MURCHIE, JAMES, farmer, businessman, jp, militia officer, and politician; b. 16 Aug. 1813 in St Stephen (St Stephen-Milltown), N.B., son of Daniel Murchie and Janet Campbell; m. first 1 Nov. 1836 Mary Ann Grimmer, and they had six sons and five daughters; m. secondly January 1860 Margaret Jane Thorpe, and they had two sons and one daughter; d. 27 May 1900 in Milltown (St Stephen-Milltown).
Shortly before the American revolution, James Murchie’s grandfather Andrew Murchie left Paisley, Scotland, with his wife and sons and settled in the American colonies. Following the revolution they moved to New Brunswick and by 1789 had taken up land in St Stephen Parish. Andrew’s son Daniel married Janet Campbell, another Scottish expatriate, and they had nine children. James, the fourth son, grew up on his father’s farm, attended the common school at Old Ridge, and then went to work with his father, farming in summer and making timber in winter. In 1836 he married Mary Ann Grimmer, the daughter of a St Stephen businessman, and took her to a new farm he had purchased.
For the next 17 years Murchie continued his traditional round of life. A man of modest background with little access to sources of capital, he was forced to make his opportunities in the woods and countryside where he worked. Like most fanner-lumbermen of the period he made some timber on his own wood lot, but the majority of his time was spent cutting logs on crown lands or on the lands of the timber merchants of the St Croix River. In all cases the timber either was cut under contract to merchants or was sold to them.
Murchie realized that power and independence of operation depended on ownership of the timber land. Traditionally, access to timber in New Brunswick was obtained by the lease of substantial tracts of crown land. After the House of Assembly acquired control of the crown lands in 1837, five-year leases were normally granted in return for a payment of ten shillings a square mile and a small stumpage fee for each ton of timber cut. Murchie claimed that he built his initial capital by acquiring leases in the 1840s, beginning with small tracts and gradually expanding to the point where he was leasing several thousand acres of woodland and employing crews to cut there.
Murchie built his fortune slowly. For 17 years he remained a farmer and small lumberman, working in the woods with his crew and selling his logs to sawmill owners in the St Stephen area. By 1853 he had accumulated $20,000, and that year he decided to make the transition to timber merchant. He acquired a sawmill in the Milltown area of St Stephen Parish and opened a general store, through which he participated in the truck trade. In the process he abandoned his farm and moved to Milltown, where he eventually built a fine three-storey wooden mansion to accommodate his growing family.
The community into which the Murchies moved was racked by bitter economic and religious divisions. Several years earlier serious labour disputes had broken out when mill owners insisted that workers extend their daily hours and work seven days a week during the months of production. The workers resisted and the situation became more complicated when the Wesleyan Methodist Church, the dominant tradition in the town, supported them, fearing that Methodist workers were being denied the right to fulfil their religious obligations. In the confrontation that followed the Methodist chapel was burned and most of the mill owners, who had denounced the church as arbitrary and hierarchical, abandoned it and took the lead in organizing a Congregational community in Milltown. It was a congregation of the prosperous, its upkeep being assured by an ad valorem tax assessed on the property of its members. Although the Murchies had been Methodists, in Milltown they became associated with the Congregationalists. The shift was symbolic of Murchie’s changing place in society: the lieutenant governor had just called him to the magistracy of Charlotte County, and he was shortly to become a militia captain.
Between 1857 and 1871 the population of St Stephen Parish increased from 2,868 to 6,515, largely because of the expansion of the wood products industries. Murchie benefited from this prosperity more than anybody else. He expanded his milling operations to three gangmills at Milltown and built another gangmill and a rotary sawmill at Rankins Mills (Benton) on the Saint John River. He bought wharf lots and constructed wharfs and mills on both sides of the St Croix at St Stephen and at Calais, Maine. In 1859 he expanded his operations to shipping by purchasing a vessel. During the next decade he commissioned the construction of several vessels, and the Murchie fleet carried cargoes to Australia, the Canary Islands, and South America. Most important, he continued to obtain timber land, both as a source of supply for his mills and as an investment. His largest significant acquisitions before 1861 were 20,536 acres of crown land. In most of these transactions he worked closely with his brother-in-law “Honest” John McAdam, who was surveyor general of New Brunswick when many of the acquisitions were made. He and McAdam obtained most of these lands through fraud by having some of Murchie’s employees file claims on crown lands. After the employees had been granted the lands, they sold them to McAdam and Murchie. These transactions, and others like them, were discovered in 1861, and following an official inquiry McAdam was dismissed.
In addition to running his firm Murchie moved to the centre of the major corporate activities of the leading timber merchants of the St Croix. The economic life of the region was dominated by a dozen families drawn largely from the extended clans of Todds, Eatons, Porters, McAllisters, Marks, and Chipmans. This group controlled the St Stephen’s Bank, the notes of which provided the principal circulating medium of western New Brunswick and eastern Maine. Murchie served as a director of the bank for more than 20 years. He was a promoter of local railway lines in New Brunswick and Maine, and he served as vice-president of the New Brunswick and Canada Railroad and trustee of the St Croix and Penobscot Railroad. He was also president of the St Croix Lloyds Insurance Company.
As early as 1860 Murchie had increased his capital accumulation of $20,000 to more than $85,000 and was producing lumber products on the Calais side to an annual value of more than $70,000. In 1871 his St Stephen Parish assessment totalled $50,000, a considerable undervaluation. His assets that same year included an axe factory with an annual output worth $25,000, 1,800 tons of sailing vessels, and 500 tons of steam vessels.
During this period Murchie’s family grew and changed as rapidly as did his material fortunes. Mary Ann Murchie died in 1857, a few months after the birth of her thirteenth child. Three years later Murchie married 29-year-old Margaret Jane Thorpe, with whom he had three children. In 1871 the Milltown house contained Murchie, his wife, all eight sons, two daughters-in-law, three daughters, and two Irish women servants.
Murchie prided himself on his ability to cruise, scale, fell, and float timber, and his sons were reared to have the same skills. Each was also trained in some aspect of business, and after an appropriate time each became part of the firm. The four eldest sons eventually joined the company, which became James Murchie and Sons, and three younger sons became commission merchants in St Stephen. Murchie’s daughters made marriages within the St Croix business community, and in the 1880s two married into the powerful Eaton clan, Murchie’s closest rivals for economic influence within the region.
Changes in Murchie’s life continued to occur rapidly after 1871. Margaret Jane died in 1872, and Murchie never remarried. As more of the administration of the firm devolved onto his four eldest sons, he devoted an increasing amount of time to other activities. In 1874 he decided to contest Charlotte County in the provincial election on behalf of the Liberal-Conservative party. The only significant issue in the election was the Common Schools Act, which in 1871 had imposed compulsory, non-sectarian schools supported by assessment on all property holders in the province. The act sparked sharp protests from Roman Catholics and produced a constitutional crisis which was resolved only in 1875 when the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council upheld the constitutionality of the act. Murchie ran as a common schools supporter and won easily.
Murchie’s term in the assembly was uneventful. As a member of the government of George Edwin King* he supported the resolution approving the Privy Council ruling on the Common Schools Act; he favoured the bill incorporating the Orange order; and he rejected the bill permitting religious denominations to establish reformatory schools in each county. He broke with his party to support a resolution that agricultural reports be printed in French for the benefit of Acadian farmers. Murchie’s most notable achievement was to secure passage in 1875 of a bill reducing the tax on unimproved granted lands to half a cent an acre. Since he was one of the largest owners of wild lands in the province, his action was blatantly selfserving, and the effect was to direct the burden of local taxation in rural areas onto the developed lands of small farmers. The controversial bill was passed by only 18 votes to 16. Murchie did not seek re-election in 1878. The reasons for his decision and for his advocacy of the Wildlands Tax Act are not difficult to find. The market for New Brunswick lumber had collapsed in late 1874 and remained severely depressed for the rest of the decade. Of the major lumber firms of the St Croix in 1874, only two, the Murchies’ and the Eatons’, were major producers ten years later.
That crisis, coupled with the decision of Sir John A. Macdonald’s federal government to impose a protective tariff on a variety of manufactured products, persuaded many local business leaders that the economic future of the community and the revival of their personal interests rested in the development of a manufacturing base. In early 1880 a group of lumber merchants began promoting a large cotton mill. With the aid of Rhode Island capitalists they succeeded in forming the St Croix Cotton Manufacturing Company and opening the St Croix mill, the second largest in Canada, in 1881. Murchie was a promoter and a stockholder, and he was later president of the company. His eldest son, John G., served as a director of the mill prior to its consolidation into the Canadian Colored Cotton Mills Company combine in 1892.
Murchie’s involvement with cottons, as with railways, remained secondary to his lumbering concerns. Despite several serious financial set-backs, including the burning of three mills and the loss of several vessels at sea, the Murchie firm survived and even prospered through the 1870s and 1880s. In part this success resulted from its ownership of extensive timber lands. Murchie continued to collect timber land whenever possible, even in the depths of the commercial depression. By 1890 the firm probably owned close to 200,000 acres, about a quarter of it in Maine and the remainder in New Brunswick and Quebec. Its milling activities had expanded into the Saint John valley, where mills had been established at Edmundston and Deer Lake. At Princeton, Maine, orange boxes were manufactured for Florida and Sicily. In 1883 a federal study of industry placed Murchie’s personal investment in St Stephen and Milltown alone at $220,000, second only to the $1,000,000 capital of the cotton manufacturing company. As late as 1891 the firm claimed to have exported more than 25 million feet of long lumber, 30 million laths, and 65 million shingles from Canada that year.
James Murchie died at Milltown in his 87th year, having lived to see his firm the sole remaining major lumber industry on the St Croix. A widower for 28 years, he was survived by seven sons and five daughters. His personal estate consisted of a one-sixth interest in James Murchie and Sons, valued at $144,000. In addition, he owned nearly 11,000 acres of woodland, shares in two mills, and ten town-lots which he had accumulated outside the firm. Perhaps surprisingly, he died intestate.
In many ways James Murchie was a heroic figure, viewed with respect by the men among whom he worked most of his life. Like Alexander Gibson*, who grew up in the same community at about the same time, Murchie was a man of humble origins who spent many years at woods work. “Gifted with an iron constitution, a strong will, and a capacity for work,” he was also a canny and self-interested man of affairs who knew what he wanted and was prepared to use any means to achieve it. He was one of the most successful and persistent members of a class of timber barons that dominated the New Brunswick economy throughout most of the 19th century.
NA, RG 31, C1, 1871, Charlotte County, schedules 6, 8. PANB, MC 1156; RG 7, RS63, 1900, James Murchie; RG 18, RS148, C14/1871. Can., Parl., Sessional papers, 1885, no.37: 184–85. I. C. Knowlton, Annals of Calais, Maine, and St. Stephen, New Brunswick . . . (Calais, 1875; repr. St Stephen[-Milltown], ), 205. N.B., House of Assembly, Journal, 1861, app., crown land evidence, esp. p.132; 1875: 21, 69, 90, 178–79; 1878: 146, 157. St. Croix Courier (St Stephen), 21 April 1892. T. W. Acheson, “Denominationalism in a loyalist county; a social history of Charlotte, 1783–1940”