Redpath Sugar factory, 1960-1980. McCord Museum
This story was first published on Aug. 8, 2004, in the Montreal Gazette.
”A jubilee was celebrated at the Canada Sugar Refinery yesterday when the occasion was observed by presentations and congratulatory addresses.”
The Gazette, Saturday, Aug. 13, 1904
The Canada Sugar Refinery, better known as Redpath Sugar, was celebrating its 50th birthday that fine summer’s day. The massive factory complex beside the Lachine Canal was decked with flags, and hundreds of workers gathered in the factory yard.
There were the requisite speeches, including one from the newly knighted head of the company, Sir George Drummond, but they were mercifully short. There were presentations of silverware and cheques to several long-standing employees. Band music was laid on, as well as dancing and great lashings of food.
50th anniversary celebration, Redpath Sugar Refinery, Montreal, 1904. Wm. Notman & Son / McCord Museum
Half a century earlier, when the refinery first opened its doors, things were considerably different. Though the factory was the largest Montreal had ever seen, its debut was muted. The Gazette said not a word. Cholera was making one of its frequent assaults on the city, and no one was in a mood to mix in public more than necessary.
The moving force behind the enterprise was John Redpath. (George Drummond was the brother of Redpath’s second wife and married a daughter by his first wife, making him both brother-in-law and son-in-law of the older man.)
The Scottish-born Redpath arrived in Canada in 1816 at the age of 20 with little more than vast natural energy and his training as a stonemason. Soon, he was a building contractor, with a bulging order book that was the envy of his rivals.
He was one of the two main contractors on the Lachine Canal, whose construction began in 1821. He built the dam and locks at Jones Falls, the most difficult section of the Rideau Canal. He helped to raise the first Montreal General Hospital, Notre Dame Basilica and the original Arts Building of McGill University.
He was well on his way to great wealth. He began investing in real estate, shipping and the Bank of Montreal, becoming one of its vice-presidents and directors. Terrace Bank, his palatial home, which began rising on the slopes of Mount Royal in 1837, was one of the city’s showcases.
As the middle of the century approached, Redpath was determined to find some new industrial venture in which to invest his energy and money. He considered a cotton mill, an iron foundry, copper smelting and shipbuilding, but though these industries were lucrative, each was already established in Canada. Then it came to him: sugar manufacturing could also be lucrative, and there was no competition in sight.
Though now in his 50s, Redpath was as vital as ever. Twice, he journeyed to Britain to survey the latest in sugar-making methods, buy what he needed and, in passing, to recruit George Drummond. Back in Montreal, he went looking for a site for his refinery, and found it on the banks of the Lachine Canal.
Montreal was rapidly evolving from a trading city to a manufacturing one, the most important in Canada. Perhaps the critical engine for this change was the canal. Considerably expanded in the 1840s, it was a boon to shipping, of course, but its waters did more than float ships. In addition, they meant energy. The rushing current could be used to turn machinery directly; or heated in large boilers, it could do so indirectly, as steam.
The Lachine Canal, Montreal, about 1910. McCord Museum
Yvon Desloges and Alain Gelly note in their 2002 history of the canal that by choosing to build his refinery next to the St. Gabriel locks, Redpath “pulled off a hat trick.” With his own wharf, he could easily bring in supplies like coal to fire his boilers and raw sugar. But he also had all the water he needed for dissolving and other processes in the actual making of sugar. And, unsettling though it sounds to us today, he had a handy sewer into which he could dump the refinery’s wastes.
“The buildings and apparatus would not cost less than 20,000 pounds, very likely a good deal more,” one of his sons wrote, and Redpath would finance it entirely from his own resources. Montrealers had seen nothing like the eight-storey behemoth that soon started taking shape.
“At one point,” company historian Richard Feltoe writes in his new biography of Redpath, “the growing scale of the complex became so popular as a place of attraction for Montreal citizens, who were repeatedly requesting tours, that it began to interfere with the ongoing work.”
The low-key opening, prompted by the cholera scare that summer of 1854, contrasts with what the refinery represented for Montreal and, indeed, Canada.
“It was the first in a long line of industrial establishments that chose this waterway not for its energy potential but for its prime access to water, a seriously underestimated resource in industrial history,” Desloges and Gelly write. “From that time on, the Lachine Canal increasingly deserved to be referred to as an industrial corridor.”
For a century, that corridor defined industrial Canada as nothing else. But in time, cheap hydro-electricity continued undermining the canal as an energy source, and the St. Lawrence Seaway eliminated its role in navigation.
The factories started closing down. Redpath Sugar, one of the first to arrive, lasted there until 1980. The company, controlled by Britain’s Tate & Lyle since 1959, is now centred in Toronto.
But the Lachine Canal corridor, of course, is not dead. Some industries still hang on, but the corridor’s chief role now is as living space. Pleasure craft have replaced the old canallers, and a ribbon of parkland follows their course. New housing has been rising where once there were smoky factories; the shell of John Redpath’s massive refinery now accommodates condominiums.
Next Saturday and Sunday, the company and Parks Canada mark the 150th anniversary of Redpath’s great venture with an exhibition of Redpath memorabilia at the old refinery site, as well as free guided tours [Note: this is a 2004 story].Related
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