Alexander Mackenzie—the road to Sarnia (part 1)



Alexander Mackenzie

One hundred and thirty-seven years ago, on the seventh day of November 1873, Lambton’s very own Alexander Mackenzie became Canada’s second Prime Minister. He was one of two prominent but conflicting citizens of the day in Sarnia. The other one was Malcolm Cameron.

Both men were involved in the beginning of two competing newspapers, Cameron with the Lambton Observer (now The Observer), and Mackenzie with the Lambton Shield, a paper which ceased publication after just two years.

Alexander Mackenzie was born at Logeraith in Scotland in 1822, the third oldest in a family of 10 sons whose formal schooling ended at the age of 13.

After seven years of apprenticeship, he began practicing the trade of stonemason. While honing his masonry skills, helping to build railroad bridges and culverts in Ayrshire (the land of Robbie Burns), Mackenzie's  political philosophy was being developed as he attended meetings of the Chartists who, among other things, believed in universal suffrage and vote by secret ballot.

Mackenzie was also in accord with Liberal beliefs of the day, favouring free trade. These beliefs, enforced by staunch Christian values and his views on abstinence from alcohol, would show up very strongly in his daily life as a labourer in Scotland, as a stonemason/contractor, and in later years as a politician in Canada.

While still in Ayrshire, he fell in love with Helen Neil, daughter of a stonemason. When the Neils moved to Canada in 1842, Mackenzie followed, enduring the 32-day voyage on the sailing ship, the Monarch.

Expert as he was at his trade, Alexander Mackenzie’s ambition was to own a farm. Soon after arriving in Kingston with the Neil family, they all settled on a farm with assistance from a Mr. Mowat, father of Oliver Mowat, at the time a law student at Kingston.

His first summer, he was cheated out of his pay, having received a promissory note that was no good. Having heard of this, a Mr. Mowat of Kingston, the father of a future premier of Ontario, offered very easy terms for a farm in the township of Loughborough, near to Sydenham, a distance of about 22 miles from Kingston.

Here, with the Neil family, he was able to make it through his first winter in Canada. Their terms with Mowat were that they would pay for the land when their prospects brightened.

The farmland was located among dense woods and was the only occupied piece in that section of the township. It had on it a clearing of 2 acres and a log house, 18 x 16, covered with boards through which Mr. McKenzie would later say that he had a fine opportunity for studying astronomy at night. There was also a little back shanty, 12 x 10, which leaned against the larger building. Such was the future premiers palatial residence during his first winter in Canada.

Mackenzie succeeded in getting employment for a few months, three miles distant from the farm. There he worked at various jobs for an Englishman named Lloyd, the owner of the flour and oat mills, building foundations and chimneys for some dwelling houses for the mill workers.

As the winter set in, Mackenzie went back to the farm and helped to cut nearly eight acres of timber, narrowly escaping being killed by a falling tree.  In the spring of 1843 he returned to Kingston, where Hope Mackenzie, an older brother, joined him. While living in the Kingston area, Alexander Mackenzie continued to hone his skills as a contractor, working on the building of the Beauharnois and Welland canals, and Fort Henry. It was in Kingston in 1845 that he married Helen Neil.

The following year, his brother Hope, a carpenter and cabinet-maker, teamed up with Steed, a brother-in-law of Alexander’s wife, and went west to Port Sarnia. In those pre-railroad days, when water was the dominant way of traveling to the far west, Malcolm Cameron was the dominant figure in industry and politics in Port Sarnia.

Steed and Hope Mackenzie contracted to build ships for Cameron. They prospered and in 1847, convinced Alexander and his wife to bid farewell to Kingston and move to a new home on the St Clair.

Malcolm Cameron

Alexander readily found work at his trade in Port Sarnia and soon the two brothers pooled enough of their earnings to allow Hope to return to Scotland and persuade their mother and their other brothers to come to Port Sarnia. The Mackenzie family was now all in Port Sarnia where Hope and two brothers, James and Robert, along with Steed, prospered in the ship-building trade. Charles and John went into the hardware business, a business known today as Mackenzie-Milne Hardware. The Mackenzie brothers began to exert an influence in Port Sarnia, one that soon vied with that of Malcolm Cameron.

Alexander Mackenzie soon became one of the foremost contractors of the far west. In 1848, he built the Episcopal Church for $766.00 and later built the Bank of Upper Canada, the courthouse and jails for Chatham, Sandwich, and Sarnia, and many other public and private buildings in the Sarnia area, a few of which are still in use, including a lawyer’s office on Christina Street, the former Saddy House on Vidal, and a summer residence on what is now a church camp ground on Lake Huron.

But Alexander Mackenzie was more than a stonemason, more than a contractor. Though he had only a few years of formal schooling, Mackenzie believed that education was a life-long pursuit and the best way to learn was to read and then to read some more.

He read as much as he could get his hands on, especially anything to do with political controversy, something which seemed to flourish in what was then known as the Western District.

Malcolm Cameron had been elected in 1847 to represent Kent-Lambton in the Upper Canada legislature. In 1851, he transferred his candidacy to Huron riding and George Brown accepted a nomination for the Kent-Lambton riding to run against candidates supported by Cameron. George Brown and Malcolm Cameron were antagonists.

Alexander Mackenzie was by now known as one who could wield a trenchant pen, who could talk well on political philosophy, who had a strong sense of duty to his fellow man and who had a real capacity for work. He became secretary of the Port Sarnia Reform Committee and helped the fiery George Brown to win the local race and earn the right to represent Lambton at the parliament of the Canadas in Quebec City.

To champion his Reform principles in his home riding, Brown moved a printing press to Port Sarnia and started a weekly newspaper, the Lambton Shield, persuading Alexander Mackenzie, now 30 years of age, to volunteer to do the editing and, most importantly, to pen the editorials for the Lambton Shield.

It was at this time, in early 1852, that his wife, Helen, whom he had followed to Canada just 10 years before, died and was buried with two of their infant children who had died during their first year. Only one daughter, Mary, still lived. The following year, Alexander Mackenzie would marry again, to another lass from Perthshire, Jane Sym.

It was during this difficult period of sorrow and joy that Alexander Mackenzie began to wage journalistic warfare against Malcolm Cameron, who had by now brought his own newspaper into town. The Lanark Observer, renamed the Lambton Observer, forerunner of today’s paper, came to Port Sarnia.

The rancorous war of words took on the tone of vituperation found in the Dickens novel, “Pickwick Papers”. Without naming anyone, Mackenzie wrote in the Lambton Shield, that “a former member for Kent had perpetrated a particularly nefarious bit of land-jobbery”. Cameron brought suit for libel.

In court in April 1854, the judge found in favour of Cameron and ordered a fine of 20 pounds and costs of about 150 pounds. The Lambton Shield folded and Mackenzie made good on the court costs.

In 1854, Brown defeated Cameron in a contest for the new Lambton seat. In 1857, Brown relinquished his seat to become a candidate in Toronto. On short notice, Hope Cameron Mackenzie, Alexander’s older brother, ran against Malcolm Cameron in a by-election and was elected for the Lambton riding. George Brown was convinced that a great life in politics awaited Hope Mackenzie.

But Hope thought otherwise. He held the seat only until the next general election in 1861, when his brother Alexander would begin a political career which would lead to him becoming Prime Minister of Canada from 1873-78.

Alexander Mackenzie was not the first politician with a Lambton connection who became a political leader of Canada. The same George Brown who had previously represented Lambton and brought the Lambton Shield into existence was elected to a Toronto seat in 1857 and then sat as leader of the opposition. A few months later, in 1858, George Brown became leader of the Parliament of the Canadas after the Macdonald-Cartier led Conservative Government was defeated on a motion.

But Brown’s time as leader of the Canadas would be short. Governor-general Sir Edmund Walker Head refused to accept dissolution of the parliament and a new Conservative government was formed.

George Brown, the only other politician who at one time represented Lambton and later became political leader of our country was the Prime Minister of the Canadas for only three days

Look for Part 2 of Bob McCarthy's story on Alexander Mackenzie and his family.

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  • What a great resource!

  • Maxine Dundas

    Just as a wee extra bit of info, Hope did not only come back to Scotland for his mother and brothers. He also came back to marry my ggg-aunt, Vere McGregor, in 1847. She died in 1849.