Hugh McLennan was the son of a Scot who came to Upper Canada in 1802, settled in Glengarry County, served as an officer in the militia during the War of 1812, and then taught school until he retired in 1823. Hugh attended a Glengarry County common school. In 1842, at age 17, he moved to Montreal to work as a purser on steamers running between Montreal and Kingston, Upper Canada. This employment marked the beginning of his long and successful career in the shipping business.
In 1850 McLennan was promoted and he spent a year in Kingston as a freight agent. He then returned to Montreal. For a young man intent on making his fortune in the transportation business, Montreal was the place to be in the 1850s. Starting in the late 1830s the city had participated on a grand scale in the “North American transportation revolution.” The St Lawrence canal system had been developed and an expanding railway network connected Montreal to the Canadian interior, where farmers were experiencing their own agricultural revolution. Within a decade, Montreal was the “economic heart” of Canada, the point from which western wheat and flour were exported to consumers overseas. The demand for Canadian grain abroad further increased during the Crimean War in 1854 when Britain was cut off from Russian supplies.
McLennan took full advantage of the lucrative opportunities available. In 1853 he and his brother John founded the firm J. and H. McLennan, a grain and shipping company. The business was expanded in 1869 and was incorporated on 21 May of that year as the Montreal Transportation Company. Capitalized at $120,000, the firm quickly emerged as one of the major shipping ventures in the city. Its main shareholders included the McLennan brothers, Thomas Rimmer of Montreal, and Murdoch Laing, a Kingston merchant. Hugh McLennan was its president until his death in 1899. By 1903 the company’s stock was valued at $500,000.
The Montreal Transportation Company’s prominent position in the Montreal business community made McLennan a popular candidate for directorships. He was a director of the Bank of Montreal, the Canada Paper Company, the British America Fire and Life Assurance Company, and the Sun Life, and he was a petitioner for incorporation of various other insurance companies. He served as president of the International Coal Company Ltd and the Black Diamond Steamship Company and as vice-president of the Williams Manufacturing Company. He had investments in the Montreal Street Railway Company, the Montreal Gas Company, and the Montreal Rolling Mills Company.
Like other Montreal merchants of this era, McLennan worked diligently to enhance the city’s commercial status. He was president of the Montreal Board of Trade from 1872 to 1874, and its representative on the Montreal Harbour Commission from 1873 to 1897. In this latter capacity, he actively lobbied the federal government for funds to improve the city’s harbour facilities; for some years he was concerned in particular with the vital deepening of the St Lawrence River channel between Montreal and Quebec.
McLennan, a successful businessman, and his family were naturally members of Montreal’s English-speaking establishment. He supported the Art Association of Montreal and at the time of his death was a governor of McGill University. A member of the St Andrew’s Society, he was its president in 1885–86. He was active in numerous Protestant benevolent societies such as the Montreal Sailors’ Institute and in the Montreal Auxiliary Bible Society. He also enjoyed travelling in Europe for business and pleasure.
McLennan was well liked and respected by all who knew him. He was, as the Montreal Board of Trade noted at the time of his passing, “a man of the finest type, not only in his mental endowments . . . but in his unblemished integrity and fine sense of honour.” Two of his sons in particular upheld the tradition of success that he had established: John Stewart*, who took up residence in Nova Scotia, was an industrialist, publisher, and author of a history of Louisbourg, and he was appointed to the Senate in 1916; William* was also an author of note and a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.
ANQ-M, CE1-115, 23 nov. 1899; CM1, 2/15, août 1898–octobre 1900. Can., Dept. of Consumer and Corporate Affairs, Corporations Branch (Hull, Que.), Records, liber G: f.145, letters patent of the Montreal Transportation Company, 21 May 1869; liber 160: f.447, letters patent of the Montreal Transportation Company, 21 Dec. 1903. Montreal Board of Trade Arch., Minute-books, general minute-book, 13 May 1897: 310; 25 Jan. 1898: 318–19; 30 Jan. 1900: 384. NA, MG 26, A: 56364–65, 234307–8, 241525, 242127; MG 27, I, E8, H. McLennan to J. McLennan, 16 March, 3, 14 April 1886. Montreal Board of Trade, Centennial report (Montreal, 1893). Gazette (Montreal), 22 Nov. 1899. Monetary Times, 24 Nov. 1899. Montreal Daily Star, 22 Nov. 1899. La Presse, 22 nov. 1899. Canadian directory of parl. (Johnson). Wallace, Macmillan dict. Atherton, Montreal, 2: 380–81, 480, 510, 546, 595. J. M. S. Careless, The union of the Canadas: the growth of Canadian institutions, 1841–1857 (Toronto, 1967). Tulchinsky, River barons.