EWEN, ALEXANDER, fisherman, salmon-canner, businessman, and alderman; b. 22 Nov. 1832 in Aberdeen, Scotland, eldest son of George Ewen and Elizabeth Sheppard; m. 26 Jan. 1876 Mary Rogers in New Westminster, B.C., and they had three daughters; d. there 8 July 1907.
Alexander Ewen at an early age joined his father in the salmon fishery, eventually becoming foreman of a chain of fishing stations along the east coast of Scotland. He came to colonial British Columbia in 1864 after having answered an advertisement in Scottish newspapers for a superintendent of a salmon-curing venture on the Fraser River. The business, started by a former Cariboo miner, Alexander Annandale, failed after one season, reportedly because the mainstream of the Fraser was unsuitable for the fixed Scotch trap-nets used.
Ewen stayed on as one of a group of fishermen, centred in New Westminster, who supplied the local fresh-fish market and salted salmon for export. By 1870 he had formed a partnership called Ewen and Company with another fisherman, William “Dutch Bill” Vianen. Ewen continued to salt salmon under this firm name in the 1870s although Vianen withdrew in 1871.
In 1871 Ewen entered into a separate partnership to can salmon. Together with fellow fisherman James Wise, he joined New Brunswick canner Alexander Loggie and tinsmith David S. Hennessy in a salmon-canning venture known as Loggie and Company. The Loggie cannery was on the south shore of the Fraser River opposite New Westminster at a site later known as Annieville. The buildings had been erected by Annandale in 1864 for a salmon saltery and used in 1867–69 as a salmon cannery by James Syme*. In 1875 Loggie left the partnership, which was reorganized as Ewen and Wise. Lured by concessions from New Westminster, in 1876–77 Ewen and Wise built a cannery on the city waterfront. Ewen bought out Wise’s interest at the end of 1878 and continued both his canning and his salting operations as Ewen and Company.
Why did Ewen’s business survive and grow in the 1870s during the first expansion of salmon canning on the Fraser, while other operators came and went? Part of his success may be attributed to his production methods – he continued to salt salmon that were surplus to the capacity of the primitive canning process. But another important factor was the financial backing of a firm of Victoria commission merchants associated with the name of Robert Ward. Ewen dealt first with a partnership that included Ward’s father-in-law, Thomas Stahlschmidt. This firm became Stahlschmidt and Ward and then Robert Ward and Company, incorporating in 1892.
The commission merchant was the typical Pacific-coast businessman of the time. He acted as broker, supplier, and insurance and shipping agent to a variety of entrepreneurs, in addition to importing and exporting on his own account. Sometimes, to salvage his investment in failing businesses, he took over and operated them himself. Robert Ward became one of Victoria’s most important such merchants, aided by his connection to the London-based Bank of British Columbia through his brother William C. Ward, the local manager. In the canning industry, commission merchants financed operators and marketed the product, chiefly in Great Britain. Ewen’s arrangements with the Ward firm were undoubtedly of this kind.
In the middle 1880s the growth of canning on the Fraser River slackened, partly because of soft markets but also because of the transfer of canning north to the Skeena and Nass rivers. Ewen was, however, solidly established and able to expand. For the 1884 season he built on Lion Island below New Westminster what was then the largest cannery on the river. He also created a 640-acre farm on adjacent Lulu Island to help in feeding his workers. Ewen then continued to grow by backing selected employees in additional canning ventures. Daniel J. Munn, his bookkeeper, became an associate in acquiring an operation on the south shore above New Westminster which was renamed Bon Accord. For 1889, a peak season, this partnership, in which Hennessy also shared, built a new cannery at Sea Island.
Revived growth in the late 1880s was marked by the consolidation of existing individual operators into multi-cannery firms. Three limited companies emerged. Victoria commission merchants Findlay, Durham, and Brodie sponsored the British Columbia Canning Company Limited in 1889. Robert Paterson Rithet*’s firm put together the Victoria Canning Company Limited in 1891. The Anglo-British Columbia Packing Company Limited, also formed in 1891, was backed in England and had its headquarters in London, but it was operated from the new city of Vancouver. In the 1891 season, then, Fraser River canners were gathered into five groups including two independents, Ewen and his associates and Victoria-based J. H. Todd and Sons [see Jacob Hunter Todd*].
The 1890s saw an explosive increase in the Fraser River industry. The lure of profits, high but fluctuating, ensured that existing canners had to cope with a steady stream of new entrants. After the end in 1892 of a brief experiment by the federal Department of Marine and Fisheries in limiting fishing effort, numbers both of canneries and of fishermen soared. The 16 operating canneries of 1892 tripled to 49 in 1901; gill-net licences for fishermen sky-rocketed from 721 in 1892 to 3,526 in 1901. Ewen participated in this growth – in 1893 he set up Hennessy and George Alexander, his net boss, in the Canadian Pacific cannery at Steveston, a partnership that included Richard Vance Winch, who was just beginning his career as a cannery investor.
By the seasons of 1900 and 1901, the Fraser River industry faced a crisis of overcapacity which was aggravated by the fluctuating four-year cycle in the runs of sockeye, the chief species of salmon canned. Although 1900 was one of two “small” years, 45 canneries operated, but they packed only 170,000 cases of sockeye. In contrast, in the “big” year of 1901, operating canneries increased to just 49, but packed 975,000 cases of sockeye.
The rush into the industry had also adversely affected fishermen. In spite of more canneries and unlimited licences, increased numbers of fishermen meant smaller returns for each individual. Even in the “big” cycle years of 1893, 1897, and 1901, catch per unit of fishing effort dropped steadily from its peak in 1889. This decline was not completely offset by rising prices for raw fish. In 1900 and 1901, fishermen sought to compensate for shrinking returns by striking for fixed seasonal prices [see Frank Rogers]. Their partial success compounded the financial difficulties of cannery operators.
Underlying the turn-of-the-century problems of the canning industry were changing methods of doing business. Vancouver was replacing Victoria as the commercial centre of the province. As this shift happened, several of the major Victoria commission merchants were withdrawing from the canning business. Robert Ward sold out to R. V. Winch of Vancouver and the Bank of British Columbia was absorbed by the Toronto-based Canadian Bank of Commerce. R. P. Rithet began to concentrate on his San Francisco interests. The traditional method of financing the pack through chattel mortgages was being replaced by bank loans – 40 per cent of them from the Commerce, 40 per cent from the Bank of Montreal – and bankers were uneasy about long-term credits. A reorganization of the industry appeared inevitable.
Such a reorganization came in the form of an attempt to combine all the canneries in British Columbia into one organization. Chief architect of the plan was American Henry Doyle, 28-year-old head of a fishing-supply company that did business up and down the Pacific coast of the United States and Canada. Doyle did the negotiations with individual canners, but the underwriting syndicate that was to provide the backing was arranged by Toronto financier Edward Æmilius Jarvis*.
For Ewen, the problems in the industry were intensified by his personal situation. Himself the operating manager of his large interests, he was in 1901 approaching his 70th year. Continuation of his enterprises as a family-directed business was in doubt since he had no son to succeed him. So it is understandable that Ewen welcomed the proposal to amalgamate British Columbia’s canneries into one trust.
In the event, the amalgamation did not take in all cannery companies. The core of the new trust consisted of the Ewen group and the Victoria Canning Company Limited, both cut adrift by the retirements of Ward and Rithet. Individual cannery operators also joined the trust but the only other identifiable group was connected to Vancouver entrepreneur George I. Wilson. Alexander Ewen became the president and largest shareholder of the new firm, British Columbia Packers’ Association, which was chartered 8 April 1902 under the favourable trust laws of the state of New Jersey, and he remained in this position until his death. Henry Doyle was the first general manager.
With the profits from his cannery interests, Ewen had invested in real estate, particularly farmland, in mining, and in enterprises associated with his adopted community of New Westminster – amongst others, the gas company and the New Westminster Southern Railway, built to connect with rail lines in the United States. As a prominent businessman he became president of the Board of Trade. But he was also active as a citizen, serving several terms on the city council. Politically a Liberal, he did not himself run for higher office but especially in the federal campaign of 1891 was active in support of the independent Liberal candidate who opposed the Conservative victor. For this campaign he, with Munn and others, backed an opposition newspaper, the Truth (New Westminster), which ended its brief life-span as the Morning Ledger.
Ewen was also active in fraternal orders. He was a founder of the New Westminster lodge of the independent Order of Odd Fellows and rose through the lodge offices in his earlier days. Likewise he was president of the St Andrews and Caledonian Society. Ewen was a leading member of the St Andrew’s Presbyterian congregation.
Alexander Ewen is the most prominent figure among 19th-century salmon-canners in British Columbia and he is representative of the flowering of New Westminster business in the years after British Columbia entered the Canadian confederation in 1871. The claim made for him that he was the pioneer in the salmon-fishing industry in British Columbia is buttressed by his record of over 40 years of activity from 1864 to 1907, initially as a fisherman, then as an entrepreneur. He was not the first to can salmon commercially – that honour belongs to James Syme – but he entered a canning partnership in 1871, the year continuous canning on the Fraser River began, and ended his career as president of the company organization that was to dominate the 20th-century industry. He himself experienced the change from canning’s small, local, and primitive beginnings to its emergence as a major food-processing industry with a world-renowned product exported in vast quantities. Along the way, Ewen’s undoubted drive and managerial skills sustained him. His epitaph might well be in the terms of the 1863 recommendation that accompanied him to British Columbia: “He is thorough master of his profession in all its branches, is a most trustworthy and energetic and persevering person, sterling honest, sober habits and of exemplary conduct.”
[The 1863 recommendation referred to at the end of the text is in the possession of Ewen Macmillan of Vancouver, Alexander Ewen’s grandson. A typed copy of it was obtained by the author in the course of an interview with Isabel Macmillan Latta of Vancouver, Ewen’s granddaughter. h.k.r.]
B.C., Ministry of Finance and Corporate Relations, Registrar of companies (Victoria), Company files (mfm. at BCARS). British Columbian, 1864–69, 1878–93, 1900, 1907. Daily Colonist (Victoria), 1864–72. Mainland Guardian (New Westminster, B.C.), 1869–89. Truth (New Westminster), 1889–90, continued as Morning Ledger, 1891. Victoria Daily Standard, 1870–72. The development of the Pacific salmon-canning industry: a grown man’s game, ed. Dianne Newell (Montreal and Kingston, Ont., 1989). R. E. Gosnell, A history o[f] British Columbia (n.p., 1906). Kerr, Biog. dict. of British Columbians. Cicely Lyons, Salmon: our heritage; the story of a province and an industry (Vancouver, 1969). H. K. Ralston, “John Sullivan Deas: a black entrepreneur in British Columbia salmon canning,” BC Studies, no.32 (winter 1976–77): 64–78; “The 1900 strike of Fraser River sockeye salmon fishermen” (ma thesis, Univ. of B.C., Victoria, 1965); “Patterns of trade and investment on the Pacific coast, 1867–1892: the case of the British Columbia salmon canning industry,” BC Studies, no.1 (winter 1968–69): 37–45. D. J. Reid, “Company mergers in the Fraser River salmon canning industry, 1885–1902,” CHR, 56 (1975): 282–302; Development of the Fraser River salmon canning industry, 1885 to 1913 (Can., Fisheries and Marine Service, Pacific Region report, Vancouver, 1973). G. A. Rounsefell and G. B. Kelez, “The salmon and salmon fisheries of Swiftsure Bank, Puget Sound, and the Fraser River,” Bull. no.27 (1938), in U.S., Dept. of Commerce, Bureau of Fisheries, Bull. (Washington), 48 (1933–38): 693–823.