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James H. Ashdown — appointed chairman of the committee seeking to incorporate Winnipeg as a city
Jan 14, 2011
by Bruce Cherney (part 2)
Manitoba entered Confederation in 1870 following negotiations between Prime Minister John A. Macdonald and his Quebéc lieutenant George-Etienne Cartier and a three-member delegation from Red River. Despite the successful talks, Macdonald still sent a contingent of British regulars and Canadian militia from the East. The sending of the troops was politically motivated, as Protestant Orangemen from voter-rich Ontario demanded vengeance for the March 4, 1870, execution of fellow Orangeman,Thomas Scott, calling for the “traitor” Louis Riel to be hung. 
The arrival of the contingent in August 1870 forced Riel to flee the settlement. On the other hand, their coming presented Ashdown with a splendid business opportunity. It was reported in the Manitoban that Ashdown had within two weeks made 3,500 feet of stovepipes for the troops. He had managed to obtain the metal two months earlier from the U.S., despite the disruption of regular business in the Red River Settlement  caused by the uncertainty of the times.
Once Manitoba became a province of Canada, Ashdown decided that his old premises would not be sufficient in size to handle the anticipated influx of settlers from Eastern Canada. On November 4, 1870, he purchased a lot on Main Street where he built a new two-storey 20-by-60-foot shop.
“To give some idea of the trade of the Northwest,” wrote Alexander in his book Ten Years in Winnipeg, published in 1879, “we here mention one small order given James H. Ashdown in March 1876: 3,500 tin pails, 1,800 round pails, 1,500 oval pans, 1,800 pint cups, 1,500 half-pint cups, etc. No wonder Ashdown grew rich!”
In 1872, Ashdown entered into a partnership in Portage la Prairie. It was in Portage that he met and then married his first wife, Elizabeth Allen. Unfortunately, the marriage was short-lived as she died in March 1873 at the very young age of 16 years and four months.
Throughout the early 1870s, the main link to Winnipeg and the outside world was via steamboats. The city’s merchants considered the fees imposed to carry freight by the Red River Transportation Company (RRTC) — established by J.J. Hill and Norman Kittson, former Canadians who were then based in St. Paul, Minnesota — as unbearable. Winnipeg businessmen, along with a group of St, Paul merchants, hatched a plan to start their own steamboat company, the Merchants’ International Steamboat Line, which was subsequently referred to simply as the “Merchants’ Line.”
Hundreds of  Winnipeggers turned out to greet the new Merchant’s Line steamer Manitoba as it pulled into the landing at the foot of Post Office Street (now Lombard). The vessel was decked out in a large banner proclaiming “we’ve got ’em,” and received “three lusty cheers” as it docked in Winnipeg.
Ashdown told the crowd that the Manitoba would break the monopoly held on the Red by the RRTC. “He ... spoke of the hard work which was necessary to secure so great a boon to the
inhabitants of the country, and after speaking ... took his seat amid enthusiastic cheering,” reported the Manitoba Daily  Free Press on May 14, 1875.
The line enjoyed only a brief career plying the Red River. The RRTC in collusion with Donald Smith, who as chief commissioner represented the Hudson’s Bay Company, which had a secret agreement with Kittson and Hill, as well as shares in the U.S.-based company, engaged in a battle with the Merchants’ Line to corner the lucrative freight and 
passenger business. In the secret agreement, HBC freight rates were slashed 
by a third, giving the company a significant advantage over its commercial competitors.
Kittson vowed “that he would spend all his last year’s earnings to break the new line,” according to George B. Elliott of the Canadian Press (May 7 letter to Free Press).
The fledgling company’s steamer Manitoba was allegedly intentionally rammed and sunk by the RRTC steamer International near St. Norbert on June 4 during its return trip to the U.S. A June 7 editorial in the Free Press declared the Manitoba was “a martyr to the enterprise of the Merchants’ Line.”
Ashdown and other investors in the line ended up losing the steamboat battle on the Red River. In fact, Kittson was able to negotiate with the directors of the Merchants’ Line, which included Ashdown, to purchase both of the line’s vessels, the Manitoba and Minnesota, at a bargain basement price, restoring the RRTC monopoly on the Red River.
On May 25, 1889, the Manitoba Free Press ran an editorial that was highly-critical of Ashdown’s handling of the steamboat deal. At the time, Ashdown was the major shareholder in and president of the rival Winnipeg Sun, which the Free Press claimed was a “filthy sheet which passes for a newspaper in Winnipeg.”
In the editorial, the Free Press alleged that Ashdown had committed the “blackest and basest treachery,” betraying the Winnipeg shareholders in the Merchants’ Line by selling out to Kittson and restoring the monopoly. The newspaper further alleged that for selling out his fellow shareholders, Ashdown received shares in the Kittson company equal to those he had held in the defunct Merchants’ Line.
As a result of the accusations in the editorial, Ashdown sued the newspaper for malicious libel. He asked for $10,000 but was only awarded $500 by a jury, which couldn’t agree that malice was intended, but said that the editorial did not contain “fair or reasonable comment,” although Free Press publisher William Luxton “believed in the truth of the charges when they were made.” 
Long after the fact, bitterness still lingered in Winnipeg over the failure of the Merchants’ Line and arguments still arose over who was responsible for its demise. 
On the political front, Ashdown supported the incorporation of Winnipeg as a city, despite it only having a population of 1,664 people in 1873. He was appointed chairman of the committee that was selected to lobby the Manitoba government to pass the necessary incorporation legislation. It took a year of wrangling, but with Ashdown playing a leading role, the bill for incorporation was passed in the Manitoba Legislature on November 3, 1873. In the city’s first election in January 1874, Ashdown was elected to council as an alderman (now councillor).
On February 10, 1876, Ashdown married his second wife Susan Crowson. The newly-weds built their first residence on Euclid Avenue in Point Douglas in 1877 (burned down in 1962). At the time, Point Douglas was the neighbourhood of choice for Winnipeg’s commercial elite. The Free Press referred to the Ashdown home as a “Manitoba Mansion.” Future Ashdown homes were built on James Street, Broadway Avenue and Wellington Crescent.
Ashdown became a charter member of the Winnipeg Board of Trade in 1879, serving on the board for 30 years as well as being elected its president in 1887. The goal of the board was to promote Winnipeg commercial endeavours and counter excessive rail freight charges that favoured eastern business interests.
As president, Ashdown was in the thick of the “Disallowance Question,” the CPR’s refusal to allow competing rail lines in Western Canada. To complete the trans-continental railway, the Macdonald government had given the CPR a western rail monopoly for 25 years. 
The Manitoba Legislature in 1886 had granted a charter to build a railway to the province’s southern border and connect with an American line. Under pressure from the CPR, Ottawa was forced to abide with the agreement and disallowed the charter granted by the Manitoba government.
It wasn’t until the CPR needed a massive loan from Ottawa that it showed a willingness to allow other competing lines. As a result, Winnipeg would eventually become the western headquarters for three railways — the CPR, the Grand Trunk and the Canadian Northern (the later two rail lines would eventually form the nucleus of the Canadian National).
The board was just one of the many business- and community-oriented organizations in which he held a membership. At various times, he was on the board of directors of businesses such as Great West Life Assurance, Bank of Montréal, Northern Trust Company, Canadian Fire Insurance Company (president), Northern Mortgage Company and Indemnity Exchange. 
He was chairman of Wesley College and was also involved with the YMCA, Winnipeg General Hospital, the Children’s Hospital and the Girls’ Home of Welcome.
Ashdown added to his retail enterprises by delving into wholesale distribution, building his first warehouse, a four-storey structure, on Bannatyne. It was the first wholesale warehouse west of the Great Lakes.
In 1888, Ashdown published the first hardware catalogue in Western Canada. A later catalogue contained 2,000 fully-illustrated pages, “and described in a comprehensive manner the many thousands of articles of the Ashdown Warehouse Stock, the largest and most complete in Canada.”
By 1889, Ashdown was looking westward for other opportunities. He established a store in Calgary and then built a three-storey warehouse in the Alberta city. More expansion ensued when wholesale centres were built in Edmonton, Regina, Saskatoon and Nelson, B.C.
The first tell-tale sign that a business empire had been created came in the spring of 1900. As an advertising stunt, Ashdown outfitted a special train to make the journey from Winnipeg to supply his stores further to the west. 
“Each car in the long train (40 cars),” wrote Allison, “which carried eight hundred tons of building material and general hardware, was decorated with the phrase ‘Hardware from J.H. Ashdown,’ and caused nothing less than a sensation in commercial circles in the West. The newspapers of Winnipeg wrote up the event as a striking evidence of the rapid development of the country, and it excited much talk on the part of the general public.”
The Free Press on March 7, 1900, reported that a “large crowd” was on hand to witness the departure of the “Ashdown Special” on Tuesday, March 6, which was “gaily decorated with flags. Three locomotives pulled the train out of the (CPR) depot ... An idea of the extent of this consignment may be had when it is considered that had the cars been the size used on English roads it would have required 200. It would have taken 100 of the regulation American size cars to have hauled this quantity of freight.”
The “Ashdown Special” not only signified his personal success, but the advertising coup helped put Winnipeg on the North American commercial map, attracting business interests to the city from the U.S. and Eastern Canada.
Ashdown’s business had expanded so rapidly that he built another warehouse on Bannatyne (now a condominium complex), and decided to incorporate — with capital of $1 million which shortly increased to $2 million — as the J.H. Ashdown Company Limited. At the time, the bulk of the stock was owned by the Ashdown family.
In 1904, the firm created the Diamond A trademark. All goods sold by the company bore this trademark stamped in red.
The Ashdown retail store on Main Street and Lombard Avenue was destroyed by fire on October 11, 1904. By the 27th, the ruins had been carted away and the construction of another two-storey store had commenced, which opened for business the next spring.
In March 1918, his Saskatoon distribution centre was also destroyed by fire, but it too was quickly rebuilt.
Ashdown’s storied good fortune almost faltered when he served his second term as mayor of Winnipeg (no one opposed him so he was re-elected by acclamation on December 11, 1907). At the time, a world-wide recession threatened to hobble the 
financial status of the city. By 1907, Winnipeg had accumulated a crippling debt of $14 million. Despite the debt, the city was committed to creating its own hydro-electric company, something Ashdown wanted to delay until the debt was addressed. He called funding the hydro project, during the uncertain financial times, the “maddest of mad folly.” But his warning went unheeded and city council voted in favour of continuing the hydro business plan.
While the mayor’s stewardship would eventually make a difference towards Winnipeg’s bottom line, the city was still in dire financial straits and needed a quick infusion of cash. Council authorized Ashdown to travel to London, England, to attract investors. But with the recession still raging, Ashdown returned to Winnipeg empty-handed. The city’s debt continued to mount and banks refused to honour Winnipeg’s overdraft.
The city’s financial fortunes improved when the recession ended in the spring of 1908 and the Bank of Montréal was able to sell a block of Winnipeg bonds on the London market for 99.5-cents on the dollar. Another block of city bonds sold for $7.5 million, some three-cents above par.
“It is through the personal efforts of the Mayor that the finances of the city are being brought into order from the chaotic and nearly disastrous conditions where the last government left them,” reported the Toronto Saturday Night magazine on April 4, 1907.
With greater financial security, the city’s first electric generating plant at Pointe du Bois finally got underway in January 1909.
Ashdown was also a strong proponent of the Shoal Lake aqueduct, serving on the commission investigating this water option, the merits of which would be debated for  two decades until potable water was finally brought to Winnipeg when the aqueduct was completed in 1919.
Ashdown and his wife, strict Methodists, were seldom mentioned in the society pages of local newspapers, and were said to prefer staying at home to read the Bible. But one annual event they did take part in was the Old Timers’ Ball held at the Royal Alexandra Hotel (since demolished) on Main Street (Winnipeg 1912, by Jim Blanchard, University of Manitoba Press). “The Ashdowns were very wealthy but the reason they were present at the ball was that they were true ‘old timers,’ having come to Winnipeg in the early days.”
Ashdown only survived the golden jubilee of his company by four years, dying on April 5, 1924. At the time of his death, Ashdown’s estate was valued at $1,634,000. 
To mark Ashdown’s 80th birthday, which occurred just five days before his passing, the Free Press named him “the first citizen of Winnipeg.” It was a quite a turnaround by the newspaper, which had 35 years earlier savagely attacked Ashdown for his alleged complicity in the 
demise of the Merchants’ International Steamboat Line. At the time, he was accused by the newspaper of being “widely and accurately known in the city as not being a patriot, a public benefactor or a philanthropist.” The passage of time had apparently healed old wounds, contributing to this dramatic reversal in the newspaper’s formerly adverse opinion of Ashdown.
In its front page obituary on April 7, 1924, the Free Press reported an earlier conversation with Ashdown. He gave his reason for staying in the city as having “never lost faith in Winnipeg. When once you have tasted Red River water you cannot leave the country.”
After his death, the commercial empire he had built began to shrink in size, but his retail business in Winnipeg continued for another 50 years.
“Perhaps his outstanding characteristic was the sanity and soundness of his judgement,” said Rev. Dr. J.M. Riddell, the president of Wesley College, in  a tribute to Ashdown following his death, “and, in this, he towered head and shoulders above his fellows. He had the rare ability of seeing the full significance of a situation and of gauging accurately the tendencies involved in it. Through the exercise of his judgement, and through an indefatigable industry he built a great business. He had the ability and readiness to do things, and he did them in his business, in the college, in the church, in the city and in the nation at large.”