RANKIN, ALEXANDER, timber merchant, justice of the peace, politician, and office holder; b. 31 Dec. 1788 in the parish of Mearns, Scotland, probably at Mains House, second son of James Rankin and Helen Ferguson; d. unmarried 3 April 1852 in Liverpool, England.
Alexander Rankin came from a family of prosperous farmers. He was educated at Mearns parish school and in 1806 was hired as a clerk by Pollok, Gilmour and Company, general merchants of Glasgow. The firm traded with the Baltic ports in tar, hemp, flax, and timber. The senior partners became interested in extending their business to British North America and in 1812 Alexander Rankin and James Gilmour were sent to the Miramichi area in New Brunswick to open the company’s first branch. They founded Gilmour, Rankin and Company on the north side of the Miramichi River, about half-way between Chatham and Newcastle. Within a few years, they had constructed wharfs, stores, and a sawmill. A small community called Gretna Green (Douglastown) developed around their holdings: it quickly became in many ways a company town with the Rankin firm controlling the only stores. The company built homes for some of its employees and virtually every male in the community either worked for it or was in some way dependent upon it. The real leader of the firm was Alexander Rankin. Although a partner for 30 years, Gilmour was considered by many to be a “non-entity in the business.” In 1842 he would sell his interest to Rankin and retire to Scotland.
Gilmour, Rankin became suppliers as well as employers. Using goods sent by Pollok, Gilmour in Scotland, the firm provisioned not only its own lumbermen but also independent operators, who were expected to do business solely with it. The parent company sent ships to pick up the timber, which was then sold by the Glasgow office. Gilmour, Rankin also supplied goods to shipbuilders such as William Abrams* and Joseph Russell, from whom it purchased ships. These vessels were sent to Glasgow to be either sold by the parent firm or used in its own business. Only after Rankin’s death did the company begin to build its own ships.
Few records of the firm have survived, and it is difficult to determine the extent of its business operations. In 1819, of 1,520 British vessels employed in the British North American timber trade, 297 loaded at Miramichi, the majority being ships of Gilmour, Rankin. Having obtained commercial and political support from the town of Newcastle, the company virtually controlled timber operations on the Miramichi River by the early 1820s. In 1824, largely owing to the growth of the firm, Miramichi surpassed Saint John as a timber-exporting port, shipping 141,384 tons of squared timber. Shortly thereafter, however, the company’s superiority was challenged by Joseph Cunard* who, with his brother Henry, had established a firm at Chatham about 1820.
Rankin and William Abrams were the chief sufferers in the Miramichi fire of 1825, which took about 160 lives and destroyed property worth approximately £204,000. Rankin’s firm lost stores and merchandise worth more than £15,000, only £4,400 of which was insured. In addition large quantities of timber were destroyed. Rankin’s house was one of only six buildings in Douglastown to escape the fire and it became a refuge for hundreds of the destitute. Rankin did everything he could to aid the survivors, as did his rival Cunard. All animosities were forgotten for a time and both men served on the relief committee.
The firm suffered a severe set-back as a result of the fire. However, with the aid of the parent company, it was able to recover quickly. In the late 1820s a large stone sawmill was built at nearby Millbank. The machinery was said to have been constructed “upon the most approved principles” and worked “twenty-eight perpendicular saws, and two circular ones, cutting each day, upon an average 18,000 to 20,000 feet, plank measure.” This mill was built to counter Cunard’s operations farther down the river at Bay du Vin. In 1831 it was valued at £15,000 and employed 170 men. At that time it was the largest mill operating in the province. The firm expanded its domination over timber operations as well and in 1828–29 it held twice as many timber licences as did Cunard. By 1830 the two companies controlled almost all the lumbering in the northern part of New Brunswick. Between 1830 and 1850 they shipped on average 70 cargoes of timber a year.
In 1832 Rankin was the senior partner in Ferguson, Rankin and Company, which was established that year at Bathurst with Francis Ferguson as a partner and manager. The firm was for many years really a branch of Gilmour, Rankin. Rankin expanded his business even farther north in 1832 when he became a partner in Arthur Ritchie and Company of Dalhousie and Campbellton. The partnership lasted until 1842, but its operations were not as extensive as those carried on in Bathurst.
The northern operations depended on the regular dispatch of ships and goods by Pollok, Gilmour. On occasion, Ferguson in Bathurst felt that his company was being neglected. In 1838 he claimed that Pollok, Gilmour had not sent ships for the past three years to pick up his timber, and suggested that the Miramichi firm was getting more attention that his own. He also objected to the parent company’s demands for timber squared on four sides, which he felt was wasteful and costly.
In the early 1830s the rivalry between Rankin and Cunard centred on the control of reserves on the Nepisiguit and Northwest Miramichi rivers. Cunard held control of approximately 500 square miles. In spite of the fact that his firm had only recently surrendered a similar licence, Rankin launched a strong attack on government policy and the privileges granted to Cunard. Although he made it sound as if he were concerned about the fate of the independent lumbermen, Rankin was disturbed only that the reserves gave Cunard an advantage. At a public meeting in Chatham in October 1831, Rankin introduced a resolution stating the evils that would result from the grant of extensive reserves to individuals, and in March 1833 his partner Gilmour threatened that the firm would “invest no more capital in this province” unless it was “permitted fairly to participate in the natural resources of the country.” The Rankin firm was supported by 374 county residents, including 13 magistrates, who on 15 Feb. 1833 had presented a lengthy petition to the House of Assembly attacking Cunard, the Crown Lands Office, and its commissioner, Thomas Baillie*. These complaints and others were discussed in the assembly, and a delegation consisting of Charles Simonds and Edward Barron Chandler* was sent to England later that year to complain about Baillie’s policies and to present the legislature’s offer to assume control of the crown lands.
Rankin also went to London to challenge Cunard’s rights to the reserves and to threaten removal of his firm from the colony if the situation was not changed. He was successful. Lord Stanley, the colonial secretary, informed the government in August that Cunard would have to relinquish the reserves, which he did in October. The lands were later put up for auction and Rankin probably managed to acquire part of them.
Rankin gained control of large blocks of land through a licensing system which had evolved in the early 19th century. Timber operators could apply for annual licences to cut, for a fee, a certain amount of timber at a specific location. In 1835 the system was changed because Baillie wanted to force the larger operators to make long-term commitments to the province. He introduced five-year licences, sold at public auction, for large blocks of land. Those lumberers who took advantage of this opportunity had to pay tonnage on a certain amount of timber each year whether or not it was actually cut. However, the option of applying for one-year licences was also retained. In 1836–37 Gilmour, Rankin had 70 one-year licences enabling them to cut 12,570 tons of timber and 820,000 board feet of logs. They also had 6 five-year licences for 8 square miles in Gloucester County and more than 112 square miles in Northumberland County, which allowed them an additional 3,820 tons of timber and 505,000 board feet of logs. Their branches in the northern part of the province also held a number of licences. Rankin’s younger brother Robert* estimated the profits at Miramichi for the season 1837–38 to be approximately £10,000.
These operations were even larger during the 1840s. In 1847 William Carman, one of the members of the assembly for Northumberland County, claimed that Rankin controlled 875 square miles of timber reserves and Cunard 1,100. Together they accounted for more than 30 per cent of the licensed area in the province, including most of the best timber land, and lumbermen therefore had the choice of working for the big firms, starving, or leaving the province. Carman may well have been exaggerating, but the system used by Rankin and Cunard to control their timber operations was resented by many people. It is true that both men provided employment and believed they were helping their workers and the semi-independent operators, but they did business only on their own terms. They controlled the mill reserves, thus keeping out competitors. As merchants, they forced lumbermen to buy their goods at prices a writer in 1846 claimed were inflated by 50 per cent. The same lumbermen had then to sell their timber to the Rankin firm at reduced prices; if they still had a credit when their accounts were settled they had to take it not in cash but in goods at inflated prices.
In 1847 Carman also pointed out that when the mill reserves were put up for auction in Northumberland and Gloucester counties, the small operators were inevitably outbid by the bigger firms who “upon these occasions . . . did not bid against each other.” The large companies could always act together to protect their mutual interests; thus in 1835 and in 1841 they had joined forces to organize petitions protesting against any revision of the timber duties.
Although his business practices might have been questionable at times, Rankin was a leader in establishing and expanding the timber industry in New Brunswick. He had excellent business sense, and was called upon occasionally to visit Saint John to check on the operations of the branch in that city, which had been established by his brother Robert in 1822. The Rankin firms did not suffer the same ups and downs as Cunard’s company did, partly because of Alexander Rankin’s good management and partly because the firms had strong financial backing from the parent firm in Scotland.
In business, Rankin was a hard and ruthless opponent: rivals were shut down and debtors such as Thomas Boies, the founder of Boiestown, had their goods and property seized when they defaulted on their payments. He fought the Crown Lands Office any time restrictions were imposed which obstructed the activities of his firms. He was not above using bribery to lure away operators cutting timber for Cunard and for a time in the early 1840s he had a deputy surveyor, Michael Carruthers, completely under his thumb. The rivalry between Rankin and Cunard involved trespasses on each other’s reserves which often implicated government officials and members of the Executive Council. At one point Carruthers illegally seized timber belonging to Cunard, which subsequently found its way into Rankin’s possession. As a result of this and other actions, Carruthers was removed from Northumberland County and sent to Gloucester. Both in 1843 and in 1846 Rankin was forced to pay fines as well as double and then triple duty on timber cut illegally.
Rankin never married, but he shared his home with his clerks, most of whom had come from Scotland, and his office became a training-ground for the other branches of the firm. Working long hours himself, Rankin expected his employees to do the same. He was usually up at 5:00 a.m. for a walk around the wharfs and timber-yards before the office opened. One of his nephews, also named Alexander Rankin, who was later able to live off the interest from the money he had inherited from his uncle, described what it was like to work for the firm in the late 1840s: “I found it not an easy task – hours 5 a.m. till 7 p.m. Three-quarters of one hour allowed for breakfast, one hour for dinner. After tea, sometimes in the office till 10 o’clock or so making up the tally of the day’s work. From December to May the hours were shorter, 6 till 9, but two or three times a week we had to get up at 4 a.m. to get twenty or thirty teams away laden with provisions for the lumber camps.”
Rankin first entered politics in 1827 when he was elected to the House of Assembly as one of two members for Northumberland County. He was to hold the seat until his death. Regular in attendance, he seldom left the house until the day’s work was finished. He rarely spoke, and when he did it was usually in so mild a voice that he was often inaudible to those in the gallery. His speeches were always short and to the point, and he possessed no great gifts of oratory. When he chose to use it, he had great influence on the members and his views on matters relating to trade and commerce were often sought and invariably given serious consideration. Occasionally, when annoyed, he would speak in a much more forceful manner and then he could be heard throughout the house. This forcefulness was most evident in 1846 when he made a strong speech supporting the continuation of the grant for the lazaret on Sheldrake Island at the mouth of the Miramichi River.
In the election of 1830 Rankin and Cunard were the only candidates for the two seats in Northumberland County. They were unopposed because in those days of open voting no one could hope to defeat them. Although Cunard was appointed to the Legislative Council in 1833, he continued to attempt to control at least one of the assembly seats in Northumberland. In the 1837 election there were three candidates, two from the north side of the river, Rankin and John Ambrose Sharman Street*, and one from the south side, William Carman. It had been hoped that only one candidate from each side of the river would run so that there would be no contest. Cunard was this time supporting Carman, while Street claimed he was neutral. Rankin and Street won, and Carman stated that the latter had won only because of the former’s support; from the results of later elections, it is obvious that Rankin did use his influence to help Street on numerous occasions.
Rankin was offered a seat in the Legislative Council in 1839 but he declined. The constituents, he claimed, were happy with their incumbent members in the assembly, Street and himself, and he did not want a new election reviving old animosities “which have now happily subsided.” “There is scarcely any Political Convulsion of a local nature in this county which is more pernicious and dangerous in its character and consequences than a contested election.” Rankin may also have feared that if he vacated his seat it might go to a Cunard supporter. If he believed that old animosities had subsided, he was badly mistaken.
During the “fighting elections” of 1843 Rankin was deeply involved. In the January election he was a successful candidate and in the July by-election he supported Street against Cunard’s candidate, John Thomas Williston. In his nomination speech, in December 1842, Williston had declared that Rankin intended “if possible” to take Street into the house with him, which would “place the whole Legislative influence of this county into the hands of Messrs. Gilmour, Rankin and Co., whose power I feel persuaded many of you think sufficiently strong already.” Williston later claimed that Rankin had threatened to leave the county if Street lost the by-election. The voting saw riots, bloodshed, the death of one man, and the arrival of troops; when it was over, Street had won and he and Rankin were the county’s representatives.
In February 1847 Rankin was sworn in as a member of the Executive Council in the administration of John Richard Partelow*, and the following year, when Lieutenant Governor Sir Edmund Walker Head* introduced responsible government, Rankin was kept as a member because he had considerable influence in the assembly. Head’s only reservation derived from the “violent party feud” which prevailed in Northumberland County. However, he felt he could keep this in check and, since Rankin was not controlled by either party in the assembly, Head felt he would be a valuable member of the government. Not everyone agreed. Earlier in 1847 Lemuel Allan Wilmot* had questioned Rankin’s appointment because no one knew what his political principles were. It is doubtful whether Rankin himself knew; he served neither side. Nevertheless, he remained a member of the council until his death.
Rankin opposed Cunard and his Chatham supporters in almost everything they did. In 1826 he had helped defeat an attempt to have Chatham made the county seat instead of Newcastle; the following year he used his influence to have the custom-house built about a mile and a half above Chatham and directly across the river from Douglastown; and in 1830 he managed to have the new seamen’s hospital built in Douglastown. Needless to say his success in these matters angered the people of Chatham, especially Cunard, who was able to persuade the customs officials that they should move to Chatham in 1838. However, before the move took place there were threats of violence from the north side of the river and in 1839 Lieutenant Governor Sir John Harvey was able to prevent it. Harvey considered Cunard a conservative opposed to all reform, but he felt Rankin and his partners were liberals and “Staunch Supporters” of the government. He had intervened not because of the violence, but to please Rankin.
Rankin served the community in many ways as did Cunard, and in spite of their business rivalry they could work together on projects which either were mutually beneficial or in no way infringed on their commercial power. In 1829 both men had been appointed commissioners for lights in the Gulf of St Lawrence and the Miramichi River and in 1841, along with William Abrams, they supervised the construction of a lighthouse at Point Escuminac. They were appointed to the board of health for Northumberland and Gloucester counties in 1844 and they helped supervise the construction of the lazaret on Sheldrake Island. Rankin had been made a justice of the peace in 1819 and probably retained the position until his death. He was also a long-time member of the Northumberland Agricultural Society and the Miramichi Emigration Society; he belonged as well to the Chatham Mechanics’ Institute. In 1841 he was one of the founders of the North British Society (in 1846 it was renamed the Highland Society of New Brunswick at Miramichi), serving as president in 1851 and 1852. In 1850 he was a member of the board of management for the branch of the Commercial Bank of New Brunswick at Miramichi.
Rankin had few close friends. He was a quiet man, not given to long conversations or small talk, and many people considered him cold. Others found he had a warm heart and he was always ready to help the distressed, especially widows and orphans and the sick. His sudden death in 1852, while he was on a visit to England, shocked the whole Miramichi area, especially Douglastown. From the newspaper obituaries it would appear that Rankin was the perfect Christian gentleman and his charitable works were certainly evident in Douglastown. He was a deeply religious man and a firm supporter of the Church of Scotland. He also assisted other churches in the region and in his will he left £25 to every Protestant church on the river. Occasionally his firm also aided Roman Catholics and in 1838 it received the grateful thanks of the people of Neguac for the gift of a chapel bell. However, his benevolence extended only to those who loyally supported him; few in Chatham saw him in quite the same light as did the people of Newcastle and Douglastown. Ruling Douglastown almost like a feudal baron, he was loved by many of his employees and hated and feared by his enemies and some of the semi-independent operators. Men like Rankin were needed in the early years of the timber trade and he was perhaps the most successful of the New Brunswick timber barons who operated during the first half of the 19th century.
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Cite This Article
William A. Spray, “RANKIN, ALEXANDER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 9, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/rankin_alexander_8E.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:
|Author of Article:||William A. Spray|
|Title of Article:||RANKIN, ALEXANDER|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1985|
|Year of revision:||1985|
|Access Date:||June 9, 2023|