a feisty and troublesome branch line feeding the CPR and Northern Pacific’s main lines into a popular and aggressive regional competitor. Mann was particularly enthusiastic about the new route to Port Arthur, which ran through territory thought to be very rich in iron ore and other mineral deposits, and which also provided access to American coal shipped across the Great Lakes. Because coal was needed for the Canadian Northern’s locomotives and by thousands of prairie settlers, Mackenzie and Mann, in partnership with the Pittsburgh Coal Company, built a huge coal and ore shipping facility at Port Arthur. Instead of receiving salaries from the Canadian Northern for their promotional and contracting work, the two men were paid with common shares in the company. Federal law did not allow contractors to hold shares in a body for which they worked on contract, so in 1902 they incorporated a separate company, Mackenzie, Mann and Company Limited, to hold the Canadian Northern shares that they earned in their capacity as contractors.

The rapid settlement of western Canada, coupled with the successful operations of the CPR and the Canadian Northern in the region, prompted the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR), based in Ontario and Quebec, to devise its own plan for westward expansion in 1903. Its officials, including Vice-President Charles Melville Hays*, anticipated that obtaining federal assistance for their project would force Mackenzie and Mann to sell the Canadian Northern, which was much smaller and weaker than the GTR, to them. The Manitoba government and western farmers, however, strongly opposed any arrangement that failed to preserve the Canadian Northern’s low freight rates, which GTR managers did not think could be sustained. The result was an agreement whereby the federal government of Sir Wilfrid Laurier* guaranteed the GTR’s bonds and provided other assistance for the construction of a subsidiary company, the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway (GTPR), which would build and operate a line from Winnipeg to Prince Rupert, B.C. Over the strenuous objections of Minister of Railways and Canals Andrew George Blair*, the federal government also undertook the construction of the National Transcontinental Railway (NTR), which would run from Winnipeg to Quebec City (Moncton was later chosen as the terminus) and serve as the eastern half of the GTPR system.

Westerners, eager to improve on the advantage offered by the Canadian Northern, demanded that the Canadian Northern expand further eastward. The prime minister agreed to guarantee an extension from Port Arthur to Toronto and Montreal. That promise was followed by an arrangement, announced in 1909 and formalized the following year, whereby the British Columbia government of Richard McBride* guaranteed Canadian Northern bonds to finance the construction of a track from the province’s border with Alberta to Vancouver. (The western terminus of the line was at first intended to be Port Mann, a new township named in Donald Mann’s honour, but this plan was changed in favour of Vancouver.) The Canadian Northern, like the Grand Trunk, had been transformed into a transcontinental railway system.

Mann was one of four individuals, the others being Mackenzie, Hanna, and the Canadian Northern’s chief solicitor, Zebulon Aiton Lash*, who were most influential in the promotion, construction, and operation of the company. Each man made his own unique contribution. Mann served a function similar to that of a hunting dog flushing game from cover. Always a frontiersman, he laid roadbeds well ahead of railway construction, he was ever on the lookout for opportunities to extract natural resources, and he proposed numerous branch-line extensions to promising developments. Mackenzie, who had a more flamboyant personality, built massive bridges and other large wooden structures, handled most of the financial and promotional work, and acted as the company’s tough talker in difficult negotiations. He and Mann benefited from the exceptionally capable services of Hanna, a prudent and astute manager of everyday operations, and Lash, a master of legal nuance: the fine print he inserted into contracts clearly described the company’s rights and privileges, but left loopholes regarding its responsibilities and obligations. In politics, Mackenzie had once sought nomination as a Conservative candidate and usually got along well with Conservative politicians, while Mann enjoyed closer contacts with the Liberals, and Lash, a senior partner in the law firm established by former federal Liberal leader Edward Blake*, helped smooth the way when assistance was needed from that party. Both Mackenzie and Mann, however, always placed the welfare of the railway above partisan political interests.

As construction progressed, Mackenzie and Mann, with assistance from Lash, built or acquired smaller railways and became involved in a wide array of ancillary ventures relating to lands, mines, hotels, steamships, docks for coal and ore, rolling stock, meat packing, brewing, retailing, telegraphs and telephones, and electrical projects. Mann was keenly interested in mining and natural-resource development; indeed, he was obsessed by coal. Hundreds of miles of track were laid so that isolated but rich deposits such as the Brazeau coalfields on the eastern slopes of the Rockies could be tapped, and James Dunsmuir*’s coal operations on Vancouver Island were acquired. Mann was also interested in the coalmines on Cape Breton Island, N.S., and several overseas operations were eventually brought into the Mackenzie, Mann and Company fold.

By January 1911, when they were both awarded knighthoods in King George V’s New Year’s honours list, Mackenzie and Mann were straining all of the Canadian Northern’s resources to realize their transcontinental ambitions. There was competition from new lines, rates had not been increased, and their efforts were disastrously affected by a war scare in 1912 and by the start of World War I two years later. After the outbreak of hostilities it became much more difficult and expensive for railway companies to raise money through the sale of bonds, even if they carried government guarantees. Enlistments in the Canadian Expeditionary Force made labour scarce, while military requirements resulted in shortages of and greatly increased costs for rolling stock and construction materials, especially steel rails. Despite these difficulties, Mackenzie and Mann were able to complete the Canadian Northern’s main line, the last spike of which was driven on 23 Jan. 1915 at Basque, B.C. Before the war ended in November 1918, however, acute shortages of steel rails needed to repair railways destroyed in France resulted in a federal order to lift tracks on some of the duplicate Canadian Northern and GTPR lines between Edmonton and Alberta’s border with British Columbia.

Unable to raise urgently needed funds, bereft of an adequate supply of rolling stock, and hampered by a lack of staff, Mackenzie and Mann found that there was insufficient traffic to support their new lines in Ontario and British Columbia. The GTPR faced similar problems in western Canada, and the situation of the NTR in northern Ontario and Quebec was even more desperate. As a result, each of these companies became dependent on support from the Conservative federal government of Sir Robert Laird Borden. Although some assistance was given, the prime minister was increasingly reluctant to provide aid [see John Dowsley Reid*], and in 1916 he called a royal commission, co-chaired by Sir Henry Lumley Drayton*, to deal with the subject. The following year it recommended that the government acquire the privately held shares of the Canadian Northern (almost all of which were owned by Mackenzie, Mann, and Company) and the GTPR. The price to be paid for the Canadian Northern’s shares was referred to a board of arbitration. At the ensuing hearings Mann testified, “There is nothing on the continent of America which has better value than that road.” The board, however, awarded Mackenzie, Mann and Company $10,800,000 for its shares, which was barely enough to pay what the two men owed their principal creditor, Sir Byron Edmund Walker*’s Canadian Bank of Commerce. The Canadian Northern itself soon became a part of the sprawling Canadian National Railways, a federally owned and operated company that was led first by D. B. Hanna, who had worked with Mann and Mackenzie in their days at the LMRC, and then by Sir Henry Worth Thornton.

Mann’s career as a railway promoter and builder was over. He was now a nationally recognized figure. A tall and powerfully built man with a black beard, he had an imposing physical presence and a disarmingly bluff and unpretentious manner that befitted someone who had spent much of his life in rough camps for lumbermen, railway workers, and prospectors. He was a devout person with a quiet and reflective side. In 1938 the Standard dictionary of Canadian biography would observe that he was “curiously sensitive to natural beauty” and suggest that, rather remarkably for a contractor of that era, he had mixed feelings about building railways through the pristine wilderness of the Rockies. According to this source, Mann once said, “I used to ride deep into the beautiful glades and listen to the rush of streams over the rocks and watch the delicate ferns bending in the water, and I used to feel ashamed of myself and of what we were going to do.”

When Mann left the railway world, he was not a poor man. He continued to promote and invest in numerous prospecting and mining ventures, some of which proved profitable. He acquired a 125-acre tract of land on Kingston Road in Scarborough Township (Toronto), near the summer residence of businessman Henry Mill Pellatt, and there he built Fallingbrook Mansion, a palatial English-style estate with gardens. Special arrangements were made to bring electricity to the home, which contained antique furniture, oil paintings, silk hangings, and many finely bound books. Sadly, on 26 Jan. 1930 the mansion was destroyed by fire, together with many of Mann’s private papers. “We were at lunch when we first got warning of the fire.… I could hear the flames roaring in the elevator shaft,” Mann told a Toronto Daily Star reporter at the scene that night. After Mann, his wife, Jane, and their son, Donald Cameron, who was an invalid, had escaped, the 76-year-old Sir Donald remained for hours in the bitter cold, directing the efforts of firefighters and salvaging a few personal belongings. On the following day the Star noted that Fallingbrook had cost $150,000 to build, and that its contents were thought to have been worth close to $200,000. Following the disaster, the Manns moved into a more modest home on Toronto’s St George Street.

Sir Donald Mann died suddenly of a cerebral haemorrhage on 10 Nov. 1934, leaving an estate valued at $110,755. His funeral was held at a Presbyterian church. He had remained a devout person and had taken up spiritualism in his final years, but his demeanour had still always been that of a frontiersman, and an alleged incident at his funeral reflected these very different aspects of his life. A religious friend sent a flower arrangement in the shape of an anchor, symbolizing the anchor of faith. Lady Mann mistook it for something else, however, and demanded, “Who sent that damned pick?” Mann’s memory is commemorated in several ways: the solid-gold Mann Cup, which he donated in 1910, is awarded annually to the senior men’s lacrosse champions of Canada; a park in Acton, near his birthplace, is named in his honour; and since 2002 he has been recognized as a “master builder” in the Canadian Railway Hall of Fame.

T. D. Regehr

LAC, R231-588-5. Man., Dept. of Justice, Vital Statistics Agency (Winnipeg), no.1887-001070. Globe, 27 Jan. 1930, 12 Nov. 1934. Toronto Daily Star, 27 Jan. 1930. D. B. Hanna, Trains of recollection drawn from fifty years of railway service in Scotland and Canada, ed. Arthur Hawkes (Toronto, 1924). T. D. Regehr, The Canadian Northern Railway, pioneer road of the northern prairies, 1895–1918 (Toronto, 1976). Standard dict. of Canadian biog. (Roberts and Tunnell), vol.2. A statutory history of the steam and electric railways of Canada, 1836–1937, with other data relevant to operation of Department of Transport, comp. Robert Dorman (Ottawa, 1938). G. R. Stevens, Canadian National Railways (2v., Toronto and Vancouver, 1960–62), 2.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

T. D. Regehr, “MANN, Sir DONALD,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed December 9, 2022, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mann_donald_16E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:


Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mann_donald_16E.html
Author of Article:   T. D. Regehr
Title of Article:   MANN, Sir DONALD
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   2022
Year of revision:   2022
Access Date:   December 9, 2022