BELL, ROBERT, surveyor, journalist, and politician; b. in 1821, probably in Strabane, County Tyrone, Ireland, son of Robert Bell and Catherine Wallace; m. in 1849 Margaret Waugh Buckham by whom he had two daughters; d. 25 Feb. 1873, in Hull, Que.
Robert Bell’s parents emigrated to New York when he was still young, and in 1832 the family settled on a farm near Kemptville in Upper Canada. He attended local schools and on 16 June 1843 qualified as a provincial land surveyor.
Bell moved to Bytown (Ottawa) and quickly established a sound reputation as a surveyor. He worked at first largely in the immediate Bytown area but in 1847 he undertook a survey of the Chalk River and its branches. In the same year he was chosen to head a party to survey a base line from the Madawaska River at Bark Lake to the northeastern limit of the Home District near the site of Bracebridge, while another party, under John James Haslett, continued the line eastwards to the Bathurst District. The government’s object in ordering the surveys was to open the lands beyond the Midland, Victoria, and Colborne districts for settlement, and Bell was instructed “to project the best site for the road line.” He set off on his difficult journey along what came to be known as Bell’s Line in August 1847 and returned to Bytown in March 1848. He considered the “chief part” of the country he crossed, most of it in present-day Muskoka District and county of Haliburton, as “quite fit for settlement,” but he acknowledged that “the greatest objection that at all exists in respect to the whole territory is the great abundance of Rocks.”
Bell’s last important survey again brought him into the area west of Bytown. In November 1850 he was asked to survey a line for a road from the Ottawa River in Horton Township to Opeongo Lake, a road which, it was hoped, would be continued to Georgian Bay near the mouth of the French River and would open up “the interior of the Ottawa and Huron country, benefitting equally the farmer and the lumberer.” On this expedition, which took from January 1851 to April 1852, Bell found “many tracts of excellent land” and “remarkably well timbered” regions.
He retained an interest in surveying and often advised the assistant commissioner of crown lands, Andrew Russell, on the subject, but Bell’s energies had shifted to journalism. In 1849 he purchased the Bytown Packet from Henry J. Friel* and John Gordon Bell, and in it he expounded his ideas for promoting the settlement of the waste lands between Bytown and Lake Huron and for advancing the interests of Bytown and the Ottawa lumber trade. In February 1851 the newspaper became known as the Ottawa Citizen.
Bell also undertook to promote the construction of a railway from Bytown to Prescott where it would connect with the railway at Ogdensburg, New York. Ottawa valley lumbermen would thus be provided with easier means of transport to the increasingly important American market. Bell was named secretary of the provisional committee of the Bytown and Prescott Railway (later the Ottawa and Prescott Railway) in 1850. When the railway was chartered in 1851 he was named its secretary, and he, more than anyone else, saw to its completion. He was later president of the line for many years.
After serving on the Bytown town council, Bell ran in Russell for the Legislative Assembly as a Reformer in 1854. He was defeated then and again in 1857, but he was successful in 1861. He spoke mainly on railways, acting as a spokesman of the Grand Trunk Railway, and on opening up the area west of Ottawa, and strongly supported Ottawa’s claim for the seat of government. In 1866, however, he became the centre of a bitter controversy. Alexander Tilloch Galt* had promised to extend the educational privileges of the Protestant minority in Canada East. Although he was himself a Presbyterian, Bell brought in a bill to extend to the Roman Catholics of Canada West educational privileges equal to those obtained by Galt, “a proposition so fair,” he thought, “that no man, whether Catholic or Protestant, would object to it.” There were loud cries of outrage from Protestants in Canada West who saw Richard William Scott*’s bill of 1863 as the final compromise on the separate school question in Canada West. Egerton Ryerson*, the superintendent of education in Canada West, stated that the bill was “the most disingenuous, partial and execrable that can be conceived.” Thomas Scatcherd and George Brown fought it in the assembly, and Hector Langevin*, who had introduced Galt’s bill, privately considered it “the stupidest imaginable from a parliamentary point of view . . . .” When the French members from Canada East threatened to vote against Galt’s bill unless Bell’s was also passed and the members from Canada West threatened to do the same if Bell’s was passed, both bills were withdrawn. Galt resigned from the ministry and the Protestants of Quebec entered confederation with a constitutional protection, added at the London conference in late 1866, “the precise terms of which had not the benefit of discussion and sanction of parliament.”
Bell ran for the House of Commons for Ottawa City in 1867 but his wife was ailing and he was kept from the hustings and defeated. He had given up the editorship of the Citizen to I. B. Taylor in 1861 and had sold the newspaper to him in 1865, the same year that the Ottawa and Prescott Railway, of which he was still president, was foreclosed by the bondholders. Disheartened he retired. After his wife’s death in 1868 he went to live with a daughter in Hull, “sunk altogether out of the ken of the world,” and died there at the age of 52.
Ontario, Department of Lands and Forests, Surveys office, field note books, nos.86, 1895, 2202, 2203; Instructions to land surveyors, from 6 Nov. 1844 to 24 Oct. 1861, pp.93–96, 171–73; map no.020–24, B38. PAC, RG 31, A1, 1851, Ottawa City, West Ward, 270. PAO, RG 1, A-I-6, 22, 24–29; A-V, 9. Canada, Province of, Parliamentary debates, 1861–66. Muskoka and Haliburton (Murray). Packet (Bytown), 1849–51. R. W. Scott, Recollections of Bytown; some incidents in the history of Ottawa (Ottawa, ), 3–9. Times (Ottawa), 26 Feb. 1873. Can. parl. comp., 1864. Mitchell & Co’s county of Carleton and Ottawa city directory, for 1864–5 (Toronto, 1864). “The Ottawa Citizen” directory of Ottawa . . . 1863 (Ottawa, n.d.). Ottawa city and counties of Carleton and Russell directory, 1866–7, comp. James Sutherland (Ottawa, 1866). H. R. Cummings, Early days in Haliburton (Toronto, 1963), 3–4, 7–13, 178–80. Andrée Désilets, Hector-Louis Langevin, un père de la confédération canadienne (1826–1906) (Les cahiers de l’Institut d’histoire, 14, Québec, 1969), 153–55, 226. J. L. Gourlay, History of the Ottawa valley, a collection of facts . . . events and reminiscences for over half a century (n.p., 1896), 124–26. C. B. Sissons, Church & state in Canadian education; [an historical study] (Toronto, 1959), 138–41. “Robert Bell,” Ont. Land Surveyors Assoc., Annual Report (Toronto), no.40 (1925), 106–9. “William Bell,” Ont. Land Surveyors Assoc., Annual Report (Toronto), no.38 (1923), 135–38.