Project 1 M.J. O’Brien

Michael John O’Brien

From the Renfrew Mercury
15 February 1925

A “man of affairs” in the widest and truest sense of the term is Mr. M.J. O’Brien of Renfrew – Senator, capitalist, contractor, mine-owner, captain of industry. Not only is his name a household word in Renfrew town and Renfrew County, but he is known over all Canada; in fact over the whole continent. His business interests extend from pine to palm and from tide-water to tide-water. He is concerned with enterprises not alone in Canada and the United States but in other lands. By sheer pluck, industry and capability he has worked himself up to his present commanding position. Starting only with a good constitution and a determination to succeed, his rise has been phenomenal.

It was on the Intercolonial Railway – the T.C.R. – that football of Canadian politics for many years that Mr. O’Brien got his insight into railway construction. At the time of the building of a line to connect Kingston and Renfrew and to be known as the K & P, in the early “80’s, he took a contract, destined to be his first of many, and found that the work suited him and that he suited the work. Bigger contracts came later, one of them on the National Transcontinental Railway.

Meanwhile he had become interested in the mineralized section of New Ontario. The sequel was the O’Brien mine, one of the richest in that Elderado. The Rouyn district finds him a heavy investor today. Big timber limits came into Mr. O’Brien’s possession. “To him that hath” began to be exemplified in him at so fast a rate that today this quiet, unassuming Renfrew citizen ranks among the world’s richest men. Regarding himself more as a steward of this wealth than as the possessor of it, he endeavours to make his unlimited means not only serve himself but be of service to his fellow men. He is always ready to invest in enterprises having a fair measure of promise. Inventors approach him with ideas of diverse kinds and he furnishes the wherewithal to prove or disprove their worth. Promoters go to him with schemes to finance and all except the questionable ones can count upon receiving his attention.

Renfrew has had Senator M.J. O’Brien as a citizen for a long while now. lt is two score and two years since he took up his abode here. After his coming he soon began to buy property and is today the leading property holder of the town. He owns blocks and houses and farm land. He built an opera house. The community can thank him largely for Hotel Renfrew. He owns and controls a number of local industries.

Senator O’Brien’s hobby runs to farms, of which he has several in Renfrew county. He has a fondness for Hereford cattle, Shetland ponies and standard-bred horses. Among farms his favorite is that at Barryvale, around which many tender memories cling. Furnishing light and power for that farm is an electric station not far away which O’Brien owned, also furnishes motive power to O’Brien industries in Renfrew.

He has done much to build up a bigger and better Renfrew through investments here in real estate and manufacturing and the building of residences. The lure of the cities does not draw him away from Renfrew, this town remaining through various changes the town of his adoption. Place of his birth was Antigonish in Nova Scotia.

Though traveling much and sometimes spending the winter in the South, Senator O’Brien is frequently in Renfrew, whose citizens not with pleasure that time deals lightly with Him – that his eye has not dimmed and that his step is as elastic as of yore.

Renfrew Mercury November 28, 1940

The Hon. M.J. O’Brien passed away at his home in Renfrew at 1 o’clock on Tuesday, November 26th in his 90th year.

Twelve years ago Mr. O’Brien suffered an affliction which kept him indoors. This illness gradually intensifying he has for the past ten years been confined to his residence and for the past few years to his bed. Nevertheless, his death was a shock to the people of Renfrew. Although not said often by the townspeople his presence was felt to the last through his good-will, and his benefactors. His passing is a great loss to this community and in the days that are to be his place will not be filled.

To those bereaved The Mercury extends the deepest sympathy of all our people, land all will share in paying the deceased a last mark of respect when the business and social life of this industrial town and community will pause tomorrow morning between 9:30 and 11:00 when the last services are sung in his beloved church.

In another column the Mercury deals with the long life activities of the late Mr. O’Brien. Renfrew’s business places will be closed from 9 to 11 tomorrow morning. The O’Brien Theatre, The Renfrew Woollen Mills, Renfrew Machinery Co.; and the Scale factory are closed. Today special references to Mr. O’Brien’s life and works will be made in Renfrew’s primary and secondary schools, which also will be closed during the hours of the funeral.

The survivors include his second wife, the former Grace Robertson; three sons J. Ambrose O’Brien, of Ottawa, M.J. O’Brien Jr. and Patrick O’Brien of Renfrew, and four daughters Mrs. J.L. Murray, of Renfrew, Mrs. V.L. Wechter, of Buffalo; Mrs. W.C. Cram Jr. of Atlanta Georgia, and Mrs. Frank J. McCoy of Bronxville, N.Y. Twenty-four grandchildren and one great grandchild also survive.

The Mercury reprints the following from the Ottawa newspapers, which sets forth a larger field of endeavor to which Mr. O’Brien contributed:

Man of Wide Interests
A railroad contractor, a miner, a manufacturer, a philanthropist in his unpretentious way, a public-spirited citizen, a man of very wide interests who met in the broadest way his obligations, such was Michael J. O’Brien. He was a nation builder as few men have been. In the time of Canada’s sensational material development he filled a place that needed to be filled by a man of dauntless courage, of infinite resourcefulness, of vision and tact. It was his privilege to see the Ottawa Valley rich with industries which he had done so much to foster; dotted with thriving towns owing much to his enterprise and his inimitable enthusiasm; and in all parts of the Dominion to see the traffic of a nation carried over railroad lines which he had built.

M.J. O’Brien’s reward came in the realization that he had done something worthwhile for his country. He did not seek public honors, although his interest in public affairs was keen and intelligent. Although a Liberal, and a personal friend of Sir Wilfred Laurier, he was appointed to the Senate in 1918 by Sir Robert Borden. For seven years he sat in the Red Chamber, resigning in 1925 to make a place for the Hon. Charles Murphy.

He represented a half century of Canada’s history. In him there had rested the vision of a nation on steel rails, of industrial areas which would serve the population attracted by new lines of transportation, and he realize his dreams as few men see their dreams translated into achievements. Inevitably great wealth came to him. The success of his enterprises brought him resources which he considered in the light of a tremendous responsibility. His money went into still more factories and still further works of development. Thousands of men worked for him or for enterprises with which he was associated, and which his money had made possible, and he felt that in providing this employment he was doing something of real value.

Renfrew Shared His Triumphs
Renfrew was Mr. O’Brien’s home town, and with it he shared his success and his triumphs. He was its leading citizen, its mayor emeritus, as it were. He made his home in Renfrew with his family for many years, and the O’Brien industries were by far the greatest single factor in its development. He took the keenest personal pride in its affairs and largely measured his own success by the degree to which it could be translated for the benefit of his fellow-townsmen. His wise philanthropy consisted in a general way of making it possible for people to do things for themselves and this, he realized, best could be accomplished by extending the possibilities of intelligent and remunerative labor in his district and opened to him, the way to the ultimate attainment of an ambitious ideal.

Nearer Home
But it may well be that his enterprises nearer home, smaller and necessarily more intimate, gave him the greater satisfaction. Their contributions to the life of his own town and of the countryside were his contributions to the life of the district. With a pride that may be understood he watched the growth of the Renfrew Machinery Co. Ltd. which he organized in 1909, and for which he erected plants in which were manufactured goods for the dairy trade – goods which came to hold a high place in the markets of Great Britain and foreign countries as well as at home.

Other O’Brien Enterprises
The Renfrew Woollen Mills another O’Brien enterprise with plants at Renfrew and Carleton Place, has a weave room capacity of 80 looms. The Renfrew Wood Products Limited, produces builders supplies and planning mill work. All of these concerns were provided with electrical power by the Calabogie Power Company plant on the Madawaska River, about 14 miles from Renfrew, where Mr. O’Brien built the plant. It was linked up with the Galetta Electric Power and Milling Co. Ltd., of which Mr. O’Brien was president, and this latter concern owned the distributing system in Arnprior which delivers electrical power to several villages and extensive farming districts. The Madawaska plant was sold in 1929 to the Ontario Hydro-Electric Commission.

He Built The Theatres Also
The largest shareholder in the Hotel Renfrew, at Renfrew, was Mr. O’Brien, and he owned much real estate in the town. He built the O’Brien Theatre in Renfrew in 1930, and later constructed other motion picture theatres in Pembroke, Arnprior and Almonte, the circuit being known as the Ottawa Valley Amusement Company. His purpose in such a venture hardly could have been the making of profits, although he expected all his enterprises to pay their way in self-respecting fashion. Rather must it have been a desire to bring something of color and entertainment into the lives of the people amongst whom he lived.

In still another field was Mr. O’Brien deeply interested. It was his family that was instrumental in taking Renfrew into big league hockey for a couple of years. In 1910, sponsored by the O’Brien’s, a Renfrew hockey team played in the National Hockey Association, which was the foundation of the present National Hockey League. Other teams in the N.H.A. were Wanderers, Cobalt and Haileybury.

Renfrew attracted such brilliant stars of the era as Frank Taylor, who carried the team to victory until the N.H.A. collapsed in 1912.

As a cattle breeder his herds took prizes at Toronto, Ottawa and Sherbrooke exhibitions and his Herefords at Chicago Ill. Prize sheep and Shetland ponies found honored places on his farms.

During the first Great War Mr. O’Brien turned his industries into the making of munitions and war supplies. As a result of his initiative O’Brien’s Munitions Limited, the first nitro-celluloid plant in the British Empire; Energetic Explosives Ltd. a loading plant for shrapnel manufactured at his own plant and others in Canada, and his Machinery company and Woollen mills worked day and night with large staffs of men and turned out huge quantities of munitions for the Allied armies.

Another of his companies, the Great Lakes Contracting Co., built two wooden freight vessels – the “War Sioux” and the “War Nipigon” – for the Canadian Munitions Board at its plant in Fort William during the latter years of that war. This company carried on extensive contracts for dredging. Mr. O’Brien was president of the Canada and Gulf Terminal Railway, which runs along the Gulf of St Lawrence between Mont Joli and Matane, Que., intended primarily for freight but on which a gasoline car now carries passengers.

Kept His Wealth At Work
Mr. O’Brien did not pose as a philanthropist. He believed as has been said, that the truest philanthropy was in making it possible for a man to do something for himself, and to that end he kept his wealth eternally at work, forever seeking new outlets for its usefulness. Under cover of his modest and unostentatious manner, however, he contributed largely to worthy charities and personally saw to it that aid was given in many cases where it was needed. The general public knew comparatively little of him and his affairs. Never did he have a stock or bond issue for sale. He financed his own enterprises.

For years he had been known as one of the wealthiest men in Canada, but it was impossible to be any more specific than that. He lived quietly, brought up his family modestly, and passed on to competent hands the management of his great business.

In accordance with his expressed wishes, the body of M.J. O’Brien, leading Canadian industrialist and founder of numerous enterprises in the development of Canada, who died Tuesday afternoon, will be buried Friday in the cemetery of St Francis Xavier church, where he had worshiped since coming to the district upwards of half a century ago.

The cortege will leave the home where he had lived for many years at 9.45 a.m., for the church where solemn high mass will be sung at 10 o’clock. Rt. Rev. Mgr. W. H. Dooner, parish priest, will receive the body at the church, Most Rev. M.J. O’Brien, Archbishop of Kingston, will chant the high mass of requiem.

On Friday, March 19th in the year 1909, on the occasion of the opening of the O’Brien Opera House, which a few years ago was rebuilt into the O’Brien Apartments, The Mercury enterprisingly issued an illustrated supplement dealing with that event and included other important industrial and community undertakings of the late Mr. O’Brien. Readers of the Mercury will appreciate the value of the information given in this article written 31 years ago as it was done at a time when Mr. O’Brien was at his highest power in the development of the resources of Canada.

“In the quiet little community of Lochaber, in Antigonish county, Nova Scotia, on September 19th 1851, M.J. O’Brien was born. His parents were not wealthy; and his school days ended when he was 14 years of age. At that period, he began at the bottom of the ladder in that line of life which, in spite of occasional adverse currents, might almost be said to have been the happiness in his life – railway construction. It was in a minor capacity he entered service on the building of the lntercolonial Railway. Step by step he rose – his genial personality always giving him a hold on his comrades, and, later, on the men under him – till he became foreman, then sub-contractor, then contractor. His first essay as a railway contractor was on what is known as the North Shore of the C.P.R. – between Montreal and Ottawa – in partnership with the late William Chisholm. His second contract was as a member of Chisholm, McDonald and O’Brien, in building the Kingston and Pembroke Railway. This was a happy venture for him and for Renfrew. For it provided him with his partner in life, and it provided Renfrew with the citizen who in after days was to become its “fairy godmother”. At Calabogie, on the shores of the pretty little lake of that name, he met Miss Jennie Barry, daughter of one of the kindly old pioneers of that district, to whom he was married just a little more than a quarter of a century ago. And shortly afterwards he made Renfrew his home. From time to time, as he made profit in his contracts, he invested in Renfrew property, built houses that rented at moderate prices, and though of necessity much away from home, from the nature of his business, took a hearty interest in any movement that promised development for his home town. During those years he was building what was known as the Northern and Pacific Junction, in the Nippissing district, in partnership with John Kennedy; the Baie des Chaleurs railway, in partnership with R.L. McDonald, Jas. Rogers and George H. Taylor; the Central Counties Railway – in the Hawkesbury district – in partnership with Frank Hibbert, GE; had a connection with a contract in Crow’s Nest; and as the sole contractor built part of the Midland Railway, from Truro to Windsor in Nova Scotia; the Richmond and Inverness railway, in partnership with L. Sutherland; part of the Halifax and Southwestern line in Nova Scotia from Barrington east fifty miles, in company with Z. J. Fowler, C.E., and his brother J. B. O’Brien; the La Tuque branch of the Quebec and Lake St John railway, in partnership with Mr. Fowler; and at the same time had under construction with Mr. J.P. Mullarky 120 miles of the Canadian Northern in Quebec; and 50 miles of the Quebec, Montreal and Southern. And now in company with others he has an interest in $15,000,000 worth of contracts on the Transcontinental railway, 371 miles of it in Quebec; in company with Mr. A.R. MacDonell; and 200 miles in the Fort William district, in company with Fowler and McDougall Brothers (the latter formerly Renfrew boys). But his interests are not confined to railway construction.

Some years ago he had purchased at what staid lumbermen thought were insane prices, 1,125 square miles of timber limits in Quebec province. The Transcontinental now will go somewhere near them, land their value will be great as the years go on. In both Alberta and Saskatchewan he has farming interests, and a block in the town of Strome, Alberta.

Chosen one of the first Commisioners for the building of Ontario’s provincial railway – in the Temiskaming and Northern Ontario, he early became acquainted with the possibilities in that region. Always open for a speculation, when offered a share in a mining discovery by Mr. J.B. O’Brian, a Toronto lawyer, he took it – and became the four-fifths owner of the O’Brien mine, which last year paid royalty to the Ontario Government of a very large amount.

And now a list of his mining possessions read like a romance:

Besides this O’Brien mine, he possesses interests in several other properties in the Cobalt Lake zone.

He is also deeply interested in Gow Ganda, having one mine in company with Hon. Clifford Sifton, one alone and one with others.

At Sudbury he has a quarter-interest in a nickel property which is said to be one of the richest propositions in the world – worth $50,000,000 at least, (J.R, Booth, Ottawa’s veteran lumberman, also holds a quarter-interest in this).

He owns mines or lands of precious stones in Renfrew County and Frontenac. He has interests in mica mines in the Gatineau Valley and Du Lievre and graphite mines in Renfrew County, as well as interest in the sodalite or beautiful blue marble mines of Hastings county.

Down in Nova Scotia he has a gold mine, from which he is sending $1,200 bricks to the Royal Mint at Ottawa.

Down in Mexico he has copper mines, which it is said he believes are greater wealth products than any property he owns.

And yet – while few men take more enjoyment out of the game of life than this same genial M.J. O’Brien, his prosperity has its drawbacks. Knowing his helpful disposition, hosts are anxious to get his ear with all sorts of projects – loans for this, subscriptions for that, chances for a great business development in something else – until he is practically forced to be an exile from home, from the sidewalk to his modest home door is like a parade ground-the doorbell is ringing, the telephone is ringing, his meals even are interrupted. If he would listen, he could make so many others rich with this scheme or the other, and would increase his own wealth so greatly also.

Wealth has its joys; also its uses, Mr. O’Brien has shown the spirit both to enjoy himself and to use for the good of others what has been showered upon him – but wealth also has its drawbacks.