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Pictou in the Business World

The influence of Pictou County in the development of the industrial and commercial life of Canada has been highly important. Her enterprising sons have held positions of responsibility throughout the length and breadth of the land; and her mariners have trod the quarter deck on every sea. Only a few facts and names however can be presented in this chapter.

Pictou County is fifty miles long and about twenty miles wide, and contains 719,000 acres. It has one of the finest harbors on the northern shore of the Province with three fine streams, East, West and Middle rivers, flowing into it. Along the shore the land is low and level, but in the interior it is hilly and undulating with fine natural scenery. From Fraser's Mountain, Green Hill and Mt. Thom are to be seen ever varying and most beautiful views of hill and dale, sea and land, field and forest.
When the first settlers arrived in Pictou the whole of the county was covered with timber of the finest quality. White pine was particularly plentiful and common, but oak, fir, maple and all kinds of wood were found of large size and in great abundance, and afforded a valuable source of income to the inhabitants; and the lumbering industry was then, as it has been of later years, extensive and prosperous. In 1774 the first cargo of square timber was shipped to Britain. In 1803, some 50 vessels were loaded in Pictou Town. The cutting, hewing, hauling, rafting and shipping of ton timber, became for some years the chief business of many of the people of Pictou. As the timber was cut and removed men turned their attention more and more to farming.

Pictou County has always been considered one of the best agricultural counties in the Province. With the exception of a few tracts of land here and there, the whole county is fit for cultivation. The first Agricultural Society in the Province was formed at West River, Jan. 1, 1817, with the Rev. Duncan Ross as President, Daniel Fraser, Treasurer, and John Bonnyman Secretary. They imported seed grain, agricultural implements and Ayrshire cattle. In 1818 they held a plowing match on Mr. Mortimer's farm, near Pictou. Prizes were offered for the best acre of wheat, and for the man who could stump and plough the greatest quantity of new land. A similar society was organized on the East River in 1820.

Coal was first discovered in Pictou County in 1798. Word was sent to England that there was coal in abundance in Pictou; that it was found on the margin of the East River; that it was accessible to ships of light tonnage, and that the coal was of the best bituminous quality. A wealthy firm purchased the ground. This was the beginning of Pictou's coal industry. In 1827 the General Mining Association purchased the property, immediately commenced active development, and, before the end of the year, were producing coal on an extensive scale, using a steam engine for hoisting. Stellarton is the largest coal producing center in the County, and is a thriving business town.

The Acadia Coal Company of Stellarton is the direct successor of one of the oldest mining corporations of the County. That it survives until today, and possesses as it does one of the most modern and the most complete coal handling equipments in the country, speaks volumes for the great value of the coal fields of Pictou. It is said that the thickest coal seam in the world is found here 38 feet in depth. This company owns the Acadia Coal Mine at Westville and the Vale Mine at Thorburn.

Fifty years ago a wilderness of scrubby birch and hemlock covered the site on which the town of Westville now stands, with a population of over 5000. In the year 1854 prospectors began searching for coal, and discovered the outcrop of a seam on the north side of the town where the land slopes toward the Middle River. The Black Diamond Company was the first to commence operations, and was soon followed by the Acadia, and in 1868 by the Drummond. A railway was completed to Granton and later to Abercrombie, where there are wharves and all conveniences necessary for shipping coal. The works of the Vale Colliery at Thorburn were started in 1872. Thorburn is prettily situated and has a population of over 1200. A railroad six miles long leading from the colliery to New Glasgow is in operation. The total coal production in Pictou County for 1913 was 700,000 tons.

In looking at the thousands of miles of railways in Canada it may be interesting to note that the first steam engine erected in Nova Scotia was at the Albion Mines, Dec. 7, 1827, and that the first railway built in Canada, and one of the earliest on the continent, was by the General Mining Association from its works at Albion Mines, six miles, to the old Loading Ground near Abercrombie. It was begun in 1836 and opened in 1839. The rolling stock came out from England, in a sailing vessel. In this vessel there were the several parts of three engines, the names of which were the Samson, the Hercules and the Hybernia. The Samson was named for Scotland; the Hercules for England; and the Hybernia for Ireland. The Samson was the first one set up and the one that made the first trip.

In 1830 the first steamboat was seen in the Harbor of Pictou. The "Richard Smith" was put in operation by the same company. She was commanded by Capt. McKenzie. The first steamer to cross the Atlantic wholly by her own steam power was coaled in and sailed from Pictou Harbor in 1833.

The first attempt to smelt iron in Pictou County was made by the General Mining Association in 1828, the year after the Company had commenced operations in this field. Just previously, iron ore had been discovered near McLennan's Brook, a short distance from the company's colliery. The ore was sent to England for analysis and, a favorable report having been made by the company's chemists, a deeper interest was aroused in the latent possibilities of the country. In 1829 an attempt was made to manufacture pig iron. For this purpose a blast furnace was erected at Albion Mines, the first in Canada. Iron was smelted to the extent of about 50 tons. The ruins of this furnace were standing until 1855.

In 1872 the Hope Iron Works, afterwards the Nova Scotia Forge Company commenced operations in New Glasgow with a capital of $4000 with a view to manufacturing railway and marine forgings. Six years later, the works were removed to a larger site, upon the banks of the East River, in the present town of Trenton. As the enterprise prospered, the principal shareholders of the company decided to engage in the manufacture of steel, at the same time organizing for this purpose a new company called the Nova Scotia Steel Company with a capital of $160,000. The first steel ingots were made here in July, 1883, being the first produced in Canada on a commercial basis.

One of the chief difficulties encountered by the Company was that of obtaining suitable ore. In 1894, the well known Wabana iron ore deposits of Bell Island, Nfd., was acquired. This deposit now forms the chief source of ore supply for the furnaces of the Province. In 1900, after purchasing the coal and other properties of the General Mining Association in Cape Breton, the Nova Scotia Steel Company was reorganized, and assumed the present name of the Nova Scotia Steel and Coal Company.

New Glasgow is the seat of the manufacturing departments, finishing mills, forges and machine shops. The company's axle shops are world famous. It is claimed that this branch of the New Glasgow plant has produced a greater number of axles per day than any other works in the Empire. There are said to be none of the same capacity on the continent of Europe. Fish plates, tie plates, track spikes, nuts and bolts of the various standard sizes are produced.

Another important new enterprise is the Eastern Car Company for the manufacture of railway cars. It was formed in 1912, and is virtually a creation of the Steel Company. A splendid site has been secured for it on the east bank of the East River, adjoining the Nova Scotia Steel Company. The shops and plant when complete will be capable of an output of 30 cars per day, and about 9000 cars per working year.

In a survey of the vast consolidated interests of the Nova Scotia Steel Company and the Eastern Car Company, it is difficult to realize that if, 30 years ago, one had visited the upper corner of the Graham Shipyard, in the town of New Glasgow, one would have found there the parent of it all a small forge, whose main product was the iron knees which were used for the wooden ships then being built there. Let it be noted that this company owes its existence largely to two sons of the soil, Graham Fraser, and G. Forrest McKay of New Glasgow. They now, naturally, possess a fair share of this world's goods, but their greatest reward for perseverance and toil in comparative obscurity in early days, must be the gratification of seeing, in less than four decades, their little forge shop expand into what is one of the largest steel industries in Canada. These men, along with Thomas Cantley, the present capable General Manager, have done a great work for Pictou County and for all Canada.

The Town of Pictou was long the second in importance in the Province, and it still enjoys a peculiar character and charm of its own. It has good reason to be proud of its history and institutions, its men and its ships. The corner stone of the first house in Pictou was not laid until 1789, but once it started, the growth of the village into a town, was rapid. The first leading business man in the town was Edw. Mortimer, an Englishman who came to this country while yet a young man, without means, went into the timber and fish business, first representing a Halifax firm in Pictou and then for himself. He first located himself a little above Mortimer's Point, near Squire Patterson whose daughter he married. Here he put up a small building, intended both for a house and a store.

Afterwards he removed to the Point near the Stone House, where he had his home and where he built two large wharves out to deep water. Here he amassed a small fortune. He died suddenly, in 1819, at the age of 52, and his estate dwindled to practically nothing. He built Norway House, one of the historic and interesting places in the town.

Beckels Wilson in "Nova Scotia" speaks of Norway House as the best house in Pictou, perhaps the best built private one in Nova Scotia, with its walls a foot and a half thick, fine fat timbers, plenty of honest freestone, and a great dry cellar and as sturdy today as the day he built it.

Other business men of the early days of Pictou were John Dawson, Thomas Davidson, George Smith, William Mortimer, John Patterson, Abram Patterson, Henry Hatton and James Dawson who was the first book seller in the Province outside of Halifax. William Matheson, Rogers Hill, began on a small scale and afterwards moved to West River, where he did a large country trade. Robert McKay began business in River John soon after Ed. Mortimer's death, with whom he had been a clerk.

River John was at one time a prominent center for ship building and business enterprise. The leading men were the McKenzies, the McLennans, the Henrys, and the Kitchins.

Business being now well established, a number of merchants combined to build a vessel to be a regular trader between Pictou and the Old Country. She was called the Enterprise and was built by Thos. Lowden, and launched in 1820. Captain Lowden may be considered the father of the ship building art in Pictou. He was a native of the South of Scotland and settled in Pictou town about 1788. In 1798 he launched the ship Harriet, which was, at that time, considered the largest and finest ship built in the Province. In 1825 came the terrible financial crisis in the mother country which for a time killed the shipping and timber business in Pictou. The day on which the intelligence came was long known as "Black Monday."

Of what may be called the second generation of Pictou's business men, the late James Primrose, was one of the most prominent. He was the father of the late Hon. Clarence Primrose, Senator, and of the late Howard Primrose, almost equally prominent in their generation. James Primrose, senior, was a son of the Scottish manse, and came to Nova Scotia in his youth without any pecuniary endowment. By means of untiring industry and scrupulous uprightness, characteristics which he has transmitted to all his descendants, he made his way rapidly to the front in business and finance. He constructed at the east end of the Town, the handsome dwelling familiarly known as "The Cottage," now occupied by his grandson James and his two sisters, Miss Primrose and Miss Rachael.

Associated for a time in business with Mr. Primrose was the late A. P. Ross, barrister, who early withdrew from the Bar to devote himself to commercial and industrial enterprises.

More or less contemporary with these were such other successful business men as the late James Purves, William Gordon, William H. Davies, Roderick McKenzie, John Crearer, J. D. B. Fraser, John Yorston, James Kitchin, David McCulloch, John T. Ives, William Ives, James Ives, James Hislop, A. J. Patterson, Robert Doull, Daniel Hockin, Richard Tanner, James P. McLennan, David Fullerton, all of whom made their mark in business, and most of whom have left descendants prominent in the social and public life of the Province.

Pictonians at Home and Abroad, 1914


Pictou County

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