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Kirkfield’s Sir William Mackenzie

March 4, 2023

Sir William MacKenzie, April 1917

By Guy Scott

Without a doubt, Sir William Mackenzie was Kirkfield’s most famous resident. Born in 1849 in a log shanty on the Portage Road, Mackenzie started out as a teacher before graduating to a merchant. His ‘Shoofly Store’ was named after his habit of chasing houseflies, which he detested. Mackenzie and his brothers eventually gravitated to the lumber business, operating a sawmill, door/sash/furniture factory and becoming contractors. They specialized in larger structures such as school houses, hotels, warehouses and bridges. When the Victoria Railway was started, the Mackenzie Brothers Construction Company won the contract to build bridges, trestles and the railway station in Kinmount. This building is still standing today. Everything the Mackenzies built was solid, well constructed and they earned a reputation of being on time and under budget. His railway contracts allowed William to make contacts with some up and coming stars in the railway world, including George Laidlaw and James Ross, all important movers and shakers in Canadian railway history.

Mackenzie fell in love with the railway business at a time in Canadian history when the iron horse was king. A lifelong Conservative supporter with a good reputation and lots of influential friends made Mackenzie a prime player in the first transcontinental railway. Sir John A. Macdonald unveiled his ‘National Dream’ in 1871 of linking Canada from sea to sea with a railway. After several years in the political wilderness (1873-1878), the CPR was revived and pressed forward at breakneck speed. In 1884, Mackenzie won some large contracts to build bridges for the CPR through the Rocky Mountains thanks to his old friend James Ross. Mackenzie recruited a gang of local men (nicknamed the Eldon Reserve) and left for the West with a supply of horses. The Eldon Reserve were responsible for building many of the largest bridges and trestles in this difficult section of the route. Mackenzie treated his men well and inspired tremendous loyalty from the Eldon Boys.

In early 1885, the CPR ran out of money and unpaid workers went on a rampage. The Eldon Reserve refused to participate in their strike and even guarded their worksites from sabotage. William Mackenzie’s promise of payment later was fine for them. Eventually the strike was quelled by Canada’s most famous Mountie, Sam Steele (coincidentally from Orillia) who threatened to shoot the first striker to cross his line in the sand. There was something about those central Ontario boys because the strikers dispersed and the work went on. Needless to say both men emerged as legends from the incident. The Riel Rebellion began a few days later and money was no longer an issue.

William Mackenzie made a small fortune from railway construction in the next two decades. He teamed up with Donald Mann to form one of the largest contracting companies in Canada. He built the fine mansion in Kirkfield that still bears his name. He purchased a Toronto mansion called Benvenuto and rubbed shoulders with the city elite. He diversified into public transit, public utilities and electricity. Everything he did turned to gold. By 1898, 24,000,000 Torontonians rode his Toronto Railway Company, the forerunner of the TTC. Mackenzie was labelled the ‘richest man in Canada.’ It was rumoured that he was offered the leadership of the federal Conservative Party in 1896, which would have automatically made him Prime Minister. King Edward VII knighted him in 1911 for service to Canada and Empire. The farm boy from Kirkfield was on top of the world.

But Mackenzie’s biggest dream was to be his undoing. Railways were hot commodities, turning huge profits and capturing the imagination of Canadians. Mackenzie’s fame was linked to his railway connections. The ‘National Dream’ was still alive and well, long after Macdonald was gone. A second transcontinental railway now crossed Canada and it was Mackenzie’s dream to build a third one. Thus, he began the Canadian Northern Railway, Canada’s third transcontinental line. But it was ghastly expensive. For 9 years Mackenzie and Mann laboured to build the Canadian Northern. Financing was difficult and Mackenzie sunk his whole fortune into his dream. He was almost ruined when World War I broke out in August 1914. Sir William’s reaction to the war was the comment “I am ruined.” And so he was. The Canadian Northern did link Canada from coast to coast by 1915, but the company was bankrupt and the Government of Canada was forced to step in and seize the assets. Mackenzie lost everything. Life had come full cycle: From rags to riches to rags.

Sir William Mackenzie’s last years were spent in the pale shadow of his reputation. He died in 1923. His Toronto home was immediately sold and in 1927 his Kirkfield summer was sold to a Catholic Order of nuns for $1. The Canadian Northern Railway was amalgamated into the Canadian National (CN), which still operates parts of the line, other sections were abandoned or sold to shortline operators. After many adventures, his Kirkfield home is now an Inn. And the legend lives on in Eldon Township about the backwoods boy who almost conquered the world.

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