Robert B. Angus, a Canadian Patriarch
It is to be feared that comparatively few Canadians realized that in the death of the late R. B. Angus, of Montreal, on September 17th, 1922, the most important surviving historical figure in Canada had passed away. Perhaps it was because, unlike some of his old friends, he had refused titles. Nevertheless, of all Canadians alive on the day before his death, his was the name most conspicuously written in the history of Canada's physical expansion and economic development of the American Northwest also. He was the last survivor of the group which conceived and carried out the project of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and he had personally participated in episodes when the fate of Canada as an ocean-to-ocean dominion hung in the balance. It was a group that included men of affairs like James J. Hill, of Minnesota, Lord Strathcona, Lord Mountstephen, Sir William Van Horne, Duncan McIntyre; and statesmen like Sir John A. Macdonald, Sir Charles Tupper, Hon. John Henry Pope, and Sir Frank Smith. R. B. Angus was indeed the last leaf on a mighty tree, but for many years he had lived such a quiet life in his own social circle in Montreal, that the younger generation of Canadians was largely unaware of him. Yet he was the patriarch of Canadian finance, and his name appears in all narratives of Canada's formative years—a silent figure it is true, but obviously one of singular potency.
Patriarchal in years—he was born in 1831—patriarchal in historic experience, he was also marvellously patriarchal in appearance. A year before his death I met in Montreal a portrait painter of international renown, who stated that he was visiting that city for the purpose of painting the portrait of Mr. Angus. "Well, you certainly have an ideal subject," I remarked; "it would be a poor dauber who could not make something impressive with a model like that." "He is too ideal," said the painter, "so wonderfully picturesque that it is hard to make the kind of strong individual character study we fellows delight in. The real task comes when you paint a man of achievement who doesn't look the part. Mr. Angus looks the part so completely that it robs a painter of his chance for subtleties." From others I have heard of the tranquillity of his character, which left little scope for anecdotage, though he was a lively companion in the days of his youth, and amazingly vital in mind even in extreme old age.
His place in the life-stories of Lord Strathcona, Lord Mountstephen and James J. Hill recalls with singular fitness Milton's line "He also serves who only stands and waits." His was the unruffled figure among the group of men who lived triple lives in the troubled years when a transcontinental railroad was being pressed through despite foes and obstacles. The Correspondence of Sir John A. Macdonald shows how often Lord Mountstephen was in despair and gave vent to his emotions on paper. There were also times during the construction era when the prospect of sabotage and bloodshed was plainly present in the mind of Van Horne. The quarrels of Donald Smith (Lord Strathcona) often left tangles to be straightened out. Midway during the years of trial, Duncan McIntyre, a Montreal capitalist, who was one of the pioneer directors, withdrew from all participation in the management; James J. Hill had still earlier acquired what is colloquially known as "cold feet" and turned his attention to the construction of the Great Northern Railroad. Angus, who, more than the others, had been the personal associate of Hill, was the man who said nothing but hung on.
Identification with the development of the West had marked the career of Mr. Angus from the early years of his arrival in Canada. He came in 1857, a Scottish bank clerk of 26, to enter the service of the Bank of Montreal. Those were troubled years in Canadian finance when the Bank was fighting for the retention of its privileges as government financial agent and was at war with the business men of Upper Canada. Its general manager, afterward Senator E. H. King, whom he was to succeed within little more than a decade, was known in his day as "The Napoleon of Finance", though strongly imbued with "rule or ruin" ideas. But good fortune soon took young Mr. Angus away from Canadian strife to witness a more tragic conflict. In 1861, the year of the outbreak of the American civil war, he was sent as agent of the Bank to Chicago, Illinois, the state where the issues had been fought out on the stump in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and the city which had witnessed the baptism of Lincoln as a national figure.
For a new-comer from the motherland, Chicago in 1861 was an ideal spot at which to learn of the importance of the prairies and imbibe Stephen A. Douglas's gospel of transcontinental railways as the secret of America's future greatness. Later Mr. Angus served his bank at New York during the war period, returned to Montreal to become local manager, and rose to the post of General Manager in 1869, the year in which the strife among Canadian banks was finally settled by the financial legislation of Sir Francis Hincks. At that time he was probably the only Canadian banker of eminence who had an inkling of what prairie railroad development meant.
The real father of a Pacific railroad on Canadian soil and of Western development generally, was of course Sir John A. Macdonald who pledged his career and the life of his party to its accomplishment. In 1873, he was defeated on a political scandal arising from his proposals—clear evidence that Canada as then constituted was more or less indifferent as to the main project. To that defeat, Donald Smith, the member for Selkirk, Manitoba, had contributed the casting vote. But inasmuch as the entrance of British Columbia to Confederation had been obtained by a pledge that the road would be constructed, the project could not be allowed to die without incurring a risk, amounting to certainty, that the coast province, and probably the prairies as well, would become United States territory. In the mid-seventies the problem of securing men to finance and build such a line seemed insuperable, and it is here that Angus and his friends come into the story.
Donald Smith, chief factor of the Hudson's Bay Company, had been keen for Western railroad development, both east-and-west and north-and-south, and had succeeded in securing the construction of a government line from Fort Garry (Winnipeg) to the Minnesota boundary. He and Hill, who lived at St. Paul, had earlier become mutually interested in a steamboat company with vessels plying on the Red River. Along the Red River valley lay uncompleted sections of the much-looted St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, which had gone bankrupt in 1873. Its bondholders lived in Holland. It occurred to Smith and Hill (says Sir William Van Horne's narrative) that they might do something for the country and also for themselves by getting control of this property. They needed a financier, and Smith suggested his cousin George Stephen, who had become President of the Bank of Montreal. In 1876 occurred a failure of a steel company in Illinois. This involved the Chicago branch of the Bank in a heavy loss and necessitated a journey to Chicago by the President, Mr. Stephen, and the General Manager, Mr. Angus. The law's delays gave them a week of idleness and they tossed a coin as to whether they would use it in a trip to St. Louis or one to St. Paul. The coin favoured St. Paul, whereat Stephen remarked "I am rather glad of that; it will give us a chance to see the railroad Smith has talked about." That toss of the coin made history.
The outcome of the visit was the purchase of the bonds of the St. Paul and Pacific from the Dutch bond-holders, and, ultimately, to the formation among the owners of a syndicate to construct the Canadian Pacific Railroad. Stephen had never seen the prairies before, but was deeply impressed with their potential fertility, although in Minnesota the settlers had recently been driven out by a plague of locusts. An association was immediately formed, consisting of George Stephen, Donald A. Smith, James J. Hill, Richard B. Angus, John S. Kennedy (the New York representative of the Amsterdam bondholders), and Norman W. Kittson, Smith's agent at St. Paul. The immediate plan involved not only the completion of the St. Paul and Pacific, now called the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railroad, but acquirement by lease of the Canadian Government Railroad from Winnipeg to the boundary. This latter plan met with some opposition, including that of Sir John Macdonald, Leader of the Opposition at Ottawa and still smarting with recollections of Smith's defection in 1873. A still more formidable hazard was a proposal, which for a time found favour with the Prime Minister, Hon. Alexander Mackenzie, to sidetrack Winnipeg altogether and run a line from Lake Superior to the Pacific Ocean by the Dawson Route, north of Lake Winnipeg. Smith valiantly fought this plan which would have left his railroad without a terminal of value; and the return of Sir John Macdonald to power in September, 1878, greatly clarified the situation.
The Montreal capital involved in the Minnesota enterprise necessitated the presence of a man on the spot, and early in 1879 Mr. Angus retired from the service of the Bank of Montreal, and became General Manager of the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railroad. This enterprise became the parent of two transcontinental railroads—the Great Northern completed to Puget Sound in 1893, and the Canadian Pacific completed to Vancouver several years earlier. Undoubtedly the most momentous step of Mr. Angus's life was taken when, in October, 1880, he, with others, signed the contract to build and operate a railroad from Lake Nipissing to the Pacific. The other signatories were Stephen, McIntyre, Hill, and representatives of three banking firms, John S. Kennedy, New York; Morton, Rose & Co., of London; and Kohn Reinach & Co., of Paris. As it turned out the support of these three banking houses proved a broken reed. The real factors in the construction of the road were the Bank of Montreal and the Macdonald Government. A great coup, as it turned out, was the securing of the services of the Illinois railroader, W. C. Van Horne, with whom Angus came in contact while the latter was General Superintendent of the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad, then the longest system in the United States—about 5,000 miles in all. It was Angus who closed the negotiations with Van Horne and who engaged many of the other early officials of the new road. During the next six years they were to go through many trials together, and more than once Stephen and Angus were face to face with ruin owing to the difficulty of raising capital.
These difficulties are illustrated by a story in Skelton's Life of Laurier, which the author obtained from Van Horne himself. Late in the winter of 1883, Stephen, Angus, McIntyre, Van Horne, and the C.P.R. solicitor, J. J. C. Abbott, paid a midnight visit to Macdonald at Earnscliffe, Ottawa, to convince him of their desperate necessities. Sir John told them they might as well ask for the planet Jupiter as for another loan, in view of the prevailing political agitation against the C.P.R. Dejected and silent, the group drove back to town to await the early train to Montreal, and took shelter in the old Bank of Montreal cottage near the station. Here they found Hon. John Henry Pope, acting Minister of Railways, reading and smoking with a "night cap" of potent Scottish brew at his elbow. Pope listened to their story and departed with the words "Wait till I get back!" Toward three o'clock he returned with an impassive face and took another drink before he broke silence. Then he said: "Well, boys, he'll do it. Stay over till to-morrow. The day the Canadian Pacific busts, the Conservative party busts the day after."
Thus a receivership was averted, not for the first or the last time—and with it the ruin not only of Stephen and Angus, but of most of their friends. Yet despite an experience in middle age of the anxieties that kill, the tough Scottish fibre of Donald Smith, Stephen, and Angus carried each of them through to the hour of triumph, and beyond it to ripe old age; Strathcona to 94, Mount Stephen to 92, and Angus to 91.