LYON, ROBERT ADAM, merchant, lumberman, and politician; baptized 4 Oct. 1829 in Barony (Glasgow), son of John Lyon and Catharine McFarlane; m. 12 Nov. 1856 Sarah Elizabeth Moore of Esquesing Township, Upper Canada, and they had seven children, five of whom survived infancy; d. 6 June 1901 in Montreal.
Robert Adam Lyon emigrated with his family from Scotland to Esquesing, in Halton County, in 1832. Raised on a farm, he attended local schools until the mid 1840s, when he and his elder brother, William Durie, established a general store in nearby Milton. Their partnership lasted 17 years. A member of the Free Church (Presbyterian), Robert was active in municipal affairs, serving several terms on Milton council.
In 1866, just four years after Manitoulin Island was opened to non-native settlement [see Jean-Baptiste Assiginack*], Lyon and a group of Toronto associates obtained through the Indian affairs branch of the Crown Lands Department a timber licence to 22 square miles there, in Tehkummah Township. To service the rapidly expanding lumber industry on the island, Lyon organized the community of Michael’s Bay at the mouth of the Manitou River, complete with stores, sawmills, and harbour facilities for shipping to the United States and southern Ontario. Every bit a Lyon-controlled village (its streets were named after his children), Michael’s Bay would be Lyon’s residence until 1890.
Although modest in comparison with other lumber companies on Manitoulin, Lyon’s operations by 1870 were exporting annually an estimated two million feet of pine lumber. The original timber limit was quickly cut and the 1870s saw Lyon continuously seeking to acquire new stands of pine. Typical of the lumbermen of his era, he was notorious for his sharp business practices, such as repeatedly failing to pay dues and cutting timber outside his limits. The fact that his operations provided employment and supplementary incomes to island residents frequently caused government officials to turn a blind eye.
In 1878 Lyon, a Reform supporter of Oliver Mowat, entered provincial politics as mpp for Algoma, which extended across all of northern Ontario. His political morality seems to have matched his business ethics. Elected first by acclamation in a by-election to replace Simon James Dawson, he was barely returned in the general election of June 1879. In the next contest, in September 1883, he was again elected by a narrow margin. A judicial inquiry into electoral irregularities, instituted as a result of charges brought by Lyon’s Conservative opponent, William Henry Plummer, concluded that his offences – failing to provide polling stations in hostile sections of the constituency and bribing a newspaperman to work on his behalf – were not sufficiently serious to warrant his permanent disqualification. Lyon nevertheless resigned in the summer of 1884 to avoid being barred from political activity entirely.
In 1885 the Mowat government divided the riding. In the resulting by-elections, Lyon was nominated standard-bearer for the Liberal party in Algoma East. As in previous elections, he presented himself as a strong defender of provincial rights and a supporter of local development through the construction of railways and colonization roads. As in the past, too, he received the endorsement of the island’s most prominent weekly, the Manitoulin Expositor. He was elected in June 1885 by his largest majority to date.
Lyon’s success persisted through the election of December 1886, when he was returned by acclamation. In 1888, however, his business luck ran out and his company was forced into bankruptcy, leaving bad debts and bitter memories among voters on the island. His political fortunes quickly followed suit: the Expositor deserted him and he was defeated in the 1890 general election. Lyon immediately retired to Sault Ste Marie; until his death in 1901, he served as registrar of deeds for the Algoma District. Michael’s Bay survived him only a few years, for by 1910, with the end of the lumbering era, it was virtually a ghost town.
AO, RG 22, ser.360, no.267. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Geneal. Soc. (Salt Lake City, Utah), International geneal. index (copies at the Toronto branch of the church’s Geneal. Library). Manitoulin Expositor (Manitowaning, Ont.; Little Current, Ont.), 31 May 1879, 1883–85, 3–10 May 1890. Sault News-Record (Sault Ste Marie, Mich.), 7 June 1901 (mfm. at Sault Ste Marie Public Library, Sault Ste Marie, Ont.). Canadian biog. dict. CPG, 1881. T. W. Farquhar, “The story of Michael’s Bay,” “Through the Years” (Gore Bay, Ont.), 5 (1987–88), no.1: 27–28. Manitoulin, the isle of the Ottawas, being a handbook of historical and other information of the Grand Manitoulin Island, comp. F. W. Major (Gore Bay, ). “Marriage notices from the Toronto Leader, 1856,” ed. T. B. Wilson, Ontario Reg. (Lambertville, N.J.), 8 (1990): 38–39. “The Michael’s Bay,” “Through the Years”, 2 (1984–85), no.3: 11–17. W. R. Wightman, Forever on the fringe: six studies in the development of Manitoulin Island (Toronto, 1982).