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MacKEEN, DAVID, surveyor, mine manager, and politician; b. 20 Sept. 1839 near Mabou Bridge, N.S., son of William MacKeen and Christiana Smith; m. first 11 June 1867 Isabel Mary Poole, sister of Henry Skeffington Poole, in Halifax; m. there secondly 20 June 1877 Frances Mary Lawson; m. there thirdly 2 Feb. 1888 Jane K. Crerar, and they had three sons and one daughter; d. there 13 Nov. 1916.

David MacKeen was born at Clayton farm near Mabou Bridge, the second son from his father’s second marriage. Although an obituary suggested that he “began life a comparatively poor boy and had his own way to make in the world,” his father was a major business and political figure in the area. During the desperate 1840s, when local crops failed, the elder MacKeen exchanged debts owed by destitute settlers for significant amounts of land. In 1849 alone he accumulated 1,100 acres, and he continued this lucrative practice until 1855. In those Cape Breton times David, comparatively speaking, had a bit of a start.

David received his early education in Hillsborough (Hillsboro), with further studies in Halifax and at the Boston Institute of Technology. By age 26 he was back in Cape Breton as a deputy land surveyor, a position he would hold until 1871. The Boston-financed Caledonia Coal Company began operations near Little Glace Bay (Glace Bay) in 1866, and MacKeen commenced work with it as a shipper. He married Isabel Mary, daughter of manager Henry Poole, in 1867. By the late 1870s David had become manager and had acquired control of the company. The Caledonia mine expanded cautiously, operating somewhat expensively and occasionally innovatively. A productive if relatively small concern, it became known as Old Faithful. David served as sub-collector of customs (1871–89) and United States consular agent (1874–89) in Little Glace Bay, and he was on the Board of Examiners of the Department of Public Works and Mines in the 1880s.

At the first meeting of the Cape Breton County Council on 13 Jan. 1880 MacKeen had been the representative for Little Glace Bay. He served as a councillor from 1880 to 1882 and from 1886 to 1889, and he was county warden in the latter period. In 1887 he entered the federal political field as a Conservative and was elected for Cape Breton. He was returned in 1891, leading the poll.

It was at this point that a Boston syndicate began to acquire most of the significant coalmines in eastern Cape Breton, with the exception of the General Mining Association’s properties. The syndicate was led by businessman Henry Melville Whitney*, and the combined collieries would be incorporated as the Dominion Coal Company Limited in 1893 [see Benjamin Franklin Pearson]. MacKeen’s mining and political experience eras quite useful to the syndicate. In the House of Commons he dismissed concerns about the involvement of American capitalists in the Cape Breton coal industry as “most childish.” For him, any opposition to the company could have “no logical foundation.” MacKeen became the company’s first resident manager and an original director. His enlarged role after this massive restructuring of the Cape Breton coal industry taxed his managerial capabilities, although most of the blunders and costly and expensive decisions in the early years of Dominion Coal were not directly attributable to him.

MacKeen did not draw a distinction between his political and his business interests, and his partisan approach sometimes drove provincial Liberals to distraction. Doubtless their consternation was increased by his “pronounced conservatism,” “blunt outspoken frankness,” and fund of “pawky, and sometimes caustic humor.” He made way for Sir Charles Tupper’s return to parliament by resigning early in 1896, and on 21 February he was appointed to the Senate. He also resigned as resident manager of Dominion Coal. At this time he moved to Maplewood, a “princely estate” in Halifax. His membership in the local élite is suggested by his being a governor of Dalhousie University and a director in such firms as Whitney’s Dominion Iron and Steel Company Limited, the West India Electric Company, the Royal Bank of Canada, the Eastern Trust Company, and the Demerara Electric Company. MacKeen’s final political appointment was as lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia on 22 Oct. 1915.

Don MacGillivray

PANS, MG 2, 424, 505. Albert Almon, “Old Faithful,” Cape Breton Mirror (Glace Bay, N.S.), 2 (1952–53), no.9: 10–12. Canadian directory of parl. (Johnson). Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1912). Canadian Mining Rev. (Ottawa), 13 (1894): 131–33, 139, 146. Mabou pioneers . . . , ed. A. D. MacDonald and Reginald Rankin (2v., [Mabou, N.S., 1952?]–77), 2. Don MacGillivray, “Henry Melville Whitney comes to Cape Breton: the saga of a Gilded Age entrepreneur,” Acadiensis (Fredericton), 9 (1979–80), no.1: 44–71. Wallace, Macmillan dict.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Don MacGillivray, “MacKEEN, DAVID,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed July 24, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mackeen_david_14E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mackeen_david_14E.html
Author of Article: Don MacGillivray
Title of Article: MacKEEN, DAVID
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1998
Year of revision: 1998
Access Date: July 24, 2014