THOMSON, ANDREW, lumber merchant, financier, and banker; b. 30 Nov. 1829 at Quebec, eldest son of John Thomson and Isabella Henry, natives of Scotland; m. first 18 May 1853 at Quebec Henrietta Hamilton, George Hamilton*’s eldest daughter (d. 1857 aged 27); m. there secondly 30 Oct. 1860 Margaret Grant Cook, eldest daughter of John Cook*, minister of St Andrew’s Church at Quebec; two boys and four girls were born of these marriages; d. 10 Jan. 1907 of a heart attack at his residence on Chemin Sainte-Foy and was buried on 12 January in Mount Hermon Cemetery.
Andrew Thomson studied at Quebec High School and then under Daniel Wilkie*. Soon he was working for Hamilton and Thomson, the company in which his father since the mid 1840s had been a partner along with John*, George Jr, and Robert Hamilton. The two families had common interests in timber coves at Quebec and on the south shore of the St Lawrence at New Liverpool, stumpage rights along the Gatineau, Rideau, Rouge, and South Nation rivers, and sawmills in Hawkesbury and Buckingham. In 1850, without severing relations with the Thomsons, the three Hamiltons set up Hamilton Brothers, a new firm with its head office in New Liverpool and its production centre in Hawkesbury. At the same time John Thomson and his sons acquired Victoria Cove, near Sillery, while continuing to operate their sawmill in Buckingham. In 1853 Andrew was in fact the manager of this mill when the two families merged their common interests in Hamilton and Company. George Hamilton’s death occasioned a reorganization in 1859: while Robert and John revived Hamilton Brothers, John Thomson went into partnership with his sons Andrew and John Cook, to found Thomson and Company.
During the 1860s the volume of sales of Thomson and Company was among the largest in Quebec City. Its resources increased, mainly through purchase of properties in Buckingham Township. In 1867, after John withdrew, it took in new partners. McPherson LeMoyne, a Montreal lumber merchant, and Robert J. Lusk, a Buckingham businessman, became the Thomsons’ chief representatives in the Ottawa valley; the two brothers kept the management of the business in their own hands at Quebec. In fact, they shouldered the financing of the firm, using the assets of its predecessor, which were evaluated in November 1866 at $297,136. Lusk withdrew from it in 1868, and so did LeMoyne soon after the sale in 1869 of its property in Buckingham and on the Rivière du Lièvre to James Maclaren*, James Gibb Jr, and James Gibb Ross* for $89,266.
From 1870 Andrew pursued particular interests not involving John Cook Thomson. The latter seems to have confined himself to the company’s Quebec operations. Even without its Ottawa valley branch, it still enjoyed one of the highest credit ratings in the city’s business community during the early years of the decade. Andrew’s success in the lumber business may have stemmed from his commercial initiative in forming a partnership with George Benson Hall*, a lumber merchant in Beauport, in 1870, while he was still handling the firm’s affairs. Hall turned over to him, for a three-year period, the management of three timber-cutting contracts along the banks of the Saint-Maurice, the Matawin, and the Nicolet, in all more than 100,000 logs of white pine, yellow pine, and spruce. The initial agreement was broadened in January 1871 when Hall granted certain stumpage rights to Thomson in the Mauricie and Ottawa valley regions and gave him permission to use his offices in Quebec, Ottawa, and Trois-Rivières. The new terms gave Thomson at least 180,000 to 220,000 additional logs, which were to be sent to the sawmills at the Montmorency falls for processing. For an annual fee of $12,000, Thomson had access to ample supplies of timber, and Hall agreed to pay him a commission of five per cent on all sales of manufactured lumber.
By the mid 1870s Thomson had become a well-to-do businessman, firmly established in Quebec City. In 1874, in keeping with his success, he had his residence on Chemin Sainte-Foy, Bijou, rebuilt as a sumptuous Second Empire villa. He became a partner of Hall and his son Peter Patterson Hall in 1876, but he continued to make the family business prosper; it had changed its name to Thomson Brothers when Thomas Henry took the place of his brother John Cook. Three years later Andrew brought his elder son, George Hamilton Thomson, into the enterprise. Thus was born Andrew Thomson and Son, which was almost immediately succeeded by Thomson and Son. The firm continued to enjoy an excellent credit rating until the end of the century, yet its leading figure now began to concentrate on the fields of finance and management.
Thomson had been a director of the Union Bank of Lower Canada since 1874, and in 1877 he became its president. He assumed this office at a difficult time. The bank, founded in 1865, had extended loans to a number of major Quebec lumber merchants and it was verging on bankruptcy. Under his direction, it enjoyed a period of growth until 1884. A branch was opened in Winnipeg in 1882 and from the outset paid substantial dividends. However, the relocation of the Ottawa and Trois-Rivières offices and a business slow-down in the west put a damper on expansion in that region, and from 1884 the bank’s profits began to decline. The outbreak of the North-West rebellion and, even more, some unwise investments made by the Winnipeg and Trois-Rivières branches resulted in such heavy losses that the executive decided in 1885 to reduce the capital fund by $800,000 rather than liquidate assets. In 1886 a new start was made. The name was changed to Union Bank of Canada, the Trois-Rivières branch was closed, and the position in the west was consolidated by opening a second branch, in Lethbridge (Alta). This reorganization bore fruit. The financial results for 1887 were gratifying. There were two new branches in Ontario, at Smiths Falls and Alexandria, and a net profit of more than $138,000 was realized; thus a first reserve fund of $50,000 could be set aside. The recovery continued in 1888, with net profits exceeding $120,000, a growth in the reserve fund, and the opening of three new branches in Ontario, at Iroquois, West Winchester, and Toronto. Thanks to Thomson and his management team, the bank was firmly established in Canada and in 1890 it had a reserve of $200,000. It was able to make a few investments in companies in Quebec City that were often closely connected with the president’s personal interests.
Since 1884 Thomson had had powers of attorney for the heirs of George Benson Hall and thus was responsible for liquidating his family estate. Since the heirs were unable to sell it intact, they kept the sawmills at the foot of the Montmorency falls in operation and sought to capitalize on the potential power of the falls. As an adviser and administrator, Thomson personally influenced their decision in 1885 to sign a nine-year contract with the Quebec and Levis Electric Light Company for the use of the power between 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 a.m. to supply electricity for up to 800 arc lamps. At the time of the negotiations, Thomson was president of this company, which he had founded four years earlier with Pierre Garneau, Adolphe-Philippe Caron, Joseph Bell Forsyth, and William Sharples. As a result of the signing of the agreement in August 1885, the following month Dufferin Terrace could be illuminated for the very first time [see Sigismund Mohr*]. This success reassured investors, and the subscribed capital, valued at $50,000 in July 1885, was paid off in full within two years. In August 1887 the company signed an agreement with the corporation of Quebec City to convert the street lighting system from gas to electricity.
The construction of the electric power plant could not fail to attract other businesses to the foot of the Montmorency falls. As adviser and administrator of the Hall estate, or even simply as a financier, Thomson was certainly aware of this opportunity. Events proved him right. In June 1889 the Hall heirs signed a 99-year hereditary lease with the Montmorency Cotton Manufacturing Company. In August Evan John Price*, the bank’s vice-president, acting through Thomson, bought all the land owned by the Halls in the parishes of Beauport and L’Ange-Gardien, including the property at the Montmorency falls, for $200,000. The Union Bank of Canada supervised the sale and transfer, as it did for Thomson, when as president he bought this property back from Price at the beginning of February 1890. In these transactions the two administrators were in fact simply acting in the bank’s name as trustees.
The 1890s were a time of unprecedented expansion for the bank. Between 1892 and 1895 branches were opened in Chesterville, Norwood, and Shelburne, in Ontario, and in Souris, Morden, and Virden, in Manitoba. During the same three years its annual net profit had fluctuated between $80,000 and $100,000, despite the recession of 1894. In 1896 the reserve fund grew to $300,000. In 1897 the head office was enlarged by the addition of two storeys to the building on Rue Saint-Pierre. That year also, in addition to raising the reserve fund to $325,000, it opened new branches in Hastings, Ont., and Carman and Deloraine, Man. In 1898 its capital fund was increased to $1,500,000, and in 1899 to $2,000,000. By the turn of the century the Union Bank of Canada had become one of the most flourishing institutions in the dominion. It had acquired a reserve fund of $500,000, had raised the amount of dividends paid to shareholders, and had even been able to open two more branches, in Pincher Creek (Alta) and Yorkton (Sask.).
Throughout the 1890s Thomson continued to manage the Hall estate and the finances of Hall and Price, which had succeeded Hall Brothers and Company in operating the Montmorency sawmills. He had interests in mining as well and in 1892, with his son George Hamilton, a few members of the Union Bank, and some Montreal merchants including Edward Black Greenshields*, he formed the Brompton Lake Asbestos Company to mine a deposit of asbestos in Brompton Township. His main interest, however, still lay in the power potential of the Montmorency falls. In 1890, as president of the Union Bank, which owned the land at Montmorency, he authorized the Quebec and Levis Electric Light Company, of which he was also still president, to increase the amount of energy derived from the falls to 2,500 horsepower. He even granted the company a monopoly for an extended period of 20 years, or until 1910.
In December 1892 the Union Bank agreed to sell the property at the falls to the power company. This transaction strengthened the position of the company, whose commitments had grown. In 1892 it had renewed the agreement with Quebec City for lighting the streets, increasing the number of lamps to more than 300. It had also moved into residential lighting, servicing its first customers early in the 1890s. With the consent of his board Thomson then issued new mortgage bonds to amortize the debt arising from the land purchase and raised the capital fund from $200,000 to $300,000, renegotiating the company’s charter with the provincial government, so that in February 1893 it became the Montmorency Electric Power Company. With its base consolidated, the firm began modernizing equipment and made plans to break into the new market of urban transportation.
Once again Thomson was at the centre of negotiations when the Quebec District Railway Company, of which he was president in 1896, took over from the Quebec, Montmorency and Charlevoix Railway Company. In 1895 the latter firm had obtained an exclusive franchise to build an electrically powered urban transportation system in Quebec City. For a nominal fee of one dollar it temporarily transferred to the Quebec District Railway Company the contract for building and operating the system, reserving the right to buy it back. After renewing the 1892 agreement for lighting the streets of Quebec, the Montmorency Electric Power Company began large-scale renovations to its plants on Rue Prince-Édouard, in order to meet the increased demand for energy that would be occasioned by the introduction of streetcar service. At the same time the Quebec District Railway Company negotiated the purchase of the lands and franchise of the St John Street Railway Company, an enterprise with horse-drawn vehicles and a head office on Rue d’Aiguillon, in the Upper Town. Similarly it signed a service contract with Notre-Dame de Québec, one of the wealthiest parish municipalities on the outskirts of Quebec. Once again Thomson played a key role. It was he, as a member of the municipal council, who had presented the offer of service to that body. In June 1897 the company also bought the franchise of the Quebec Street Railway Company, which operated a line out to Saint-Sauveur. On the morning of 19 July, the city finally saw its first electrically powered transportation system inaugurated.
Eager to convert and extend this system, the Quebec, Montmorency and Charlevoix Railway Company, under its president Horace Jansen Beemer*, decided to exercise its right of repurchase, with the consent of the other parties. In June 1898 it succeeded in taking over the Quebec District Railway Company for more than $550,000. This offensive continued in September 1898, when it purchased the property and installations of the Montmorency Electric Power Company, valued at $1,500,000. In order to carry out these transactions, however, the Quebec, Montmorency and Charlevoix Railway Company had to turn over a huge number of shares and bonds to the owners of the two other firms. This situation led in 1899 to the creation of the Quebec Railway, Light and Power Company, the first horizontal concentration of enterprises at Quebec, with Thomson as its president.
This was the apex of Thomson’s career. In the final years of his life, he controlled two of the most powerful economic levers in the city. He helped to provide its electricity for industrial, commercial, residential, and public use, and he jealously defended the monopoly on production and distribution. He managed to complete the city’s whole urban transportation system, establishing a link between Quebec and Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré and converting the manor-house at the Montmorency falls into a luxury hotel. Furthermore, he continued to keep the assets of the Union Bank productive, and it consistently showed a profit during the first decade of the 20th century.
Although he was one of the most brilliant financiers of his day, Andrew Thomson left an estate that was small, considering the value of the companies of which he had been director and president. In the will he wrote in 1904, he bequeathed to his wife and children movables worth nearly $60,000. On his death three years later, his wife received an annual pension of $1,400 for seven years. This inheritance was hardly a fortune. By 1914, when the property was divided up, the family residence, Bijou, had already been sold to the Sœurs de Saint-Joseph de Saint-Vallier; all that was left was the portfolio of shares and bonds valued at $53,000, debts of $32,000 owed to the estate, and a sum of $6,100 to distribute among the heirs. It was a paltry legacy for a man who had been one of the principal architects of economic diversification in the city of Quebec in the late 19th century.
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Cite This Article
Jean Benoit, “THOMSON, ANDREW,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 14, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/thomson_andrew_13E.html.
|Author of Article:||Jean Benoit|
|Title of Article:||THOMSON, ANDREW|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1994|
|Year of revision:||1994|
|Access Date:||September 14, 2014|