November 27, 2012

Charles Melville Hays: More Than Just Trains

Charles Melville Hays was a prime architect of the great Canadian railroad expansion. Hays was born in Rock Island, Illinois, on May 16, 1856. At the age of 17, he joined "the road" in the office of the superintendent of the Missouri Pacific Railway. He was identified early in his career as a rising star because of his great enthusiasm. He married Clara J., daughter of William H Gregg of St-Louis, on October 13, 1881. In 1884, he moved to the Wabash St-Louis and Pacific Railway as secretary to the general manager. Hays was appointed general manager of the entire Wabash Railway system following an 1889 reorganisation.

Grand Trunk was financed by British capital. The board of directors met in London, England and decisions affecting the road were made overseas. This absence proved inefficient. Company directors were never fully aware of the day-to-day problems of running a Canadian railway. In an effort to improve operations, general manager L.J. Seargent moved to England to serve as board advisor. Grand Trunk then invited Hays to fill the vacant position. He accepted the offer without hesitation.

His mandate was to improve the balance sheet for the railway's shareholders. While this rebuilding process may have dismayed lesser men, Hays accepted the challenge with his legendary enthusiasm. No detail escaped his critical eye. He hired many Americans and imposed a faster, more informal style. Always the first into the office, he was a tireless manager, listening to everyone from his colleagues to engine drivers.

Hays recognized the need for a Grand Trunk transcontinental railway due to the tremendous growth in western Canada. He knew competitors such as CP and the Canadian Northern Railway would drive Grand Trunk out of business unless action was taken. In 1903, with support of the Liberal government of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway was formed to complete a route to the Pacific Ocean.

Hays saw more to the railways than just trains. He envisioned grand hotels and railway stations situated at key points along the line to complement the trains. CP had shown that hotels such as Quebec City's Château Frontenac and the Banff Springs Hotel in the Canadian Rockies were popular and profitable business ventures.

Fairmont Château Laurier
Hays' initial plans called for construction of seven hotels. The flagship hotel would be built in the nation's capital. Designed in an attractive French Gothic style, the Château Laurier would be built in the center of the city next to Parliament Hill. The train station would be located directly across the street and would be connected by an underground tunnel.

An early supporter was Sir Wilfrid Laurier, who saw this project as a way to add prestige to Canada's capital. Naming the hotel after Sir Wilfrid was an unusual distinction as his Liberal government was still in power. The Château's lobby would be (and still is) adorned with a marble bust of its namesake.

In the spring of 1912, Hays sailed to Britain with his wife Clara, his daughter Orian, 28, and her husband Thornton Davidson. Davidson was a 32 year-old stockbroker and former hockey player of the Montreal Victorias who was being groomed for an executive position with Grand Trunk.

They were invited to make the return trip as the private guests of White Star chairman J. Bruce Ismay on the ill-fated Titanic. Hays gladly accepted an invitation to travel on the lavish ship, as it was scheduled to arrive in New York in time for the Château's grand opening.

Fate dealt the opening ceremonies a heavy hand the night of April 14 when the White Star liner R.M.S. Titanic grazed an iceberg. Within three hours, the so-called unsinkable ship sank, taking the life of Grand Trunk president Charles Melville Hays. There was initial hope for Hays after a wireless message was received in Montreal claiming he survived. The truth emerged in the headlines of the Montreal Daily Star when they announced: "ABANDON HOPE FOR C.M. HAYS."

The entire Grand Trunk system halted for five minutes at 11:30 a.m. on Thursday, April 25 to pay silent tribute to the late president while a memorial service was being held at the American Presbyterian Church in Montreal. All opening ceremonies of the Château were cancelled once the news of the disaster reached Ottawa. It was not until six weeks later that a modest opening was held and Sir Wilfrid Laurier was the first to sign the register.

1 comment:

Penicillin Man said...

Thornton Davidson was more than just a shadow of his father-in-law being groomed for an executive position with Grand Trunk. He was a successful businessman in his own right who had founded his own stockbroking company at the age of 26 and was a member of the Montreal Stock Exchange which closed in his honour as a mark of respect when he died. He was regarded as one of the shrewdest and most progressive of its younger members. He was an active sportsman, excelling in hockey and sailing. He was also considered to be genial as a man and was popular among a wide circle of people. As a businessman and athlete, he was one of the best known young men in Montreal in 1912. He deserves greater recognition.

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