STROBRIDGE (Strowbridge), JAMES GORDON, civil engineer and contractor; b. 1788 in Solon, N.Y.; m. Nancy Mayberry, and they had six sons and two daughters; d. 10 March 1833 in Hamilton, Upper Canada.
An engineer, James Gordon Strobridge moved from the United States to Upper Canada in 1824 to become a contractor on the Burlington Bay Canal. This project, authorized and financed by the provincial government and under the supervision of canal commissioners, was to create a cut across Burlington Beach to provide the hinterland around Dundas with direct access to Lake Ontario. Although only a third of a mile long, the canal was to be of superior construction with piers on both Burlington Bay (Hamilton Harbour) and Lake Ontario.
Strobridge, in partnership with Captain John McKeen, began work on the cut during the summer of 1824. William Lyon Mackenzie* inspected their progress and was dismayed to find the “Goths and Vandals” despoiling the adjacent forests. In September Captain McKeen contracted typhus and died, leaving Strobridge solely responsible for the canal. Nevertheless, by October a cut had been made down to the level of the lake.
Throughout 1825 dredging machinery was used to dig the cut down to the specified 12 feet. It only remained to complete the two piers and install the decking and handrails. However, disquieting reports were surfacing about Strobridge’s ability to complete the project. The superintendent engineer, Francis Hall, reported to the canal commissioners in February 1826 that the construction of the breakwater alone had already cost nearly one-half the original contract price for the whole project. According to Hall, the breakwater on Lake Ontario faced such strong currents and waves that its construction had proved “hazardous and expensive, beyond all calculations.” Nevertheless, Strobridge had used the weather to his advantage and during the winter of 1825–26 he had had stone hauled across the frozen lake to the work site. Eventually, he overcame the engineering difficulties in constructing the piers and breakwater.
Financial difficulties were another matter. In February 1827 the provincial government authorized a further £8,000 for the project. But in the spring of that year the canal was abruptly taken out of Strobridge’s hands, and he was required to give securities to the government before any additional monies were paid to him. Attorney General John Beverley Robinson* prepared the securities for Strobridge. It is a comment on the prevailing business morality that in March Strobridge sent him £4 in the hope of “more favours at your hands.” Somewhat higher standards prevailed in the government; Robinson retained one pound for preparing the bond and returned the rest.
The valuation of the works became a continual matter of contention between Strobridge and the government. In 1828 arbitrators were appointed to determine the value of construction. They arrived at a figure of £3,000, which the canal commissioners proved reluctant to pay. After unsuccessfully invoking the courts in his behalf, Strobridge was sued by his own creditors and forced into debtors’ jail by April 1829. From these unpleasant confines he petitioned Lieutenant Governor John Colborne*, who finally authorized the payment. In 1831 the legislature allowed him an additional £2,356.
During the course of his struggle for compensation, Strobridge had developed an interest in reform politics. In January 1829 he actively solicited names for a petition in favour of Francis Collins, a journalist who had been imprisoned for libel and an implacable foe of the provincial administration. He was called before the House of Assembly to explain his part in the so-called “Hamilton Outrage” of 29 Jan. 1829 – the hanging in effigy of the lieutenant governor allegedly over his refusal to release Collins. George Gurnett*’s pro-government Gore Gazette, in a reference to Strobridge, asked why “foreigners who came into the province, as it were, but yesterday” were allowed to undermine legitimate authoritet the government did not consider Strobridge dangerous and, in fact, welcomed debate on the canal. Robinson hoped it would “create a diversion from the Alien question and divide the interest during the session – a pleasing variety!”
Not satisfied with the 1831 settlement, Strobridge, with Collins’s encouragement, went to York in 1833 to petition the legislature for interest on the unpaid amount. While there, he was seized by the sheriff for failing to pay outstanding debts and was once again cast into jail. Collins secured his release, but only two days later Strobridge succumbed to a fever contracted while in prison. His widow, Nancy, pursued the claims unsuccessfully, up to 1836.
The tenacity which James Strobridge brought to his crusade for just payment was also reflected in his work as an engineer. When in 1826 a hostile Lake Ontario threatened to smash the unfinished breakwater, Strobridge, watching grimly, saw that the caissons had been sunk deep enough to withstand the pounding. Francis Hall observed that “every part thereof, has been so severely tested, that the practicability of the measure and permanence of the works even in their unfinished state is now beyond doubt.”
AO, RG 4, A-1, Strobridge to J. B. Robinson, 3 March 1827; RG 22, ser.204, no.177, 11 May 1833. PAC, RG 5, A1, J. G. Strobridge to Sir John Colborne, 10 April 1829; J. B. Robinson to –, n.d. “Ancaster parish records, 1830–1838,” comp. John Miller, OH, 5 (1904): 122–23. U.C., House of Assembly, Journal, 1829: 31; 1831–32, app.: 178; Statutes, 1827, c.19; 1828, c.12; 1831, c.21. Colonial Advocate, 27 May, 29 July, 27 Oct. 1824; 29 Dec. 1825; 2 March, 1 June 1826; 21 March 1833. Gore Gazette, and Ancaster, Hamilton, Dundas and Flamborough Advertiser (Ancaster, [Ont.]), 24 Jan. 1829. Death notices of Ont. (Reid), 258.