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Holden, Tom: The Short Prime of James Holden, Esq.

The Short Prime of James Holden, Esq.

by Tom Holden


Stricken by pneumonia 2200 km from home in 1881, great-grandfather James Holden made the return trip by train from Dominion City, Manitoba to his funeral that “was the largest ever seen in Whitby for over a quarter century, with between three and four thousand people attending”, nearly 700 by rail from the north. Why was he so well regarded? What more might he have accomplished had he lived well beyond 53 years?

Holden was born on Leap Day, 1828 to Anglo-Irish settlers who had migrated a few years earlier to farm near Stouffville, York Co., Ontario (then the province of Upper Canada). His uncle Sinclair H. had the first general and drug store in Markham Township where young James probably clerked before venturing into a mercantile business that failed and his partner fled. James settled all their debts himself.

The arc of James’ later life is relatively well documented because he became a public figure after these modest beginnings, first appearing in earnest as a Printer and Publisher, launching the weekly broadsheet The Ontario Observer in 1857 (age 29) in Prince Albert, Ontario Co., province of Canada West. A subscription for one year cost $1 in advance or $2 at the end of the year, and was payable in kind with "good firewood". Prince Albert was the second largest grain-handling centre in Canada West; Holden was an ardent booster of Reach Township and advocated for a railway connection to the Port of Whitby. Also apparent from his newspaper was his activism in the Orange Order and the Temperance movement (alcohol consumption was a blight on many a family).

Ontario County appointed him its Official Assignee so he sold up and moved his young family to Whitby in 1864. The Official Assignee appears to have dealt with tax foreclosures and bankruptcies as seen in advertisements he placed occasionally in his old newspaper. In parallel, he also advertised as an agent for lending investors' monies, some very substantial sums touted as being available, and as an insurer.

By 1868 and age 40, he was clearly prospering as he was a founding director of the Port Whitby and Port Perry Railway when it was chartered. Later, he and some of the “richest capitalists in Toronto” would buy and extend the railway to Lindsay and he became its Managing Director. With the recession of the mid-‘70s, the decline of timbering and with competition from Port Hope and Toronto, the railway was never very profitable and bore the nickname “Nip ‘n’ Tuck” as its engines struggled with heavy loads to make the grade up to the Oak Ridges Moraine. Ironically, the railway caused his former village of Prince Albert to decline to a quiet suburb of Port Perry where its businesses had relocated.

James was a visionary entrepreneur and had travelled west in 1881 to promote a second national railway in the very year the CPR was founded, undoubtedly a response consistent with the feelings he and his capitalist and political friends had towards the financial and political sway that Montreal held. Twelve years earlier, he reacted to the impending demise of The Royal Canadian Bank (Ontario’s first chartered bank not to be confused with the current RBC) by seeking to establish a new Ontario bank, pursuing friends and alliances to gain the necessary government charter and financial subscriptions. Thanks to his leadership, Whitby was the only town of the initial four outside Toronto that successfully raised the requisite capital to establish a branch. His efforts came to fruition when The Dominion Bank (now the TD Bank) opened its first branches in 1871 in Toronto and Whitby.

A staunch Wesleyan Methodist, Holden led the fund-raising for two major Church initiatives. The first was the 1874 purchase of Trafalgar Castle, Canada’s largest private residence of the day and situated next to his home, to become Ontario Ladies College, a Methodist finishing school for girls (he had five of his own!). Rumour that the Gray Nuns were interested in it for a convent supposedly motivated contributors. Then he laid the cornerstone of the Methodist Tabernacle (now St. Marks United Church) in Whitby in 1875, the silver trowel still possessed by one of his descendants.

On dying in the prime of his life, James Holden was Managing Director of the little railway, a founding Director of a growing bank, a Director of the Farmers’ Loan and Savings Company and President of the Board of the Ladies’ College. He was well known throughout Ontario County because of his newspaper and having been elected to almost every municipal position, from councillor to reeve, and mayor of Whitby by acclamation. Reportedly a warm friend who never missed an opportunity to do a good turn, he must have earned the high regard evident at his funeral. Having been defeated in the 1873 Parliamentary election by a freshly appointed minister in the John A. Macdonald cabinet, it would not surprise if he had later succeeded with Wilfred Laurier, had he survived to age 70. His national dream, however, was probably a line too far and both too late and too soon for him to realize; it would take another 33 years for a second railway to punch through the Rockies to the Pacific.