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REMEMBER THIS? John Brown: An honorable and useful career

Local historian Sarah King Head tells the story of one of Thorold's most interesting historical charachters
Page - John Brown, 1876, p. 40
John Brown. Photo: Supplied by Sarah King Head brings you historical features weekly under our headline "Remember This?'. Do you have a story, a photo or memory about Thorold's past? Email [email protected]. This week, we are pleased to bring you story of Thorold historical entrepreneur John Brown, written by local historian Sarah King Head.


Who was John Brown?

This is a question that has been the source of considerable speculation for decades among local historians in Niagara. Most of us know he established a hydraulic cement and plaster mill where the Community Credit Union in Thorold stands today – and that he died while supervising work on the Third Welland Canal after tragically being thrown from his carriage. But filling in the other blanks of his life has been stymied by two main factors: first, having a very common name has caused inevitable confusion since other John Browns are known to have lived and worked in related industries at the same time. And second and worse yet, he died unmarried and intestate.

The image of searching for a needle in a haystack aptly characterizes the challenge!

Court of Chancery

The challenge, however, became more navigable when an important donation was made to the Thorold Museum in the early days of the pandemic last year: a handwritten copy of the legal document detailing a Court of Chancery suit among Brown’s nearly 30 heirs-at-law. With a copy of Martin v. Allan (1876) in hand, it’s possible now to begin unravelling his complicated story. A couple of hurdles have remained: first, the transcript contained no verifying data and is not easily accessible through the Law Society of Ontario. However, once public institutions have reopened, it should be possible to find the original on microfilm at the Ontario Archives. Second, the labyrinth of names contained in the document is of epic proportions – but perseverance and access to online resources has helped stitch together the story of Thorold’s John Brown, who was born in Stathavon (Avondale), Lanarkshire in western Scotland in 1809 and came to North America around 1823.

Measure of the Man

Apart from establishing his cement and plaster mill in Thorold and contributing to construction of the Second and Third Welland Canals, few probably know that Brown was enjoying a professional highpoint when he died at the age of 67. In fact, only a few weeks earlier, he had been described in the Ottawa Times as being ‘perhaps the most wealthy … [and] most extensive and efficient contractors in the Dominion of Canada’. The Thorold Post was pleased to reproduce the article on 16 June 1876 under the heading ‘Thorold Enterprise’:

The following well-merited compliment to our townsman Mr John Brown appears in a late issue of the Ottawa Times — Everybody has heard of Mr John Brown. Of Thorold, Ontario, perhaps the most wealthy, as he is one of the most extensive and efficient contractors in the Dominion of Canada. It will be interesting to a large portion of our readers to notice that to him, as contract for section 14, belongs the honour of completing the first lock, No 21, on the new Welland Canal, the last piece of coping having been laid on the 30th ult. We are informed on authority which is unquestionable that a finer piece of work is not to be seen on the continent of America. Mr Brown is certainly to be congratulated on his success, and it is not too much to say that he will, without doubt, compel there his contract with equal dispatch and satisfaction to those concerned. 

His specific achievement at this time was successfully having overseen completion of the first lock of the Third Canal. This was a piece of work the Post had described two weeks earlier as looking ‘exceedingly neat and … well built’, and readers, or ‘those interested in solid masonry,’ were encouraged to ‘pay Lock 14 a visit.’

But, Brown was always much more than just another contractor on the Third Welland Canal. In fact, he alone had won more lock commissions than any other contractor, worth an estimated $2,000,000. Indeed, he appears to have been a champion of labour – being the only contractor to support the rights of stonemasons to higher wages during a protracted and bitter strike in late 1875 and early 1876. Again, the Post noted that Brown alone ‘acceded to the men’s scale of prices’ – that is, to pay them a fair price for so-called piecework during the winter season. 

This latter observation helps explain the nearly hyperbolic way Brown was eulogized by William Kearney, president of the Stonecutters’ Association before his funeral on 1 July 1876. Equated to an army general who had the ‘power’ to inspire ‘an army of soldiers … [and lead] them to victory’, key was his ability to bring and keep workers on the Canal together, regardless of their nation or creed. The panegyric further noted that ‘his was 1 Thorold Post, 2 June 1876, p. 4. 2 Thorold Post, 19 November 1875, p. 4. no wasted life.’ But rather that ‘the record [of his work] which he leaves behind him is one of which [those among his employ] may well feel proud, his career was an honorable and useful one, and a success in all details’. Underlying was a subtext that the stonecutters would keenly miss and be impacted by the loss of someone who could be counted on to have their backs against management.

Brown’s reputation was not only observed at death. Indeed, he was often the subject of various media – including a poem of rhyming couplets. ‘The Strike on the New Canal’ suggests the workers’ ‘brave Contractor’ was a stern but fair leader engaged in meting out the most equitable scenario for his men while they were on strike.

This notion of an inspirational reputation – conflating past and present into an almost seamless nostalgic meme – continued after his death. In 1877, the Post quoted from an article that had appeared in the Thorold Gazette two decades earlier:

How desirable it is to have an enterprising and liberal man like Mr Brown in a community like ours; and yet, notwithstanding the benefits which accrue to Thorold from Mr Brown’s liberality and enterprise, what little noise he makes about it compared with others, who make an uproar among the people, although their puny and selfish policy is always confined in a nut-shell. 

The picture presented by the media of John Brown in the years around his death is only half the story; in fact, it’s the tip of a veritable iceberg. Indeed, his estate, estimated to be worth nearly $500,000, was comprised of more than 2,000 acres of land principally in the townships of Thorold, Stamford, Grantham, Niagara and Humberstone as well as a ‘valuable stone quarry’ on Pelee Island in Essex County that had been used in the construction of Welland Canal locks.

Moreover, while he himself died without a direct heir, his entrepreneurial legacy would live on through the work of his many relatives in Niagara or elsewhere throughout North America.

Portions of this article formed part of a lecture given to the Thorold Library on 27 April 2021. Special thanks to Randy Barnes, Dennis Gannon, Arden Phair and David Sharron for generously sharing resources and insights.


1 Thorold Post, 2 June 1876, p. 4.

2 Thorold Post, 19 November 1875, p. 4.

3 Thorold Post, 6 October 1877, p. 1.