[MINING HISTORY] Elihu James Davis: He Built the Road to Eldorado – by Leslie Roberts (MACLEAN’S Magazine – November 15, 1930)


An intimate sketch of the man [ Elihu James Davis] whose courage and faith created the T. and N. O., “the discovery railroad which opened Northern Ontario’s treasure chest”

THIS is the story of a man who proved by his foresight and his deeds that politicians do get things done, their traducers to the contrary. What is more, it proves that the smiling goddess, sometimes called Lady Luck, is cast in important roles in the fashioning of any young country, bestowing her favors on those who have the courage to set up new milestones of empire, no matter how the scoffers oppose.

As is the case with all pioneering achievement, it is a story of the faith that moves mountains, of dreams and vision and belief. It is the story of Elihu James Davis, the tanner of Newmarket, whose determination and courage brought into being the Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway, hoping thereby to create a new agricultural empire, only to find that Dame Fortune had flung wide the portals to a Canadian Eldorado.

Not even Davis, in the days when the T. and N. O’s. right-of-way was still a figment of fancy, could dream of the riches that were to come. Here was to be a prosperous new farming region, with New Liskeard its market town. Colonists, hearing of the wealth of the soil, would come to join those who were opening up the country. Towns would spring up. Jagged fence lines would encircle rich farms. Settlers would come in ever-increasing numbers, once the trains began to move into the hinterland that lay beyond North Bay. Then Larose, the blacksmith, hacked into gold as the cuttings and embankments were being driven toward journey’s end, and the boom was on its way. Fortune had smiled again on the bold.

Up the Ladder of Politics

MEETING Mr. Davis on a busy Toronto street, you would never nudge your companion and bid him regard a pioneer of empire in the flesh, for there is no quality of the North Country giant, beloved of the cinema director, about him. Rather you would say, “There goes a typical, successful, retired business man,” for that is the quality which most impresses when one meets and talks with him. He is quiet and serene, and gentleness is the bedrock of his nature. One feels instinctively that here is a man who looks on his world through the eyes of leisure and finds it good. The role of prosperous, unobtrusive tanner of hides is his to the king’s taste, but one would never suspect, either from appearance or speech, that here is a man whose faith drove steel across the muskeg and brought the golden empire of the North into being. Yet it did. And this is the story.

Born on December 1, 1851, Elihu James Davis’s boyhood was like that of almost any Ontario lad in King Township, with one exception. He excelled at mathematics.

Today Mr. Davis will tell you that the main reason was named McKay, his old Scottish schoolteacher. Moreover, he will attribute much of his business success to that same science of figuring. Today, too, at seventy-nine, he has the same zest for business as he had when, at sixteen, he entered his father’s tannery at Newmarket — to begin at the bottom and work up through many years of effort to the top.

It was that zest, that application, that brought him at twenty-one a partnership in the business. And the same qualities brought his townsmen to him with the request that Davis, barely beyond his majority, serve them in public life. He was hard at it among the hides and the smells when a delegation called on him one day and asked him to be school trustee for King Township. That was the first step on the ladder. At twenty-five, in 1877, he was elected to councillorship in that same home township. In three successive elections he received acclamations. He never had to fight. In 1881 and 1882, again without opposition, he was chosen deputy-reeve.

For four years immediately thereafter he was the community’s unanimous choice as reeve. In 1884, at the age of thirty-two, he was elected warden of the County of York—the youngest man ever to hold that office.

In 1888, with ten years of public service at his back, there came a vacancy in the Provincial Legislature and a by-election in North York. Once again the people of his home riding demonstrated their appreciation of his devotion to the public weal. He was elected by acclamation. Then came eight years of faithful toil in the ranks of private members, at the end of which period he emerged as a member of the Government of the day, in the capacity of Minister without Portfolio.

On to the New North

NOTHING spectacular about all this, you may say, but merely a portrait of the hardworking political wheel-horse, a man devoted to the causes of his party who, through continued adherence to a party platform, gained the epaulettes of approbation from his leaders and was rewarded for his steadfast nature. Perhaps. But that is the manner of this man Davis. He is not one of those who grow skittish with each now tug on the bridle and leave the highroad to take unconsidered jumps over fence or ditch. Elihu Davis has always been of those who consider the roads they travel and who, once a road is chosen, are not easily led away into byways and lanes.

Just as he climbed slowly but surely up the creaky ladder of politics, in similar manner, through these years, was he building up the vast leather enterprise which bears the family name. Nothing showy, nothing flashy about Elihu Davis. In the world of politics he served as councillor, deputy-reeve, reeve, private member of the Legislature, Minister without Portfolio, Provincial Secretary and Minister of Crown Lands — every move an upward move, with never an election lost. In the world of affairs, step by step he developed his leather business until today those publicity media which set down the records of men and industries in cold type declare, “It has become the largest calf-skin factory in the British Empire, doing a large export business.” Steady does it, is the motto which ought to grace his coat of arms.

In 1899 Davis was chosen Commissioner of Crown Lands for the Province of Ontario. It was the Prime Minister’s desire that he organize a colonization branch for the purpose of opening up and developing Northern Ontario. He did, and at its head he placed Thomas Southworth, a very capable man. To him Davis said:

“Go through the North Country. Spread the news around that I am coming up to talk with the people. Arrange for as many meetings as you can in as many places. I’ll be there.”

He was. So were the settlers. To them he said:

“I’m your servant; or, if you like, this is a family discussion. I want you to ask me as many questions as you like. I want you to tell me your problems and how I can help solve them.”

They told him, all those pioneers. They wanted a railway from North Bay to New Liskeard. They wanted main roads. Let the Government make I the latter and they themselves would make their side roads. Most of all they wanted a railway.

Back to Toronto and to the Cabinet came Davis, filled with an ardor that could not be quenched. A railway was needed. A railway must be built. Eighty miles beyond North Bay were settlers tilling the soil and rearing families. They were not to be ignored. They were people of value—pioneers, sturdy of spirit. To them transportation was vital. Could the Government incur the responsibility of disheartening the very people who were pushing back the confines of its own domain?

It was natural that there would be consternation, that there would be opposition. But Davis never wavered a hairs-breadth. He preached the doctrine of the New North unceasingly. He hammered home facts gathered by Southworth’s experts, facts about agriculture, about forests, about mineralization. And, in modern parlance, he “sold” the Cabinet on the idea of that railway. They agreed that Ontario should build the T. and N. O., the first provincially owned railway in Canada.

“And so,” smiled Mr. Davis as he told me, “we set to work preparing our plans, while the Jeremiahs began to wail. It was just a political adventure, they said, this business of pushing a railway out into nowhere, where nobody of any consequence lived. What is more, they insisted that instead of building up our province we were courting provincial bankruptcy. It was the original version of the story we have all heard about the Hudson’s Bay line, an early chapter of the cry of gloom that went up when the Federal Government found Thornton and began to consolidate the Canadian National. But we went ahead.”

When Fortune Smiled on “Folly”

AS HE talked, I thought of another such conversation in which President Beatty, of the C. P. R., had remarked that if you don’t extend the tentacles of your transportation systems you can never build up your country; that it is the railway’s job to reach out into the back country and bring it to the door of the cities. And then I realized that I was listening to the theme song of Canada’s Century, the song of courage and of the faith that moves mountains; or, if the mountains refuse to be moved, drives bands of steel about them to blaze the paths of empire.

So, in 1902, in the face of the viewings-with-alarm of its opponents, the construction gangs began their task of driving steel eighty miles into the wilderness from North Bay. Surveyors laid out the line of the right-of-way. Engineers devised gradients, trestles and curves. Construction gangs tamped down the ballast. Ties were laid. Steel was spiked down. Optimism showed its smile across the face of the new North, and its colonists, spurred to new effort by the visible evidences of the Government’s willingness to aid in the development of their country, tilled their lands with renewed vigor, held road-making bees, erected churches, and gave themselves wholeheartedly to such community efforts.

The new century, just at its dawning, would be the North Country’s century. That was their cry, while in the cities the doubters still protested against the T. and N. O. folly, as they called it. But still no one dreamed of Eldorado. The railway was only to be a means of opening new farming country, this $7,500,000 railway, constructed, to quote the words of Davis, its sire, “in a day when a million dollars was money.”

Then Lady Luck, making use of the hands and tools of Larose, the humble construction-gang blacksmith, smiled, and the doors of Eldorado opened, flung back by Dame Fortune herself. Discoveries made on the actual right-of-way were brought out to Toronto, where Government analysts tested samples of the finds and pronounced them rich in precious metals.

In a trice the news flashed abroad. Northward trekked an ever-growing horde of prospectors. Mining camps sprang up overnight in areas which, a month before, had been seen only as long stretches of barrens along the right-ofway. Drills clattered into the face of the rock. In Toronto the scoffers scoffed again and cried, “Another Pipe Dream! Where will folly end?”

Up North, two brothers staked a flatbroke prospector and laid the foundation stone of the vast Timmins fortunes. New towns began to dot the map. Cobalt, Timmins, Kirkland Lake became synonyms for new wealth. The road was finished in 1904. Shaft houses and mills began to dot the landscape, and the names of Hollinger, Dome and McIntyre were written into the gleaming pages of mining lore, soon to pour their golden streams of wealth into the pockets of the courageous few who saw their five-cent-piece investments multiply and re-multiply. And there, in brief, you have the picture of the opening of Eldorado.

To me at any rate it was this quiet, steadfast, kindly man, Davis, this gentle, friendly tanner from Newmarket, who brought it about. It was he who convinced the Government it was right in pushing the road through in the teeth of public misgivings and loud denunciation.

“It is strange the parts played by luck or fate or accident, or whatever name you like to give it, in the building up of new countries,” he said as we talked together of those strange events and stranger days, in his eye a light of philosophical reverie. “No one could guess the riches that would be found in the ground up there, myself least of all. Undoubtedly they would have been uncovered sooner or later, for if we hadn’t built the road someone else would have come along to do the job. Even if there hadn’t been a railway, someone would have made a strike, and in time the mines or the mines-in-themaking would have brought the railway in.”

“But supposing there had been no gold, no minerals of commercial value, in the country; what would have happened to the T. and N. 0. then? Would it have been marked down to failure, or would it still have been a successful enterprise?” I asked.

“No question about what the results would have been,” Davis replied. “The country would have filled in and prospered. Those were the problems we had to face before we began the job. We weren’t just striking in the dark, you know. There are fifteen million acres of the best agricultural land in the world up there. And don’t overlook the people. A politician can make no bigger mistake than to regard pioneers as of no consequence. No consequence! They’re nation builders.”

Looking at him, one easily realized the truth of these observations, for E. J. Davis is not of that quality which draws too long a bow at any madcap venture. Long before the first ton of ballast had gone to fill in the right-of-way, rest assured that the Commissioner of Crown Lands had pondered and fought his way through the maze of technical problems which confronted him and those associated with him in his determination to give the North a chance. Even without the mines, the road would have justified itself. The country would have grown. Canada’s frontiers would have been extended.

Retirement From Public Life

HIS job completed and the last spike driven, what did Davis do? Did he reach out to new and even more spectacular achievements in the empire builder’s role? Did he parade the countryside as many another politician might have done, capitalizing the praise that naturally accrued to his repute? Did he set himself up in business as a public idol? Did he pose as the man, who, in the lingo of the professional booster, “put Northern Ontario across?”

He did none of these things. He did exactly what such a man as he might be expected to do. He retired from public life and returned to the peace and quiet of his leather factory in Newmarket. Strange, you say? Perhaps. But not strange if you know the manner of life ordinarily followed by the Honorable Elihu James Davis.

“I wanted to get out of politics,” he told me, “but I realized that I had to finish my job before I could leave. Remember, I was not only a public servant but had a business of my own to supervise as well. So I had worked too hard and my health was giving way under the strain. Once the road was completed, therefore, I took stock of myself and decided that the only sensible thing for me to do, if I was to go on living, was to leave public life.”

In 1904 he resigned from the Cabinet and went his way in peace. While the line was being pushed farther onward toward Cochrane, while new fortunes were springing into existence almost overnight, while Eldorado itself was becoming a fait accompli, Elihu James Davis withdrew from the spotlight and the fanfare to return to the peace of the tannery.

With the valuable assistance of his sons, he soon had the business in thriving condition. New buildings were erected. An era of expansion set in. The fortunes of the company and his private fortune began to grow, until soon he was a dominant factor in his chosen industry in the Dominion.

Today, nearing eighty, Elihu James Davis is still enjoying his business, still hugely enjoying life. His quizzingly humorous eyes peer at you from behind no glasses. People tell him that if he doesn’t quit reading small print in bed until all hours, he’ll be sorry when he’s older. But E. J. just chuckles and confounds such folk by going out hunting and doing uncannily accurate things with a rifle. He has no faddish ideas about diets and “looking after himself.” He is merely a very sensible person.

It is interesting to ponder such a man as this, given as we are to worship at the shrine of spectacular, devil-may-care heroes who crash to the centre of the camera’s eye in their gum boots and mackinaw coats. Here is a steadfast, sound-at-core business man, a quiet, unassuming gentleman of high integrity and deep sincerity, the sort of man who has fought as hard for the cause of temperance as ever he fought for his railway; not quite the sort of man that the movies and the fictionists have given us in creating their standard pioneer types.

But Davis possesses a quality that is missing from many a man whose appearance on the national stage has been noisier and flashier. He is a planner, not a schemer. He is the kind of man who counts his costs and, once the counting is tallied, goes through to the end with dogged determination. That is why there is such a railway as the T. and N. 0. stretching across the North as a monument to our pioneering foresight, a road that today is reaching out beyond distant Cochrane toward the shores of the Bay and Moose Factory. And perhaps that is why the riches of Northern Ontario are ours, though that is a theorem to which neither you nor I can write the Q. E. D.

For the original source of this article: https://archive.macleans.ca/issue/19301115#!&pid=12