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AGNEW, JOHN LYONS, refinery worker and industrialist; b. 28 July 1884 in Pittsburgh, Pa, one of the four children of John Lyons Agnew and Nannie Moore; m. 14 Dec. 1910 Mary Edmonson Milward (d. 1956) in Lexington, Ky, and they had two daughters and a son; d. during the night of 8–9 July 1931 in Copper Cliff (Sudbury), Ont.

Information about John Lyons Agnew’s early life and background is limited. His father, John Lyons Agnew Sr, was a native of Ireland whose family immigrated to York (Toronto) in the 1830s. John Sr married in 1864, but he was soon widowed and travelled south. By 1870 he was working as a founder in Kentucky, where he married Nannie Moore. Something of a rolling stone, he was in Pittsburgh by the mid 1870s, earning a living variously as a travelling agent, oil broker, oil merchant, and mining engineer. In 1892 he was hired to fill a supervisory position at the Homestead Steel Works during the infamous Homestead strike. What followed was a brief period of heady days for the Agnews. Serving as a foreman in the armour-plate department, John Sr became acquainted with William Ellis Corey and Charles Michael Schwab, both of whom would rise to fame at the United States Steel Corporation, where they may have influenced John Jr’s career. When Homestead Steel rehired employees after the strike, the family’s social and economic status declined; Agnew, perhaps shunned as a strike-breaker, was reduced to selling insurance. He died in 1897, and his widow made ends meet by taking in boarders.

Reports suggest that the fluctuations John Lyons Agnew Jr experienced in childhood left indelible impressions on him, notably a commitment to steady employment of rising rank. Although he had lived in five different homes, he managed to complete his high-school education in Pittsburgh around 1902. Having grown up, as the New York Times (10 July 1931) would later put it, in a “metallurgical atmosphere,” he began his working life at the United Engineering and Foundry Company in that city. Let go because of a recession, he moved to Copper Cliff, apparently with assistance from E. F. Wood, formerly at Homestead Steel and now first vice-president of the International Nickel Company in New Jersey, set up in 1902. In mid February 1904 Agnew was hired by the Canadian Copper Company [see Samuel J. Ritchie*; Almon Penfield Turner*], a subsidiary. Described as “physically robust,” he began as a labourer on the charge floor of the Ontario Smelting Works, first as a wheelbarrowman and a tapper, and continued in “practically every capacity and every department of the Copper Cliff smelter,” according to company lore. The CCC seemingly valued practical experience since Agnew and another smelterman, Donald MacAskill, would ascend to the upper ranks of INCO in the 1920s. Agnew’s skills apparently hastened his advancement: the Sudbury Star would later recall how “his training [was] qualifying him for rapid promotion in the swiftly growing nickel-copper industry of the Sudbury district.” Agnew’s links, however tenuous, to executives in the American steel industry may also have been influential; in any case, his climb up the corporate ladder made him a legend.

In 1910 Agnew also enhanced his stature through marriage into one of the prominent business families of Lexington, Ky. He had roots there: his father had lived near the city in the 1870s, and his mother was from the state. Reports of the nuptials in the Lexington Leader (15 Dec. 1910) described him as “a rising young businessman, holding a prominent position with the Canadian Copper Company.” Contemporary photographs and statements, such as American military draft documents, reveal that he was tall, stout, dark-eyed, and dark-haired, if slowly balding.

A man of vision and drive, Agnew rose quite quickly in the CCC hierarchy. He had a strong enthusiasm for work – the 1911 census has him claiming 70-hour workweeks – and was famous among his acquaintances for his remarkable memory. These qualities and his tireless energy were noted by his superiors, and by June 1911 Agnew was smelter superintendent; his salary was at least $3,000 for that year, a figure beyond the dreams of smeltermen. Having won attention with his “executive ability in keeping up output,” he had been promoted general superintendent by 1913. He focused on organizational strategies and the modernization of local ore processing, managing an administrative structure that became increasingly complex when nickel production surged, after a cautionary pause, following the outbreak of World War I in August 1914. He also became a public figure outside the business world, acting as skip for the first game at the new Copper Cliff Curling Club on 14 Dec. 1915.

The next year, on 25 July, the International Nickel Company of Canada Limited came into being, and on 6 Jan. 1917 the firm was licensed as the Canadian subsidiary of the U.S. entity. The CCC was absorbed by the mining and smelting division of INCO Canada and then dissolved on 26 Feb. 1919. Agnew found himself running what had been an entire firm. He took on the titles of vice-president of INCO Canada and general manager of its mining and smelting works. Reporting to Canadian president Arthur Dorland Miles, Agnew oversaw operations that slowed dramatically after the war’s end and almost halted in 1922; production had been centred on war materiel, so new products and markets had to be pursued. The slowdowns brought more, if rather unwanted, attention: Agnew provided the 1919 royal commission on industrial relations in Canada with a somewhat too rosy summary of mine conditions and employees’ attitudes. He reported that the workforce was “satisfied,” with no need of a union.

The 1920s saw Agnew in the midst of interesting times in the nickel industry. There was much to do at INCO, and over the years and for various durations Agnew served on the executive bodies of INCO-related firms. He was president of the Huronian Company, vice-president of International Sales Limited, and deputy chairman and director of the Ontario Refining Company. He also dabbled in outside business, being a director of the Menago Mining Company, the Mond Nickel Company, the Smith and Travers Company, the Victor Syndicate, and the Bank of Toronto. He held offices in organizations such as the Canadian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, the Ontario Mining Association, the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers, and the British Institution of Mining and Metallurgy, and was a member of several golf, yachting, and tennis clubs.

Agnew’s services gained further recognition in 1921 when he was named president and general manager of INCO Canada and a member of the senior management board of the American parent company. The family moved to Park Street, one of the best neighbourhoods in Copper Cliff, and their home became the centre for society gatherings. By the following February INCO president Robert Crooks Stanley had decided that Agnew was his key man in Canada. More corporate reorganization on 3 March resulted in his election to the board of directors of the parent company, and he would hold this position and the leadership of INCO Canada until yet another change took effect on 17 Dec. 1928.

Corporate paternalism meant that Agnew also supported many local pursuits ranging from horticulture (an award bore his name) to baseball. He was instrumental in creating the Quarter Century Club, which recognized long-serving employees and won glowing publicity for pensions. Some efforts were both promotional and practical: for example, he put up a trophy for competitions among crews responsible for safety and rescue. He also made time for interests outside business: a self-described lover of literature and coffee connoisseur, he was an ardent golfer and tennis player who eventually belonged to some 20 clubs in Canada, the United States, and Great Britain. In 1922 he had a key role in establishing the Idlewylde Golf and Country Club, the first such organization in the Sudbury region.

These myriad activities gave him international status. As president of the Canadian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, he hosted the Second (Triennial) Empire Mining and Metallurgical Congress, during which delegates visited Canada for over a month in the summer of 1927. Attention grew, as did praise: the Canadian Mining and Metallurgical Bulletin would later recall that during the event Agnew had “demonstrate[d], as never before, his unusual ability, amounting to genius, as an organizer and administrator.” The Bulletin concluded that no one was more influential in INCO’s post-war success than Agnew, who had led the company in its creation of new markets.

Tenure in his various positions and the accompanying plaudits coincided with the next reorganization of operations when an exchange of shares saw the International Nickel Company of Canada Limited acquire control of the American firm the International Nickel Company. The latter was restructured as the International Nickel Company Incorporated. Initiated on 31 Oct. 1928 and finalized in December, this process made INCO Canada the parent firm effective 1 Jan. 1929. By 1 July that year INCO had taken over Mond Nickel in a series of stock and legal manoeuvres. As INCO’s vice-president and managing director, Agnew now held great sway over a business controlling all but a tiny fraction of world nickel production.

These corporate transactions were paralleled by increased marketing strategies – INCO had begun advertising in 1919 but significantly boosted its efforts during the later 1920s – and an expansion and modernization of Canadian operations. Directed by Stanley and with close attention from Agnew, the company aggressively commercialized new applications. By 1928 sales of Monel (a nickel-copper alloy) represented one-fifth of INCO’s revenues; advancement of nickel silver and some dozen other products reflected diversification. In 1930 Agnew would tell members of the Toronto branch of the Canadian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy that they were witness to the “rebirth of nickel as an industrial rather than a war metal.”

Naturally, mineral production also mattered: Sudbury-area works sometimes flourished and sometimes were retired. Agnew spearheaded $52 million in expenditures, including the expansion of the Huronian Company’s hydroelectric facilities, notably a new site on the Spanish River; the resulting reservoir was called Agnew Lake. Older hydroelectric operations were also enlarged, and Agnew negotiated the purchase of electricity from the Ontario Power Service Corporation development at Abitibi Canyon. In southern Ontario the decade-old nickel refinery at Port Colborne was modernized. Closer to home, Agnew’s positive report on the potential of the Frood mine [see Thomas Frood*], written in 1924, finally resulted in action thanks to the Mond Nickel merger five years later. Frood became INCO’s largest ore producer. According to new corporate policy there would be no company town; the decision ultimately made Sudbury less of a regional centre and more of a city closely tied to the nickel industry. Overall, the improvements allowed production to skyrocket, reaching almost twice the wartime record by 1929.

No less importantly, Agnew, MacAskill, and mechanical expert George Ralph Craig toured various American facilities in 1927, a trip that was part of the plan for developing the Ontario Refining Company’s electrolytic-copper initiative at Copper Cliff. On 22 April 1929 Agnew’s work gained public recognition when he laid the first brick of the refinery stack, which upon completion stood as the tallest in the British empire. A deal with Canadian Industries Limited to produce nitre cake alongside the plant was an additional feather in his cap.

Agnew’s responsibilities and INCO executive meetings necessitated frequent travel throughout Ontario and to the United States, and his supervision of the Mond Nickel Company’s operations in Wales took him to Britain in 1929 and 1930. Fatigue related to these trips may have hastened his death; photographs show him gaining weight and appearing less healthy. There were other pressures: after long insisting that the markets were sound, in October 1930 Agnew had to announce production cuts. In 1931 he again sailed for Britain, went on to Bremen, Germany, and returned to Copper Cliff via New York only two weeks before his death. For all his energies, Agnew could not overcome heart problems. After arriving home on 8 July 1931 from a quick round trip to New York, he remarked that he felt unwell and retired early. He died during the night. The cause of death was given as coronary thrombosis linked to heart disease dating from influenza in 1918 and a recent bout of the same illness.

Suggestions as to Agnew’s personality are few and rather contradictory. He would be remembered in the pro-INCO Sudbury Star for his “outward shell of driving force and ruthless power” and in the Canadian Mining Journal for the way he “cut through superficialities” in a manner “almost disconcerting” – fairly strong language for admiring obituaries. Some observers found him a bit too frank, or “terse,” as he was labelled by long-time friend Charles McCrea, provincial minister of mines from 1930 to 1934. One anecdote recalled that he was swift to issue a “bawling out.” However, another source described him as full of “joie de vivre” and an “excellent conversationalist” possessing “great charm of manner.”

Agnew’s brief and simple funeral was held in his home on 11 July. Some 500 floral tributes and thousands of telegrams bespoke his legacy as “one of the dominating figures in the development of the present worldwide nickel industry” (New York Times, 10 July 1931). Ironically, after a lengthy career in Canada and his recent acquisition of citizenship, his body was transported by private railcar for burial alongside his parents in Homewood Cemetery, among members of the Pittsburgh elite.

Peter V. Krats

John Lyons Agnew is the author of “Presidential address,” Canadian Instit. of Mining and Metallurgy, Trans. (Montreal), 30 (1927): 9–11.

AO, RG 80-8-0-1301, no.31856. LAC, Census returns for the 1911 Canadian census, Nipissing, Ont., Copper Cliff, subdist.95: 33. Globe, 12 March 1929, 10 July 1931, 19 Dec. 1956. Sudbury Star (Sudbury, Ont.), 1910–33. W. H. Baldwin, “The story of nickel,” Journal of Chemical Education (Easton, Pa), 8 (1931): 1749–61, 1954–68, 2325–40. Matt Bray and Angus Gilbert, “The Mond-International Nickel merger of 1929: a case study in entrepreneurial failure,” CHR, 76 (1995): 19–42. Canadian Mining and Metallurgical Bull. (Montreal), nos.225 (January 1931), 232 (August 1931). Canadian Mining Journal (Gardenvale, Que.), 1907–31. Donald Dennie, “Sudbury, 1883–1946: a social historical study of property and class” (phd thesis, Carleton Univ., Ottawa, 1989). Charles Dorian, The first 75 years: a headline history of Sudbury, Canada (Ilfracombe, Eng., [1959]). INCO Triangle, September 1936; May, October 1937; July, September 1945; April 1956; July 1959; April 1965; September 1990 (available online at “INCO Triangle digital archives”: www.sudburymuseums.ca/triangle). International Nickel Company, Annual report (Bayonne, N.J., etc.), 1905–31 (1905–20 available online at www.hathitrust.org). J. F. Diffenbacher’s directory of Pittsburgh and Allegheny cities, Pittsburgh, Pa, 1877/78, 1884/85–97/98. E. P. Lassiter, Corporate data of the International Nickel Company of Canada, Ltd. and its subsidiary, affiliated and predecessor companies ([Toronto], 1960). O. W. Main, The Canadian nickel industry: a study in market control and public policy (Toronto, 1955). Ont., Legislature, Sessional papers, 1914–33 (annual reports of the Dept. of Mines, 1914–33). Standard dict. of Canadian biog. (Roberts and Tunnell), vol.1. J. F. Thompson and Norman Beasley, For the years to come: a story of International Nickel of Canada (New York and Toronto, 1960).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Peter V. Krats, “AGNEW, JOHN LYONS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed November 23, 2017, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/agnew_john_lyons_16E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/agnew_john_lyons_16E.html
Author of Article: Peter V. Krats
Title of Article: AGNEW, JOHN LYONS
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 2017
Year of revision: 2017
Access Date: November 23, 2017