McRAE, JOHN WILLIAM, businessman and politician; b. 31 Jan. 1848 in Horton Township, Upper Canada, son of John McRae and Catharine McLeod; m. 18 Dec. 1872 Catherine Wallace Bell, eldest daughter of Robert Bell*, in Hull, Que., and they had three sons and two daughters; d. 29 Nov. 1901 in Ottawa.
John William McRae was educated at Renfrew, Upper Canada, and worked for a number of years with his Scottish-born father, who owned a mill on Smiths Creek and then one in Renfrew. He left at an early age for Montreal. His connection with the Ottawa area appears to date from about 1872, when he was an agent for the Montreal-based Ottawa and Rideau Forwarding Company. He operated from Victoria Island, at the Chaudière Falls, but probably resided in Quebec. Around 1875 he moved with his family to the prestigious Sandy Hill area of Ottawa, and established J. W. McRae and Company, coal merchants and forwarders; for a number of years it continued to represent the Ottawa and Rideau River firm. In 1877–79, while a resident of Sandy Hill, McRae served as an alderman for St George’s Ward.
About 1880 he shifted his residence to the Upper Town area, nearer the centre of his business activities, and severed his connection with the Montreal forwarding company. McRae established a short-lived partnership with Benjamin Ahern in the coal and insurance business, as agents for Sun Life Assurance Company of Montreal; in 1881 a more enduring association was formed with a forwarding firm, Denis Murphy and Company. He continued to operate J. W. McRae and Company, which in 1883 added pig-iron, drainpipe, and other products to its stock. In the 1890s McRae and Murphy appeared in city directories as partners of Cassius C. Ray in the coal business and as operators of the Ottawa Transportation Company Limited.
In the 1880s McRae became one of the “first associates” of Warren Young Soper and Thomas Ahearn* in the development of electric railway and light companies in Ottawa, though there seems to have been an ambivalence in his relationship with them, leading to a division by the time of his death. Their association apparently started in the Ottawa Electric Light Company, organized in 1882 to supply street lighting to the city. McRae, Ahearn, and Ottawa Liberal mla Erskine Henry Bronson were among the emerging business group who in 1894 organized the Ottawa Electric Company to absorb all its rivals, including the light company, under a federal charter that the group hoped would exempt them from municipal or provincial regulation. McRae was its vice-president in 1899. In addition, he seems to have been associated with Ahearn and Soper’s efforts in 1891–94 to merge their Ottawa Electric Street Railway Company with the Ottawa City Passenger Railway Company in order to make use of its federal charter and “perpetual” franchise. McRae was president of the resulting company in 1898. The two amalgamations were aimed at a monopoly in power and traction in Ottawa, one that relied on sympathetic Liberal governments at the federal and provincial levels. It is difficult, however, to determine how influential McRae was in these initiatives; he was probably a figurehead.
In 1899 McRae became the “chief promoter” and vice-president of Consumers’ Electric, a rival to the OEC. At the behest of the city, it had an anti-monopoly clause in its charter to prevent its buy-out. It is possible, then, that McRae, a lifelong Conservative, had joined the Conservative crusade against monopolies launched by the municipality, which by 1894 had successfully upset the OCPRC charter and the “perpetual” franchise. At McRae’s death in 1901 Consumers’ Electric was “about ready to furnish electric light to the city,” according to the Ottawa Evening Journal’s obituary of him. It also reported that he and the company had been “moving on rapidly to success, but under difficulties and in the face of opposition which few men could stand up under.” Among the hardships was the fire of 1900 that had not only wiped out the company’s plant but also destroyed paper-making and carbide businesses that McRae had established the year before.
Among McRae’s key business interests in 1901 was the Canadian Railway Accident Insurance Company, which he and others had established in 1894 and of which he was president. He was also associated with other companies: McRae Trading, Prescott Elevator, Ottawa Car, Electric Mining, North Star Mining, and Ontario Graphite. The Journal’s obituary noted that McRae, who headed 18 concerns, was “perhaps more widely known” than any other local businessman. His businesses, however, may have been speculations, as is suggested by his exhausted estate and press reports of financial hardship. Publicly he was a life director of the Ottawa Protestant Home for the Aged, served on the temporal committee of St Andrew’s Church (Presbyterian), where he worshipped, and was a “patron of athletics,” known for his interest in hunting and shooting.
McRae died suddenly in November 1901 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound sustained in the bathroom at the Canadian Railway Accident Insurance offices. A coroner’s jury “composed of leading businessmen of the Capital,” the Ottawa Citizen reported, found death had been “caused by the accidental discharge of a pistol while being cleaned by him.” A special meeting of city council was called to arrange for its attendance at his burial, and businesses along Wellington Street closed while the funeral passed.
AO, RG 22, ser.354, no.3874. NA, MG 26, A: 147725; G: 24600; RG 31, C1, 1851, Horton Township; 1871, Renfrew (village), Ont. Ottawa Citizen, 19 Dec. 1872; 1 May 1874; 11 Aug. 1875; 30 Nov., 3 Dec. 1901. Ottawa Evening Journal, 29 Nov. 1901. Christopher Armstrong and H. V. Nelles, Monopoly’s moment: the organization and regulation of Canadian utilities, 1830–1930 (Philadelphia, 1986). Can., Statutes, 1894, cc.111, 118; 1899, c.82. Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1898). Dict. of Scottish emigrants (Whyte). Directory, Ottawa, 1872/73–1901. Ottawa, City Council, Minutes, 15 Jan. 1877, 21 Jan. 1878, 20 Jan. 1879. W. E. Smallfield and Robert Campbell, The story of Renfrew, from the coming of the first settlers about 1820 (Renfrew, 1919), 28, 76. St. James Anglican Cemetery, Hull, P.Q.: gravestone inscriptions, comp. B. S. Elliott (Ottawa, 1977), no.373. J. H. Taylor, Ottawa: an illustrated history (Toronto, 1986), 102.