Memories of a Dorchester Traveller: Part II

The Flashback published on Feb. 26th provided background on the life and times of the travelling man from Dorchester, Alexander Black (1838–1902). Today’s column, also based on his informative and interesting Diary, will feature an account of an extended trip by rail to Canada.

On Feb. 26th, 1878, Alexander Black wrote: I started for Ottawa on the 3 oclock train from Dorchester. Had tea in Moncton and continued on to Bathurst. As was his custom, he frequently made stops when traveling by train. At Bathurst, he visited a farm and toured the town. On Mar. 1st, he left Bathurst for Point Levis and Qubec City, where he spent two days sightseeing. A tour of the city included the Provincial Parliament buildings and the Methodist Church. Then it was off to Montreal for a brief stopover and a walkabout in the down town.

Mar. 6th found Black on the train bound for Ottawa a focal point for this trip. Not only anxious to visit the capital city; he wanted to see the House of Commons in action. Were Alexander Black alive today, he would be described as a political junkie. Although never a candidate for public office; he had a keen interest in politics. A staunch Liberal, he seldom missed a political meeting be it in Dorchester, Sackville or Moncton.

On the Tantramar in the late 19th century, politics was a blood sport. It was then the custom for a public rally to be held in the shiretown of Dorchester on the day when candidates filed their nomination papers. Following these formalities, each candidate was expected to address the gathered throng. In anticipation of a good time; a chance to heckle opponents and encourage their candidate, hundreds would travel by special train to Dorchester. These public debates were not for the timid, or the ill prepared, and elections were won or lost by the manner in which candidates handled hecklers. Alexander Black seldom missed such an occasion.

It was therefore with great anticipation that our traveler arrived in Ottawa at 3:30 PM on Friday, March 7th [and] went directly to the Parliament Buildings. Of one thing we may be certain. He was carrying a letter of introduction to the Visitors Gallery, penned by his MP, who also called Dorchester home, Hon. Albert J. Smith. A former Premier of New Brunswick, Smith had switched to federal politics and was Minister of Marine and Fisheries in the cabinet of Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie.

Black could not have picked a better time to visit the House of Commons. The Liberals were in the final year of their mandate and the inevitability of a federal election was in the air. For the next five days Black was to spend most of his time in the Visitors Gallery overlooking the government benches. While there, he observed the consideration of departmental estimates, three days of debate on the Budget, followed by a motion of non confidence in the government. It was defeated 115 to 77.

The text of the non-confidence motion put forward by the Conservative opposition, was destined to be of long range significance. It called for a National Policy [i.e. higher tariffs] to protect Canadian industry. On the part of the opposition, this was a trial run for the much anticipated federal election. Canada was then experiencing a depression and the Mackenzie government was later to be defeated, largely on the tariff question, in an election on Sept. 17, 1878.

Not only did Black attend each session of the House while in Ottawa; he was treated to several marathon debates. The House opened at 3 PM and often did not adjourn until well after midnight. One session lasted until 2:50 AM! All the giants of late 19th century Canadian politics were in their place. The wily leader of the opposition, Sir John A. Macdonald sat slouched in his chair, ready to pounce at a moments notice; while directly opposite, the reserved and staid Mackenzie rallied his members in response.

Blacks only break from the Commons Gallery was a walk through town; a visit to the falls on the Rideau River and service at the Methodist Church on Sunday Mar. 10. On his last day in Ottawa, after a final trip to Parliament Hill, he visited Montmorency Falls and then strolled through the snow covered grounds of Rideau Hall; official residence of the Governor-General, the Earl of Dufferin. By 3:30, Mar. 16th Alexander Black reached Toronto.

Altogether, he was to remain in the Toronto area for nearly three months. This was a departure from his usual travel pattern. Following a serious round of sightseeing, Black was usually ready to move on. The Diary reveals predictable visits to museums, historic sites, libraries, auctions and art galleries; along with side trips to Burlington, Dundas and Hamilton. On one of the latter excursions he traveled to Burlington to walk over Mr. Springers farm of 70 acres, 40 in orchard. Offered $2,000. He may have considered investing in real estate; however, this possibility would seem remote; considering his deep Dorchester roots. The offer was not taken. There had to be another reason for the lengthy delay in Toronto. It will be revealed later.

Alexander Blacks first full day in Toronto was Sunday Mar. 17th, St. Patricks Day. As was his custom he attended service in the nearest Methodist meeting house. In this instance, it was Metropolitan Methodist Church, a High Victorian style building, referred to, even then, as the cathedral church of Methodism. Dedicated in 1872 and with a seating capacity of 2,000, our Dorchester traveler was impressed, for he attended this church faithfully during his visit.

The next day provided a stark contrast with the tranquility of a Toronto Sabbath. During the 1870s relations between radical Irish Roman Catholic and militant Protestant groups were strained. On Mar. 18th, Alexander Black witnessed one of the largest riots ever to occur in Toronto. Rossa O’Donovan, a visiting Irish lecturer, was scheduled to speak in St. Patricks Hall, on King Street East. Hundreds of protesters attempted to prevent this from happening. Fighting broke out, the lecture did not take place and O’Donovan escaped; disguised as a woman.

During his stay Alexander Black thoroughly explored on foot, the area that is now the downtown core of Toronto. Interspersed were frequent visits to the Mechanics Institute on the corner of Church and Adelaide Streets. This building provided him access to a free public library and reading rooms. Occasionally he would take a day for writing and catching up on his business interests and correspondence.

At least once a week, Black took time to explore the waterfront. Rowing competitions were then a popular spectator sport not only in Ontario, but also in New Brunswick; especially on the Kennebecasis River. On May 15, 1878, a competition between Canadian champion, Ned Hanlan and his American rival, Luther Plaisted took place on Toronto bay. Another of Hanlans rivals, Wallace Ross, was a native of Memramcook, and Blacks next door neighbour back home. The latter was a member of the famous Canadian Rowing team dubbed the Paris Four; for winning the 1867 World Rowing Competition in Paris. In the 1878 Toronto match, Hanlan won; and went on to later capture the World Individual Rowing title.

Occasionally more ordinary matters took over. As a farmer and skilled butcher he arranged a visit to a slaughter house and a meat packing plant. Very much interested in auctions of all kinds, he attended two horse auctions at the Crystal Palace. Officially this building was known as The Palace of Industry and was modeled on Londons more famous Crystal Palace.

While exploring the Toronto waterfront, Alexander Black discovered that the SS Chicora was advertising excursions between Toronto, Hamilton and Niagara. (See Photograph) He made arrangements for a short trip on Toronto Bay. Having enjoyed this experience, he decided that this would be an appropriate way too mark the forthcoming Qneens Birthday. (See advertisement for details)

Following his Victoria Day excursion on the SS Chicora, Alexander Black was ready to move on. Whirlwind visits to Dundas, Burlington and Port Colborne, and an obligatory trip to Niagara Falls were made. Then it was on to Buffalo and New York. Our diarist provides few details on this portion of the trip, except that from Buffalo to New York [May 31] it was a beautiful train ride.

Immediately he went to the office [of his ships agent P. J. Nevins,] at 11 South Street, New York. Alexander Black the tourist was, transformed overnight to become a man of business. His arrival in New York had been timed to coincide with that of the Dorchester brig Bessie May. Having a major financial interest in the latter, he had extended the Canada trip so that this might happen. As soon as the ship was released from quarantine in Jersey City, he was busy overseeing discharge of cargo and ballast, arranging purchase of stores and working up a [new] charter. His only respite was to attend the fireworks in Central Park on July 4th. On July 6, 1878 the Bessie May sailed for Leith, Scotland with a cargo of oil cake.

Alexander Blacks trip from New York to Dorchester was easy to arrange. The brig Matilda Buck was due to arrive in New York on July 16 to take on a cargo of flour for Dorchester; permitting him to sail back home. In his remaining days in New York he became a tourist once again with visits to Coney Island, Brooklyn and a night at the theatre. On July 24th, the Matilda Buck departed New York, dropping anchor off Dorchester, July 28 at 7 PM.

On July 31st, he watched a familiar scene, the launch of the barque William H. Hickman. The next day, Farmer Black was mowing hay on the marsh crick [sic] with J.W. Tingley. The Dorchester travellng man was home at last! It is my intent to return to the adventures of Alexander Black later in 2003. He has many more stories to tell.