EGAN, JOHN, businessman, office holder, justice of the peace, militia officer, and politician; b. 11 Nov. 1811 in the town-land of Lissavahaun near Aughrim, County Galway (Republic of Ireland); m. 13 Aug. 1839 Anne Margaret Gibson in Bytown (Ottawa), and they had three sons and five daughters; d. 11 July 1857 at Quebec and was buried in Aylmer, Lower Canada.
Shortly after emigrating from Ireland in 1830, John Egan became the depot clerk for Thomas Durrell, a leading lumberman in Clarendon Township, Lower Canada, on the upper Ottawa River. As clerk he was in charge of purchasing supplies and handling administrative duties. After gaining experience in the square-timber trade and developing a network of friends, he struck out on his own, first by opening a store in Aylmer to supply lumbermen and then by entering the trade himself. In March 1836 he helped found the Ottawa Lumber Association at Bytown and that winter he was cutting red pine on the Rivière Schyan in Lower Canada. In 1837 he purchased the farm of James Wadsworth at the “Fourth Chute” on the Bonnechere River in Upper Canada, which he later developed as the village of Eganville. At this time, when he was still supplying more than three dozen other producers, Egan began building dams and timber slides on the Bonnechere River and on Herd’s Creek in order to get out his own timber. By early 1837 he had formed John Egan and Company at Aylmer in association with Henry LeMesurier* (a leading timber exporter at Quebec), William Henry Tilstone, and Havilland LeMesurier Routh.
Genial and gentlemanly, Egan was no crude lumberman on the rise. In the summer of 1838 he fought an affair of honour with Andrew Powell, a barrister in Bytown. No one was injured in the exchange of shots, but Powell withdrew his accusation that one of Egan’s intimate friends was “no gentleman.”
Up to the mid 1840s Egan dealt primarily in red pine, a scarcer but more profitable commodity than white pine. Though general depression brought his business to a near standstill in 1842, it quickly recovered. In 1844 he was rafting two and a half million feet of square timber to Quebec, less than one-fifth of which he reported as coming from crown land. Some of his timber was supplied by small producers and some by settlers as payment for land. To facilitate his operations he began to spend considerable sums on the construction of more dams and timber slides in both Upper and Lower Canada, primarily on the Quyon, Petawawa, and Madawaska rivers but also on a series of tributaries. In the late 1830s he had spent about £1,300 annually on river improvements; in 1847 the figure, his highest, was £9,456. Leading producers such as Egan and his close friend Ruggles Wright frequently cooperated in use of these private facilities. In 1852 Egan joined with Daniel McLachlin*, James Skead*, and others to build a wagon road from Arnprior to the head of the Long Rapids on the Madawaska.
Egan had begun to diversify his business interests by the late 1840s. In 1846 he built a large sawmill, with 14 saws, and a grist-mill at Quyon, Lower Canada. Three years later, he erected two smaller sawmills on the Bonnechere and Little Bonnechere rivers, plus a grist-mill at Eganville. He even purchased a carding- and fulling-mill in Lochaber Township, Lower Canada. In 1853 he completed a very large sawmill near Quyon at the foot of the Chats Falls rapids, which was, in the estimate of historian H. R. Morgan, “perhaps the most extensive establishment of the kind on the Ottawa with machinery of the latest pattern.”
Chats Falls became the focal point of a transportation system established by Egan to compete with the line of steamboats operated by Jason Gould. In 1845 Egan and Joseph-Ignace Aumond* contracted for two prefabricated iron steamers from the shipyards of John Molson in Montreal, and during the winter the sections were hauled up over the ice of the Ottawa. The Emerald was launched at Aylmer in the spring of 1846 and served between there and Chats Falls. The Oregon, launched on the Mississippi River, ran from above the falls to Arnprior. That year Egan, along with Aumond and Ruggles Wright, formed the Union Forwarding Company to operate these vessels and transport passengers and goods around the falls by means of a short, horse-drawn tramway, the Union Railroad.
In the early 1850s the fortunes of John Egan and Company were at their peak. In 1851 the firm employed 2,000 men throughout the Ottawa valley and it gave work to hundreds of farmers, who provided the supplies including the 1,600 oxen and horses which it used. The following year Egan’s timber limits, which covered an area of more than 2,000 square miles, were unmatched by those of anyone else on the Ottawa except perhaps Allan* and James Gilmour. Egan’s carefully integrated company was employing 3,500 men in 100 lumber camps throughout the valley in 1854 and its cash transactions exceeded $2 million. It had been Egan, in the opinion of the Canadian Merchants’ Magazine and Commercial Review of Toronto, “who first gave a systematic business character to the lumber trade of the Ottawa, . . . before his day, lumbering on the Ottawa was nothing more than a wild venture.”
Besides being the dominant square-timber king on the Ottawa River – the Canadian Merchants’ Magazine later described him as the “Napoleon of the Ottawa” – Egan was an active participant in the civic life of Aylmer and the region. He was the first warden in 1841 of the Sydenham District, served as a justice of the peace, and in 1847 became the first mayor of Aylmer. An Anglican, he helped found Christ Church there in 1843. In 1846 he was appointed major in the battalion of Ottawa militia commanded by Ruggles Wright, and later he served as lieutenant-colonel of the 4th Battalion. As well he was a committee-member of the Bytown Emigration Society, of which Thomas McKay was president.
Egan viewed political office as a means for promoting the welfare of the Ottawa valley generally and lumbermen specifically. In 1841 he and others had supported the election in the Lower Canadian riding of Ottawa of Charles Dewey Day*, a tory and a former counsel for several timber barons, whom Egan viewed six years later as the “only man connected with the Government in whom I have the slightest confidence.” Following the retirement of Denis-Benjamin Papineau, Egan ran successfully in the general election of 1847–48 in Ottawa, “unpledged to any party” but with strong reform sympathies. Re-elected to the Legislative Assembly by acclamation in 1851, he was returned three years later for the newly created constituency of Pontiac. He held the seat comfortably until his death, a situation attributable to his wide popularity and to the fact that he had timber limits on most of the unoccupied lands in Onslow, Bristol, and Clarendon and owned extensive blocks of land in those townships.
Egan frequently spoke with considerable “passion” in the assembly on matters pertaining to the Ottawa valley, which, he believed, the government neglected. Early in 1852 he helped organize and lead the movement to have the timber dues on red pine reduced from a penny to a halfpenny per cubic foot. After the fee was reduced in September by provincial order-in-council, Egan and others faced allegations in the assembly that they had “put the screws on” the government by threatening to oppose it in votes on the clergy reserves issue unless the duty was reduced. In 1853 he used his influence with Francis Hincks* to persuade the government to vote $50,000 for the construction of a small canal, roughly parallel to the Union Railroad, at Chats Falls. Plagued by labour shortages and problems in excavation, this highly political project, which Egan had promoted as a public work despite its clear value to his own business and that of Ruggles Wright, was suspended in November 1857 after almost half a million dollars had been spent.
Outside the assembly Egan was a central figure in the promotion of a series of internal improvement schemes, especially those which would benefit the lumber industry. He was an early supporter of the Bytown and Prescott Railway because, he claimed in 1848, it would open “a profitable market for manufactured timber” in the United States. He and Joseph-Ignace Aumond helped recruit Walter Shanly* in 1851 to build the railway. In 1852 Egan was a founder of the Bytown and Pembroke Railway Company. He was first president of the Bytown and Aylmer Union Turnpike Company, which had completed a road between the two towns in 1850. In addition he supported the government’s construction in 1852–54 of a colonization road between the Ottawa River and Opeongo Lake, believing that it would help lumbermen as well as settlers. In 1853 he joined James Bell Forsyth*, Malcolm Cameron*, and others in founding the Cap-Rouge Pier, Wharf and Dock Company, which operated near Quebec.
Despite his public and commercial standing, Egan had suffered “severe reverses of fortune” by 1855. The red pine market had declined steadily after 1847, with both exports and prices falling 30 per cent by 1852. Late in 1855 it was widely rumoured, according to the Perth Courier, that he had failed and the cause was attributed to his heavy involvement with an English firm, Delisle, Janvrin and Company, which had collapsed. At this time his health was failing and his death at Quebec two years later was not unexpected. The personal property in his estate was worth only about £5,000. In 1867 his rich timber limits on the Madawaska River were bought for $45,000 by John Rudolphus Booth* but his executors were unable to dispose of John Egan and Company until 1868, when it was sold to James Bonfield, a former bookkeeper in the company, and Robert Turner.
AO, MU 1957, John Egan to Daniel McLachlin, 29 March 1849; McLachlin et al. to subscribers, 18 May 1852; RG 8, ser.I-6-A, 1: 32; RG 22, ser.155, will of John Egan. Ottawa, Hist. Soc., Bytown Museum Arch. (Ottawa), ABUS 79–80. Ottawa Public Library, Ottawa Room, H. T. Douglas, “Bits and pieces, that’s all: ten thousand words concerning Ottawa and the Ottawa area” (typescript, 1969), 49–51; Ottawa hist. scrapbook, 5: 48–50. PAC, MG 24, D8, 30, 37; D66, 2, 5–6; RG 1, L3, 182B: E7/7 1/2, 7 1/2B; 183: E8/5; RG 5, A1: 94333–34, 141297. Renfrew Land Registry Office (Pembroke, Ont.), Abstract index to deeds, Grattan Township, concession 21, lots 19–22 (mfm. at AO, GS 5246); Wilberforce Township, concession 8, lots 18–19 (mfm. at AO, GS 5312). Can., Prov. of, Legislative Assembly, App. to the journals, 1844–45, app.00; 1852, app.AAA; 1853, app.MMMM, app.QQQQ; 1856, app.31; Statutes, 1852, c.137, c.257. Canada Gazette, 19 May 1855: 678. Daylight through the mountain: letters and labours of civil engineers Walter and Francis Shanly, ed. F. W. Walker ([Montreal], 1957), 186. Debates of the Legislative Assembly of United Canada (Abbott Gibbs et al.), vols.4–7. “The Honorable Samuel Crane,” Journal of Education for Upper Canada (Toronto), 12 (1859): 27–28. “The late John Egan,” Canadian Merchants’ Magazine and Commercial Rev. (Toronto), 1 (April–September 1857): 500–2. J. A. Macdonald, The letters of Sir John A. Macdonald, ed. J. K. Johnson and C. B. Stelmack (2v., Ottawa, 1968–69), 1: 335, 337. Muskoka and Haliburton, 1615–1875; a collection of documents, ed. F. B. Murray ([Toronto], 1963), 160. Bathurst Courier, 23 Oct. 1855. British Whig, 19 Jan. 1837, 3 Aug. 1838. Bytown Gazette, and Ottawa and Rideau Advertiser, 14 Aug. 1839. Chronicle & Gazette, 5 Jan., 18 June 1842. Ottawa Citizen, 15 April 1854. Packet, 18, 26 June, 4 Sept., 29 Nov., 18 Dec. 1847; 23 Jan., 8 July, 10 Oct. 1848. F.-J. Audet, “Les législateurs du Bas-Canada.”. Eric Acland et al., Christ Church, Aylmer, Quebec, 1843–1968 (Aylmer, 1968), 2, 5. Cornell, Alignment of political groups, 24 [incorrectly refers to Egan as a “conservative” in 1847]. M. S. Cross, “The dark druidical groves: the lumber community and the commercial frontier in British North America, to 1854” (phd thesis, Univ. of Toronto, 1968), 31, 311. R. L. Jones, History of agriculture in Ontario, 1613–1880 (Toronto, 1946; repr. Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y., 1977), 110–12, 291–92. C. C. Kennedy, The upper Ottawa Valley (Pembroke, 1970), 188–90. E. L. Lake, Pioneer reminiscences of the upper Ottawa Valley, commemorating triple centennial years of St. John the Evangelist Church, Eganville, Ontario ([Ottawa, 1966]). Robert Legget, Ottawa waterway: gateway to a continent (Toronto and Buffalo, 1975), 149, 168, 173. A. R. M. Lower, Great Britain’s woodyard; British America and the timber trade, 1763–1867 (Montreal and London, Ont., 1973); Settlement and the forest frontier in eastern Canada (Toronto, 1936), 51. Quyon–Onslow, 1875–1975: souvenir of centennial (Quyon, Que., 1975). A. H. D. Ross, Ottawa, past and present (Toronto, 1927), 49, 155. “John R. Booth’s death closes rich chapter of Canada’s life,” Ottawa Farm Journal, 11 Dec. 1925. H. R. Morgan, “History of early Ottawa,” Ottawa Farm Journal, 12 June 1925; “Steam navigation on the Ottawa River,” OH, 23 (1926): 370–83.
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Cite This Article
Richard Reid, “EGAN, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 26, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/egan_john_8E.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:||Richard Reid|
|Title of Article:||EGAN, JOHN|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1985|
|Year of revision:||1985|
|Access Date:||March 26, 2023|