CALVIN, HIRAM AUGUSTUS, timber merchant, shipbuilder, and politician; b. 6 April 1851 on Garden Island, Upper Canada, son of Dileno Dexter Calvin* and Marion Maria Breck; m. 22 April 1879 Annie Wenham Marsh in Quebec City, and they had five sons and two daughters; d. 13 January 1932 at his home in Toronto.
Hiram Augustus Calvin, a child of his father’s second of three marriages, was born on 65-acre Garden Island, about two miles south of Kingston. In 1844 Dileno Dexter, a timber merchant originally from Vermont, had moved his family and businesses from Clayton, N.Y., to the island, where he had been renting land since 1836. He chose it because of its position at the entrance to the St Lawrence River and the excellent harbour on its southeast side. Oak and pine logs from the Great Lakes region were delivered there and formed into huge rafts that were towed to Quebec City and sold for export to Great Britain. Garden Island was a self-contained community of more than 700 people with its own school, post office, general store, and other amenities.
A Baptist, Hiram graduated from the Canadian Literary Institute in Woodstock, Ont., and then obtained a ba at Queen’s College, in Kingston. In 1871 he joined his father’s firm, then known as Calvin and Breck, and two years later he acquired a 25 per cent interest in it. Though the company was primarily involved in timber forwarding, it also engaged in towing, salvaging, and wrecking. Its distinctive bright green vessels, with white trim and black funnels, have been described as “sturdy and conservative.” The fleet consisted of schooners, steamers, lake barges, and tug steamers, many of them built at the family’s own shipyard during the winters. Calvin and Breck had sold its square timber solely in Quebec City until 1868, when it also began shipping directly to Great Britain; to this end an ocean craft, the Garden Island, was built in 1877.
In 1880 D. D. Calvin’s brother-in-law and partner, Ira Allen Breck, retired. Hiram, who had left the company in 1877, rejoined the partnership, which changed its name to Calvin and Son. He displayed, one of his sons would recall, a “single-hearted devotion” to the firm and was known to spend long hours working; on Christmas Day of 1878, for example, he was seen writing many “important business letters.” When the family patriarch died in 1884, the younger Calvin assumed leadership. Two years later the enterprise was incorporated as the Calvin Company Limited, and he was named a director. A subsidiary, the Kingston Shipping Company, would be set up in 1907 with the involvement of the Richardson family of Kingston [see James Richardson*] to compete in the lucrative Great Lakes transportation market.
Like his father before him, Calvin was reeve and magistrate on Garden Island; he also served on the Frontenac County Council for 12 years. After winning a by-election in Frontenac in 1892, he sat in the House of Commons as an independent Conservative until 1896. On 20 March of that year he voted against Sir Charles Tupper*’s remedial bill in the matter of the Manitoba school question [see Thomas Greenway*]. He did not seek nomination when parliament was dissolved a few months later, but would return to represent the constituency again as a Conservative from 1900 to 1904. He would be a trustee of Queen’s for more than 40 years and would also act as a governor of Kingston General Hospital and as vice-chairman of the School of Mining and Agriculture in Kingston. A committed member of the city’s First Baptist Church, he was involved in its various building programs.
Though the Calvin Company had become a limited-liability company by incorporating, it remained a family firm. Family members held shares and received yearly dividends, even if they were not active in day-to-day operations. Concerned about their income, they were reluctant to let the firm invest in new directions and technology, despite the fact that the export market for timber had been depressed since the early 1870s. Minutes from the company’s annual meetings in the 1890s reveal disputes over Calvin’s desire to move into grain and lumber. The company had been slow to switch from wind to steam power, and it continued to build small wooden vessels until 1901, decisions that resulted in the loss of shipping contracts. This unwillingness to adapt to changing conditions likely contributed to the erosion of the firm’s wealth. The balance sheets show a decline starting in 1887 and a deficit in 1911. While others who had been involved in the timber trade, such as John Rudolphus Booth*, decided to turn to other ventures in this period, the Calvin Company stubbornly stayed with what it perceived to be its competitive strength.
The time came when its profits would not support its required dividend payments to shareholders, and in 1913 the company chose to wrap up its affairs. The last Calvin-built ship had been launched in 1906, and the last raft floated down to Quebec City in 1911. In 1913 Kingston Shipping was liquidated, its one vessel, the Prince Rupert, being sold to the Montreal Transportation Company Limited [see Hugh McLennan*]. Calvin received a seat on this firm’s board of directors as well as 750 shares in exchange. The Calvin Company transferred an additional four vessels to Montreal Transportation and shut down operations at the start of World War I.
Hiram Augustus Calvin died of pneumonia in Toronto, where he had moved in 1920. Two of his sons gained notice for significant accomplishments. Collamer Chipman received mention in dispatches for his role in the attack at Zeebrugge, Belgium, in 1918 and would later become one of Canada’s best corporate lawyers. Dileno Dexter, named for his grandfather, was a well-known architect and writer; in 1945 he published A saga of the St. Lawrence …, an account of the timber trade and the role of three generations of the Calvin family in the business.
M. C. Boyd, The story of Garden Island, ed. M. A. Boyd (Kingston, Ont., 1973). D. D. Calvin, A saga of the St. Lawrence: timber & shipping through three generations (Toronto, 1945). Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1898). T. R. Glover and D. D. Calvin, A corner of empire: the old Ontario strand (Toronto and Cambridge, Eng., 1937). Cheryl McWatters, “A counter-example in the development of Great Lakes shipping: the case of Kingston Shipping Company Limited,” Accounting Hist. (London), 7 (2002), 2: 59–92; “The evolution of the profit concept: one organization’s experience,” Accounting Historians Journal (Cleveland, Ohio), 20 (1993), 2: 31–65; “Management accounting and the Calvin Company: a case study,” Accounting, Business & Financial Hist. (Abingdon, Eng.), 5 (1995): 39–70. H. C. Pentland, Labour and capital in Canada, 1650–1860, ed. and intro. Paul Phillips (Toronto, 1981). M. S. Salmon, “‘A prosperous season’: investment in Canadian Great Lakes shipping, 1900–1914,” in “A fully accredited ocean”: essays on the Great Lakes, ed. Victoria Brehm (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1998), 107–54. Donald Swainson, “Calvin, Dileno Dexter,” DCB, XI; Garden Island: a shipping empire ([Kingston], 1980); “Garden Island rafting and shipbuilding enterprises,” Canadian Encyclopedia, 2: 873.
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Cite This Article
C. Ian Kyer, “CALVIN, HIRAM AUGUSTUS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 3, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/calvin_hiram_augustus_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:
|Author of Article:||C. Ian Kyer|
|Title of Article:||CALVIN, HIRAM AUGUSTUS|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||2016|
|Year of revision:||2016|
|Access Date:||June 3, 2023|