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J.D. McArthur, Veteran Builder of West, Dead

Passes Away in Private Car on Reaching City From Battle Creek Sanitarium

.D. McArthur, president of the J.D. McArthur Co., Ltd., and vice-president of the Manitoba Paper Co., pioneer railway builder of Western Canada, died this morning in Winnipeg.

He had just returned in a special car on the Great Northern train from Battle Creek, Michigan, where he had been undergoing treatment for the past few weeks. Death overtook him in the special coach half an hour after the train pulled into the city, the scene of his activities for the past 47 years. He was in his 74th year.

For some time Mr. McArthur had been suffering from acute anaemia. A few weeks ago he left for the sanitarium at Battle Creek. After a period of treatment there, hope for his recovery was given up. On Saturday morning, accompanied by Mrs. McArthur and a special nurse, he was placed on board a private car, provided by the Michigan Central Railway, to return to Winnipeg. At Chicago the car was transferred to the Great Northern train, which arrived here at 9:05 o'clock this morning.

When he left the sanitarium at Battle Creek it was with the understanding that everything possible had been done for him there. The body is now at Thomson’s Funeral Home. Arrangements have been made for the funeral Wednesday afternoon. A private service will be held at the family residence, 159 Mayfair avenue. At 2:30 o'clock a public service will be held at St. Augustine Church. Burial will be in St. John’s Cemetery.

His Life Work

John Duncan McArthur is generally believed to have built more miles of railroad than any other man in the history of Canada. Besides building about 250 miles of the then Grand Trunk Pacific between Winnipeg and Lake Superior Junction, some of his other large contracts included about 500 miles for the Canadian Pacific Railway and a long stretch of the then Canadian Northern Railway between Portage la Prairie and Edmonton. He alone was responsible for putting the entire Edmonton, Dunvegan and British Columbia Railway system on the map, an enterprise which entailed laying over 900 miles of trackage. He also built the Alberta and Great Waterways Railway and all but the last section of the Hudson Bay Railway.

Many Interests

He was interested in many business enterprises, being, besides president of the company which bears his name, vice-president of the Manitoba Paper Co., president of the Northwest Lumber Co., president of the McArthur Land Co., director of the Western Trust Co., president of the McArthur Lumber ad Fuel Co., and director of the Beaver Lumber Co.

Although most of his contracts were for railroad work he also erected some very fine buildings, the biggest being the McArthur building here, which he built in 1909–1910 at a cost of $750,000. Other buildings in Winnipeg which he put up are a wholesale warehouse on McDermot ave., 1898; the Breadalbane Apts., 1909; and the Glengarry Block, 1911.

Far Seeing

Mr. McArthur was a big man, not only physically, but in his mental outlook. Where others saw only flat, uninteresting prairie, he saw the future home of countless happy settlers; where others saw forests and streams simply as possible fishing haunts or vacation grounds, he saw thousands of uncut railroad ties, millions of feet of lumber which might be used in the building of a nation. He was a man of vision, an empire builder who loved the country he was born in and spent his life developing its natural resources, bringing vast areas of it within the borders of civilization, and trying by every means within his power to make it great and prosperous.

He was a man of unbounded energy and unswerving purpose, he never once failed to fulfil a contract, he never started anything without carrying it through. So great was the confidence he inspired in others, that it is said that he could go into a bank and borrow a million dollars quicker than any other man in Canada.

He was, what he himself termed, “a one-man plunger,” he never had any partners on his big enterprises, he never asked or allowed other people to invest money in his development scheme. Consequently if they failed, as they sometimes did, no one lost a cent except J.D. McArthur, and he was the last man to worry about such a trifle as losing money.

His heart was just as large as his vision, and he gave away hundreds of thousands for charitable purposes on the distinct understanding that his name was not to be mentioned in any way. He was a great admirer of Sir William MacKenzie, and his one ambition in life was to develop the natural resources of Canada.

He made millions of dollars during the course of his lifetime, but money was merely incidental with him, it came as a result of his tremendous labors, and was at once put back into some development project. He did not put it safely away or convert it into gilt-edged securities. As he himself said, “Some one had to take a chance,” when it came to opening up new and untried commercial projects.

He gambled thousands of dollars in schemes and never grumbled when he lost. His friends never tired of telling of his unflinching cheerfulness and courage in the face of adversity.

Was Poor Boy

Born in July 1853, at Lancaster, Ont., J.D. McArthur spent his boyhood on his father’s farm at that place, and was educated in the local school. He came west in 1879 as a young man of 25, and was soon started in the contracting business getting out ties for the old Manitoba and North-Western Railroad.

His first serious financial reverse came in the late ‘80’s when he was working on a tie contract for the Canadian Pacific Railway. He had by this time acquired the ownership of a saw mill at Birtle, Man., and was counting on sawing his ties and floating them to market down the Birdtail Creek. For some reason or other the creek dried up and young McArthur was left with the ties on his hands.

When he did eventually manage to get them to Brandon, the railway could not use them and he had to sell them to the citizens of Brandon as cordwood. However, he managed to get enough money to pay his debts and then he started in again.

How well he succeeded in getting another nest-egg may be judged from the fact that in Jan., 1889, he returned East and married his boyhood sweetheart, Mary McIntosh, of Lancaster.

Well Established

By this time he was pretty well established as a railroad contractor, and in 1901 he started a saw mill and a brick factory at Lac du Bonnet. The former operated until 1918 and the latter until 1920.

It was at the beginning of the 20th century that he commenced going into the railroad contracting business on a large scale. In 1904 he built 500 miles of the C.N. main line between Portage la Prairie and Edmonton, he also built part of the Manitoba and North-Western, and the CPR Crow’s Nest branch.

In 1906 he built 20 miles of the CPR Teulon branch, 36 miles on the M & NW, and did other work for the CPR which included bringing the railroad from Saskatoon to Asquith, the completion of the Kirkella branch and the Wolseley branch, and extending the Winnipeg Beach line as far as Gimli.

Took on Big Job

It was in this year that he commenced work on 250 miles of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway (GTP) from Winnipeg east to Superior Junction. This was considered one of the most difficult and costly sections of the whole line, running, as it does, through the most rugged and forbidding part of the Laurentian rock formation. He secured the contract in open bidding against strong opposition, and capable management, coupled with favorable circumstances, enabled him to complete it with a substantial profit.

In this year he opened a sawmill at Atikokan, which he ran for seven years, and then dismantled and sent the machinery to his mill in Edmonton. He also bought the Moyie Lumber Company’s interests at Moyie, B.C. but later sold them.

Having emerged successfully from the GTP contract in 1910, he embarked on another venture which eventually nearly wiped out his entire personal fortune, this being the building of the Edmonton, Dunvegan and British Columbia Railway. He had found himself with an immense and costly construction equipment on his hands, for which there was no work in sight. It was a period of rapid expansion, and money was available in large amounts for development purposes.

Given Charter

Some years before, a charter had been granted by the Dominion Parliament for a railway from the Pacific coast to Edmonton by way of Peace River. The name was the Pacific Northern and Ominica, and the usual cash subsidy had been voted for the first 100 miles, but no construction work had been done. After some negotiations a charter was given to Mr. McArthur under the name of the Edmonton, Dunvegan and B.C. Railway, and he commenced operations.

Notwithstanding the outbreak of the war, the rails reached Spirit River in the fall of 1915. Owing to the financial depression which began in 1913 and which was accentuated by the outbreak of the war, Mr. McArthur did not press his claim for the cash subsidy to which he was entitled as the builder of a colonization railway.

Subsidies were voted and paid to other railways in that period, but not to the ED & BC. Even the subsidy that had been voted for the first 100 miles of the Ominica Railway, to which he was entitled by his agreement, was never paid.

Difficult Times

It was decided that if the district was to be served adequately by the railway it must be extended across the Peace River. The cost of the bridge was nearly a million dollars. The bridge was finished in 1918, and a large part of the grading from the plateau to the west end of the bridge was completed the same year. This was the only piece of railroad construction in America in actual progress during the latter part of the war. ....

The Peace River crop of 1915 was a good one, but that of 1916 was a failure, yielding little traffic and discouraging development. The war had been in progress for two years, and the pioneers of the district had volunteered in such numbers that production was checked. Immigration, of course, stood still. The result to earnings was disastrous in the case of the ED & BC, as with other railroads. Interest had to be paid, and the earnings were not sufficient to pay it. To meet these liabilities, Mr. McArthur made provision from time to time out of his private means, always expecting that the cash subsidy to which he was entitled would eventually be paid. But this was never done.

No Improvement

Through meeting the losses of successive years nearly all of his personal income was absorbed by the railroad. The condition of the road gradually deteriorated and there came to be a question as to the advisability of operating it any longer. While matters were nearing a crisis, Hon. Sir George Foster, acting premier, in response to an appeal from Mr. McArthur, wrote saying the government was prepared to buy the road.

Mr. McArthur at once started negotiations for the sale of it, but without result. At last came a time when the condition of the road was such that a complete breakdown was imminent.

Source: The Winnipeg Evening Tribune, vol. 3 no. 8, 10 January 1927.