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DRUMMOND, ROBERT, businessman; b. 1791 at Huntly-wood, in the parish of Gordon, Berwickshire, Scotland, second son of Andrew Drummond and Jean Newton; m. 23 April 1819 Margaret Gentle of Perth, Upper Canada, and they had three sons and two daughters; d. 20 Aug. 1834 in Kingston, Upper Canada.

In 1817 Robert Drummond immigrated to British North America, settling in Montreal. He took up contracting work in Lower Canada, building a lock at Sainte-Anne’s Rapids and a drawbridge at Île aux Noix. Drummond first came to the favourable notice of Lieutenant-Colonel John By*, superintending engineer of the Rideau Canal, as the principal designer of a bridge across the Ottawa River at the Chaudière Falls, spanning a cauldron known as the Big Kettle. Described as a “daring and magnificent undertaking” by the Kingston Chronicle, the bridge was completed by the end of 1828 and, though a perilous project, was finished without loss of life.

Drummond made his name as one of five main contractors on the Rideau Canal, the others being Andrew White, Thomas McKay*, Thomas Phillips, and John Redpath*. He himself was responsible for the construction of a dam and four locks at Kingston Mills, a lock and dam at Davis Mills, and a lock, dam, and waste-weir at Brewers Mills. Drummond and his family had moved from Bytown (Ottawa) to Kingston in January 1828, travelling in sleighs. The works at Kingston Mills were the third most extensive on the 126-mile line of the waterway. In common with other locations on the Rideau, Kingston Mills was an unhealthy spot, subject in the summer months to the ravages of the ague, since identified as a virulent form of malaria; it is estimated that about 500 men, mostly Irish immigrants, died along the line of the Cataraqui River, on which Kingston Mills was the biggest undertaking. Edward John Barker*, a contemporary observer, estimated that the dam and locks at Kingston Mills cost about £60,000.

Drummond lived during the week at Kingston Mills; he returned to Kingston on Saturday nights to spend Sundays with his family and was in the saddle at six o’clock on Monday mornings for his trip back to the works. An anonymous correspondent of the Kingston Chronicle, after touring the whole line of the canal in February 1830, reported that the works at Kingston Mills were in an advanced stage because of the pertinacity of Robert Drummond, who had overcome difficulties at the site which had “defeated Contractors not endowed with a due share of stern perseverance.” In the course of blasting operations many workmen were killed through inexperience in handling charges, and Drummond himself narrowly missed injury or death. On a Saturday in February 1831 a 300-pound rock came through the side of a house within six feet of where he sat at dinner with a small company, but no one was hurt. Drummond, along with three other contractors, was honoured by Lieutenant-Colonel By for his signal services on the line of the canal. In August 1831 By presented him with an engraved and handcrafted silver cup, which carried an inscription acknowledging “the zeal displayed by him in the performance of his contracts” and By’s “complete satisfaction” with his work.

Drummond was also a shipbuilder of note. At Kingston on 6 June 1829 he launched the first steamer to serve on the canal, the Pumper, so named because of its function in excavation work. The Pumper, 80 feet in length and 15 in the beam, was renamed the Rideau in May 1832, when it took on board By’s gala party for an inaugural tour of the completed waterway from Kingston to Bytown. A leading entrepreneur in the carrying-trade, Drummond owned a line of steamers operating in the Montreal, Bytown, and Kingston service. Besides the Rideau, he built the John By, a 110-foot steamer of 200 tons, launched at Kingston in late November 1831 with the band of the 66th Foot in attendance (it began regular service the following fall). As well, he operated the steamer Margaret, the schooner Lady of the Lake, and a number of barges. Nor were his business interests restricted to shipbuilding and contracting. He and James Morton* were partners in a brewery, in late 1826 he joined Philemon Wright* and other businessmen in establishing the Hull Mining Company, and in 1832 he was made a director of the Commercial Bank of the Midland District. Had he lived longer, contemporaries expected that Drummond would have been elected to the legislature.

In 1832 Drummond left for Scotland to see his relatives in Edinburgh, and in January 1833 he accepted an invitation to visit By, now living in retirement at his country seat in Sussex. On this occasion By presented him with a personal memento, a silhouette portrait dated 1 Jan. 1833. He also offered his support for a contract on the Grenville Canal locks, but Drummond declined because of other commitments.

Robert Drummond did not long survive his return to Kingston, succumbing to a virulent cholera epidemic which carried him off in a matter of hours. He died on 20 Aug. 1834, at the age of 43, survived by his wife and his five children, ranging in age from 1 to 13. He was widely mourned. The British Whig carried a handsome obituary, concluding with the statement that his remains were followed to the grave “by every respectable person in the town.” It is noteworthy that, in a sectarian age, the funeral procession for the Protestant Drummond was joined by the Roman Catholic bishop, Alexander McDonell*, in full canonicals. There can be no doubt of the respect and affection in which the man was held. Posterity remembers him as one of the early contractors in the upper province, as a pioneer in the steamship carrying-trade on the Rideau Canal, and as an important shipbuilder in the first days of steam navigation.

Edward F. Bush

PAC, MG 29, A24; RG 1, L1, 35: 11; L3, 160: D18/5; RG 8, I (C ser.), 45: 23–24; 429: 187. E. J. Barker, Observations on the Rideau Canal (Kingston, [Ont.], 1834). John Mactaggart, Three years in Canada: an account of the actual state of the country in 1826–7–8 . . . (2v., London, 1829). British Whig (Kingston), 22 Aug. 1834. Canadian Courant and Montreal Advertiser, 24 June 1829. Kingston Chronicle, 1 May 1830. Montreal Gazette, 6 Dec. 1831. Upper Canada Herald, 23 Feb. 1831. Archaeological historical symposium, October 2–3, 1982, Rideau Ferry, Ontario, ed. F. C. L. Wyght (Lombardy, Ont., n.d.). E. F. Bush, Commercial navigation on the Rideau Canal, 1832–1961 (Ottawa, 1981). R. [F.] Legget, Rideau waterway (rev. ed., Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y., 1972). A. H. D. Ross, Ottawa, past and present (Toronto, 1927).

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Cite This Article

Edward F. Bush, “DRUMMOND, ROBERT,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed December 7, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/drummond_robert_1791_1834_6E.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/drummond_robert_1791_1834_6E.html
Author of Article:   Edward F. Bush
Title of Article:   DRUMMOND, ROBERT
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1987
Year of revision:   1987
Access Date:   December 7, 2023