DESJARDINS, PETER (Pierre), businessman; b. 1775 in Nesle, France; d. unmarried 7 Sept. 1827 in Grimsby, Upper Canada.
A royalist refugee from the French revolution, Peter Desjardins emigrated from England in the spring of 1792 and arrived in Upper Canada that fall. He settled at Newark (Niagara-on-the-Lake), where he clerked for John MacKay, a minor local merchant. By 1802 he had left MacKay and Company, possibly because of a civil suit for debt which MacKay successfully brought against him in that year. Desjardins was described in the action as a yeoman, late of Saltfleet Township. The same year he became a clerk to James Durand, the new owner of the Bridgewater Works near Chippawa. For a brief time he supervised Durand’s enterprises in Norfolk County before moving to the Head of the Lake (the vicinity of present-day Hamilton Harbour), probably with Durand, in 1805. Desjardins took up residence in the village of Coote’s Paradise (Dundas). Although Durand’s son Charles Morrison later recalled that Desjardins had served his father until 1812, in 1808 Desjardins moved into the household of another of MacKay’s former clerks, Richard Hatt*.
Hatt was one of the most successful and innovative businessmen in Upper Canada and a dominant figure at the Head of the Lake. When absent on his yearly trips to Montreal, Hatt left instructions with his wife that Desjardins should “let me know how things go on,” adding, “if I have omitted any thing necessary to be done in my directions to Peter you will I am sure remind him of it.” Desjardins evidently found working for Hatt to his liking: an anonymous account of his affairs noted that Desjardins was “without any ambition” and had “made up his mind to remain a bachelor.” Indeed, Desjardins did not strike out on his own until after Hatt’s death in 1819.
Desjardins is usually associated with the canal that bears his name. On 9 Aug. 1820 he petitioned the Executive Council for the lands necessary to connect Dundas to Burlington Bay (Hamilton Harbour) by canal. Whether the idea was his own or not will probably never be known. Certainly as Hatt’s clerk he would have been only too aware of the difficulties of trans-shipment from the shallow marsh known as Coote’s Paradise into the bay. Access to the village was by way of this marsh, which was “choked up by Weeds and Sand Banks, more than half the Summer,” and the winding Spencer Creek. In 1818 and 1819, probably on Hatt’s behalf, Desjardins had cleared the creek, rendering it, temporarily, navigable from the marsh to Dundas. As a merchant shipping large quantities of flour from Dundas, he was vitally interested in the improvement of navigation, but he also stressed the “considerable advantage and benefit” of a canal to the public as a whole. This claim was supported by a resolution of the Court of Quarter Sessions of the Gore District, chaired by the major merchant James Crooks*, that the building of a canal would be “highly beneficial” to the region.
The timing of Desjardins’s petition was propitious: canal-building in New York State, an economic depression, the concern for economic improvement so evident in the responses from townships across Upper Canada to Robert Gourlay*’s address to resident landowners, all had combined to turn the attention of the legislature and key government spokesmen such as John Beverley Robinson* and John Strachan* to the need for economic development on a provincial scale. Robinson, the most enthusiastic advocate of development among the provincial élite, visited the site of the Dundas canal in the fall of 1820. On 1 November he added a short note to Desjardins’s petition stating his approval; later that day the council, chaired by Chief Justice William Dummer Powell, approved the petition.
Desjardins borrowed £775 from the Hatt estate and began work; two years later he signed an agreement for digging a canal 12 feet wide at the top, 7 feet wide at the bottom, and 32 feet deep. In 1825 he petitioned the council for full title to the lands he had sought in his 1820 petition. Claiming to have expended “upwards” of £1,000 on the project, he submitted depositions to the effect that the canal was now navigable by sail (and without the use of poles) from the marsh to Dundas. The council found his documentation satisfactory and issued an order-in-council giving him full title to the land in question. Meanwhile, Desjardins and others, most notably the Lesslie family, had sought authorization from the legislature to incorporate a joint-stock company. A bill was soon passed and the Desjardins Canal Company was incorporated in January 1826. The act provided for management by five directors, a capital not to exceed £10,000 provincial currency, and 800 shares valued at £12 10s. apiece.
Within the Gore District, the old rivalry among localities for commercial supremacy had not abated; it had, however, narrowed to a struggle between Dundas and Hamilton. What the latter had lacked in initial commercial advantages had been counterbalanced by its selection in 1816 as the administrative capital of the district. Hostility to that decision by the other communities at the Head of the Lake did not abate quickly. When in 1825 a new court-house and jail were proposed for Hamilton, the residents of Dundas and Ancaster seized the opportunity as their last chance to urge reconsideration of the site of the capital. The canal had been used as an argument in favour of Dundas’s pretensions to be the capital, but it was even more vital to the town’s commercial pre-eminence. Since the summer of 1824 work had progressed on the Burlington Bay Canal [see James Gordon Strobridge]. Without a parallel effort of equal dimensions linking Dundas directly to the bay and hence to the lake, Hamilton would quickly, and perhaps irrevocably, gain the upper hand.
In view of the advantages Dundas would acquire by the canal, Desjardins should have been able to marshal widespread local support. As it turned out, however, his plans met with considerable criticism and fatal opposition. Three points were at issue: the limited scope of the canal (it did not go beyond Dundas), its dimensions, and the fact that it was a private rather than a public venture. Everyone was concerned that the canal be able to handle lake shipping, as the Burlington Canal would be able to. The foremost political spokesman of Hamilton’s interests, Speaker John Willson*, derided the usefulness of the canal. Most important, Crooks complained bitterly to William Lyon Mackenzie*, a friend and former business associate of Desjardins, that Desjardins’s efforts to this point were worth little “to any Canal whether Public or Private.” He preferred a public enterprise which could attain “the great advantage” yet recover the initial capital costs and eliminate the need for tolls except in the immediate future. Mackenzie, for his part, championed Dundas’s cause and ridiculed Willson’s arguments. Still, he shared Crooks’s reservation about “a private company, as all monopolies, except the post-office, are hurtful.” He reiterated Crooks’s concerns in his editorial columns, noting that Desjardins might have spent less than £200 or as much as £1,000. In the long term, Mackenzie’s support of Dundas and attack on the Burlington Canal backfired and contributed significantly to making Hamilton a tory and, later, a conservative bastion.
Local opposition focused on the benefits to Desjardins and the company. The act of incorporation provided for Desjardins’s personal indemnification by allowing him stock worth half of the amount of his expenditures. As well, although the land Desjardins had been granted was worth less than £200, if the canal were finished the grant might fetch between £2,000 and £4,000. Crooks was particularly outraged by the ability of the company to set its own tolls. He suggested, however, that Desjardins “did not himself seek the advantage he has taken of the Public” but was put up to it by others. When in May 1826 Desjardins tried to interest Crooks in canal shares, Crooks remained unmoved: “None of us about the Head of the Lake will take Stock: If he gets the work done without us good & well, but the Tolls will, nay must, necessarily be so high that we must continue the old channel by which to transport our produce to Markets, this not too bad when by judicious management the same advantages given to the Public would have made the Canal for Nothing!!!”
Desjardins tried to meet some of the criticism and rouse support in the Dundas area. In February 1826 he picked up Mackenzie’s suggestion to build a canal joining Dundas to Lake Huron, but apparently nothing came of it. The failure to attract the support of merchants such as Crooks probably hastened an outcome which was, already, virtually inevitable. In the contest between Dundas and Hamilton, whichever centre possessed access for large ships would become the commercial emporium at the Head of the Lake. Hamilton obtained the advantage when the Burlington Bay Canal was opened on 1 July 1826. Meanwhile the Desjardins Canal languished. Mackenzie had indicated in early 1826 that navigation through to Dundas was rare; indeed, the canal was so dry in the summer he had been able to walk along it.
Desjardins needed funds desperately and on 25 Aug. 1827 he advertised his house and adjoining two acres for sale. A week later the company called on stockholders to make payments upon issued stock. Peter Desjardins was on a collecting tour when he died in a field at Grimsby while trying to catch and saddle his horse. A coroner’s inquest ruled he had “died by the visitation of God.” Described by George Gurnett*’s Gore Gazette as a “very excellent and public spirited individual” and by Mackenzie’s Colonial Advocate as a man “generally esteemed” in the Gore District, Desjardins was buried in the churchyard of St Andrew’s, the Anglican church in Grimsby. He died intestate. Because his only heirs were living in France and there were claims against his estate by creditors, most notably the Hatt estate, the settlement of his affairs was a complicated matter resolved only by an act of parliament in 1835.
That Desjardins was more than the tool of others is suggested by the effect of his death on the canal: work ceased and was not resumed until June 1830. Original funding had proved inadequate and debentures for £5,000, £7,000, and £5,000 were approved by the legislature in 1832, 1835, and 1837 respectively before the canal was finally opened officially on 16 Aug. 1837, 11 years after the Burlington Bay Canal. By now Hamilton had risen to prominence at the Head of the Lake, and the old dreams that had inspired the Desjardins Canal were in tatters. In 1839 the president of the company mentioned the many complaints from those interested in trade that lake shipping could not navigate the canal and thus imports and exports from Dundas had to be trans-shipped – the very difficulty Desjardins had set out to remedy in 1820! Through the 1840s the canal was used only by scows and small vessels. The coming of the Great Western Railway to Hamilton in the 1850s [see Samuel Zimmerman*] buried Dundas’s commercial hopes forever, and as for the Desjardins Canal itself, a railway bridge built over it in 1854 made it impossible for lake vessels to enter the marsh. By the late 19th century the canal had fallen into utter disuse. What historian John Charles Weaver has called Desjardins’s folly became for most of the 20th century Dundas’s revenge, an outlet for pollution into Hamilton Harbour.
AO, Hist. plaque descriptions, “The Desjardins canal,” 28 Aug. 1967; ms 88, Desjardins to St George, 2 July 1808; ms 94, Richard Cockrell to Norton, 22 Oct. 1819; ms 516: 53–56, 101–2, 107, 342–45, 424–27; MU 1857, no.2305; MU 1860, no.2483; MU 2099, 1792, no.4; MU 2104, 1826, no.2; RG 1, A-I-6: 21738–40, 22176–78; vol.25, no.9; RG 22, ser.131, 1: f.106; ser.155. Dundas Hist. Soc. Museum (Dundas, Ont.), Richard Hatt folder, Richard Hatt to M. Hatt, 30 June 1808; W. L. Mackenzie folder, Mackenzie to Desjardins, 22 May 1822. Niagara Hist. Soc. Museum (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.), F-I-10, I: 40 (mfm. at AO). PAC, RG 1, E3, 21: 2–4, 26–27, 75–88; L3, 105: C13/162; 150: D2/32; 155: D12/171, 173–74; 157: D14/138; RG 19, E5(a), 3747, claim 503. U.C., House of Assembly, Journal, 1825–26: 62, 77, 85; The statutes of Upper Canada, to the time of the union (2v., Toronto, ), 2: 182–90, 1013–14. Colonial Advocate, 22, 29 Dec. 1825; 5 Jan. 1826; 13 Sept. 1827. Gore Gazette, and Ancaster, Hamilton, Dundas and Flamborough Advertiser (Ancaster, [Ont.]), 25 Aug., 1, 8 Sept. 1827. Dictionary of Hamilton biography (1v. to date, Hamilton, Ont., 1981– ), biogs. of Peter Desjardins, James Durand, and Richard Hatt. Charles Durand, Reminiscences of Charles Durand of Toronto, barrister (Toronto, 1897), 73. R. L. Fraser, “Like Eden in her summer dress: gentry, economy, and society: Upper Canada, 1812–1840” (phd thesis, Univ. of Toronto, 1979). The history of the town of Dundas, comp. T. H. Woodhouse (3v., [Dundas], 1965–68), 1: 31, 34, 41; 2: 35.