DCB/DBC Mobile beta


New Biographies

Updated Biographies

Biography of the Day


b. 27 Feb. 1858 on a farm near St George in Brant County, Upper Canada

From the Red River Settlement to Manitoba (1812–70)

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier


The Fenians

Women in the DCB/DBC

The Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences of 1864

Introductory Essays of the DCB/DBC

The Acadians

For Educators

The War of 1812 

Canada’s Wartime Prime Ministers

The First World War

PATTERSON, JOHN, businessman; b. 13 March 1857 in New Mills, County Tyrone (Northern Ireland), son of Thomas Patterson and Elizabeth Harte; m. 26 Dec. 1898, in Hamilton, Ont., Christina Busby, widow of James Henry Hopkins; they had no children; d. there 26 Jan. 1913.

In the early 18th century John Patterson’s ancestors emigrated from Scotland to Ireland, where they were associated with a grist-mill and foundry in County Tyrone. A blacksmith by trade, Patterson’s father was foreman of the Stevenson ironworks at Coalisland. In 1867 Patterson moved with his family to Hamilton, where his father set up as a blacksmith. Having received some education in Ireland, John attended Central School for only a year. By age 12 he was employed in the law office of Richard Martin and John W. Ferguson; he subsequently worked for a succession of other local businesses and appears in the census of 1871 as a clerk. He had left home by the time he was 15 and earned a living as a commercial traveller in southern Ontario and then in the United States.

Patterson returned to Hamilton in 1878 and, in partnership with his younger brother Thomas, began to apply the experience he had gained in the lumber trade in Ohio and Illinois. The restless energy that had characterized his early career continued in this partnership and the brothers soon went from a lumberyard, sawmill, and planing operation to real estate, construction, mortgages, and property management.

During his years in this business – certainly by the fall of 1883 – Patterson formed an association with prominent corporate lawyer and Liberal mla John Morison Gibson*, a mutually profitable relationship that would last throughout Patterson’s career. Described by one historian as “a dynamic team” who “shared common political convictions, a sense of ambition, and similar aspirations for Hamilton,” the pair had complementary differences. Gibson had achieved academic success at the University of Toronto; Patterson’s education was “along practical rather than theoretical lines.” Nevertheless, Patterson was the visionary of the two; he could conceive grand, and occasionally grandiose, ideas. Gibson’s legal abilities and his social and political connections enabled him to implement many of the plans he and Patterson shared. By the early 1890s the Patterson brothers, along with Gibson, were among the largest landowners in Hamilton. Although the Pattersons dissolved their partnership in 1893, with John retaining the real estate, John’s association with Gibson remained strong. To add value to their sizeable combined holdings of land, especially their tracts in northern and eastern Hamilton, Patterson and Gibson promoted the Hamilton Radial Electric Railway from 1894.

Two years earlier a group of local businessmen, including Patterson, had begun to consider harnessing the power of Niagara Falls or at least buying electricity to run street railways from the companies which since 1890 had been developing power stations there. At this point all electricity in Hamilton was likely produced by turbines driven by industrially generated steam. While other members of the group lost interest in the prospect of developing another source of electricity for Hamilton, Patterson became almost obsessed with the idea following discussions with Prussian electrical entrepreneur Count von Siemens, who visited him in the summer of 1893. Both Patterson and Gibson were ardent civic boosters. Though the quest for revenue drove their plan for hydroelectricity, the public perception that Hamilton’s electrical supply had fallen into Torontonian hands may have weighed as a factor in their decision to enter the business. The city’s electric lighting system, in fact, had been acquired by a group of Toronto investors and, in 1892, renamed the Hamilton Electric Light and Power Company Limited. In their hydroelectric venture Patterson and Gibson joined forces with three other Hamilton businessmen: textile manufacturer John Moodie Sr and contractors John William Sutherland and John Dickenson. These men – all Liberals – became known locally as the Five Johns.

Patterson’s plan was to harness the water flowing over the Niagara Escarpment at DeCew Falls near St Catharines and generate electricity for transmission to Hamilton. The project was controversial. DeCew Falls was 27 miles away and some experts, among them Lord Kelvin, stated that 12 miles was the maximum distance over which electricity could be sent. Successful experimentation with alternating current and the development of the induction motor, however, made transmission over greater distance possible and led Patterson to believe, correctly, that power could be efficiently conveyed from DeCew Falls to Hamilton. Opinion in Hamilton was divided: some considered Patterson’s schemes impractical or foolish, others were enthusiastic.

The Cataract Power Company of Hamilton Limited – the corporate vehicle for Patterson’s dream – was incorporated on 9 July 1896. Patterson was an original director, and would serve as an officer and director of many of Cataract’s subsidiaries. Despite uncertainty about the feasibility of the power project, Cataract was able to borrow $250,000 from the Bank of Hamilton and by the end of 1896 the company had secured contracts valued at $50,000. The investors themselves contributed around $250,000. Problems did arise, notably an irregular flow at DeCew Falls and hostility from the Saint Catharines Water Works Company, the owner of the reservoirs feeding the falls. Consulting engineers retained by Cataract devised a scheme to divert water from the old Welland Canal at Allanburg to the escarpment at a point near DeCew Falls where the drop was 265 feet, compared with 200 feet at DeCew. This diversion and the construction of the powerhouse were carried out by Angus McDonald and Company, with electrical equipment supplied by the Royal Electric Company of Montreal.

Hamilton received its first electricity from Cataract on 26 Aug. 1898, followed on 12 November by the official opening of Cataract’s transmission system. The line to Hamilton was then the longest in Canada and the second longest in the world after the one operated by the Blue Lakes Water Power Company in California. Transmitting at a potential of 22,500 volts, Cataract had 4,000 horsepower available for use and it quickly acquired Hamilton Electric Light and Power and local electric railways as customers.

As in their earlier enterprises, Patterson, Gibson, and their colleagues implemented a process of integration. In a series of mergers, acquisitions, and reorganizations financed by capital raised in New York, the Cataract empire expanded to include all of the supply of hydroelectricity and most of the electric railway and street-car systems from Hamilton and its suburbs east to Oakville (north of Lake Ontario) and Beamsville (south of the lake) and west to Brantford. Beginning with the acquisition of Hamilton Electric Light and Power and the Hamilton Street Railway in 1899, the Five Johns set out to create a conglomerate that would control all the electric railway and utility companies in southern Ontario. The corporate basis was Cataract Power, which was renamed Hamilton Electric Light and Cataract Power Company Limited in 1899 and became the Dominion Power and Transmission Company Limited in 1907, with Gibson as president. Although the associates ultimately failed to achieve the desired control, they succeeded, at least for a few years, in realizing the dream, described by the Hamilton Herald in 1899, of making “Hamilton the centre of a perfect network of electric railway lines that would make all the country for 40 miles in any direction tributary to this city.”

Output from the DeCew plant was steadily increased. In 1900 its capacity had risen to 20,000 horsepower and by 1911 to 52,000. This growth, combined with rates that were among the lowest in Canada, made Hamilton attractive to heavy industry, much of which would locate on land owned by Patterson. These enterprises were voracious consumers of Cataract’s power. The Steel Company of Canada – successor to Hamilton Steel and Iron, which had built a smelter on land owned by Patterson – used 12,000 of the 52,000 horsepower the DeCew plant could produce in 1911. In 1900 the Electrical World and Engineer (New York) had stated that “by being able to furnish cheap electrical power Hamilton is leading the larger city of Toronto in securing industrial concerns.” Among the concerns were National Cycle and Automobile, B. Greening Wire, Gurney-Tilden, and International Harvester. Such was the demand for electric motors that Canadian Westinghouse also selected Hamilton as the site for a plant.

Though overshadowed perhaps by the more public Gibson, Patterson had continued as a director of Cataract. He also remained active in real estate, particularly during the period when many of his holdings in the east end of the city were being developed by Cataract’s growing list of manufacturing customers. In yet another scheme designed in part to maximize the number of consumers of Cataract’s power, he joined Gibson and Andrew Trew Wood* in the late 1890s in a politically controversial and ill-fated venture into nickel refining through three companies: the Nickel Steel Company of Canada, the Hoepfner Refining Company, and the Nickel Copper Company of Ontario Limited. Other enterprises involving Patterson included the Imperial Cotton Company Limited, the unsuccessful Hamilton, Waterloo and Guelph Railway, and the Patterson Coal and Coke Company, which mined soft coal in Pennsylvania for sale to Hamilton Steel and Iron.

Initially popular for its success in attracting industry, the Cataract empire generated controversy and, increasingly, hostility. A major objection was uneven service. Affluent areas in the south and west of the city received good service, but working-class neighbourhoods in the north and east, populated largely by recent immigrants from the United Kingdom, endured frequent drops in electricity and blackouts. Poor service was a problem too at Cataract’s subsidiary, the Hamilton Street Railway. In a complaint to the Ontario Railway and Municipal Board in 1905, the city described the HSR’s service as “appalling.” The HSR also antagonized its employees, who struck in 1906 [see John Wesley Theaker]. Public support for the strikers reflected general dismay with Cataract’s monopoly of power and transportation utilities in the Hamilton area, a concern that was not restricted to Hamilton. In 1907 the incorporation federally of Dominion Power and efforts headed by Gibson to do the same for the Hamilton Radial Electric Railway were seen by the provincial Conservative government of James Pliny Whitney as an attempt to remove the conglomerate’s railways from the jurisdiction of the ORMB.

Support for a municipally owned electricity system, an idea that had emerged at the same time Patterson and his colleagues were entering the electricity business, increased during the first years of the 20th century. In 1908 voters supported a by-law authorizing the city to enter into a contract with the newly formed Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario, but later that year city council approved a five-year contract with Dominion Power. It was not until 1913 that Hamilton became fully integrated into the public-power system. Dominion would continue to operate as an independent producer until 1930.

Despite his promotion of Hamilton over many years, Patterson, a member of MacNab Street Presbyterian Church, does not appear to have been actively involved in civic affairs. His health deteriorated steadily after 1909, and he died at his home in Hamilton on 26 Jan. 1913. Christina, his wife, died two years later, and the estate was bequeathed to her four brothers and four sisters. According to obituaries, which tended to ignore the seamy side of Cataract, Patterson had promoted the radial railway system “without any ostentation” and had remained a “genial, whole-souled man, who saw enough of the world and its ups and downs of life to make him . . . broad minded and approachable.”

Historian John Weaver has written of Patterson’s colleagues Gibson and Moodie that “their promotion of electric power and traction, new industries and real estate helped to remake Hamilton between 1895 and 1920.” The same can be said of Patterson. The “transition in industrial management from local partnerships to integrated corporations” described by Weaver can also be traced in Patterson’s career, from his early partnership with his brother to the interlocking directorships of the Dominion Power conglomerate. His significance is not that he is representative of this era in Hamilton’s history, but that he helped to shape the era. It was Patterson who first conceived of harnessing DeCew Falls to provide hydroelectricity for Hamilton. The realization of this dream – Cataract Power – provided the cheap electricity that was a key factor in the decision of many manufacturing businesses to locate in Hamilton at a time when the city was declining as a financial and commercial centre. In the words of the Hamilton Herald, Patterson was a man possessed of “fine analytic powers of mind and unusual fertility of resources,” one who “could usually construct practical plans for making his dreams come true.” The DeCew plant remained a part of the Ontario Hydro system for a century after Patterson envisioned it, and Hamilton was transformed by the industrialization it encouraged.

Thomas H. Ferns

AO, RG 22-205, nos.8420, 9095; RG 80-5-0-70, no.12096; RG 80-5-0-264, no.15993. HPL, Clipping files, Hamilton biog.; Scrapbooks, “Five Johns”; Herald, vol.3. NA, MG 30, A1. Ontario Hydro Arch. (Toronto), Dominion Power and Transmission Company papers. Hamilton Spectator, summer carnival and Christmas eds., 1899. T. M. Bailey and C. A. Carter, Hamilton firsts (Hamilton, Ont., 1973). Canadian annual rev. (Hopkins), 1907, 1913. Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1912). DHB, esp. vol.3. Electrical World and Engineer (New York), 1885–1900. Encyclopaedia of Canadian biography . . . (3v., Montreal and Toronto, 1940–47), 2. Hamilton, Hydro-Electric Commission, A history of your local hydro commission (Hamilton, 1967). W. R. Plewman, Adam Beck and the Ontario Hydro (Toronto, 1947). W. D. Stevenson, Elements of power system analysis (2nd ed., New York, 1962). J. C. Weaver, Hamilton: an illustrated history (Toronto, 1982).

General Bibliography


Thomas H. Ferns, “PATTERSON, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed February 27, 2017, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/patterson_john_14E.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:

Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/patterson_john_14E.html
Author of Article: Thomas H. Ferns
Title of Article: PATTERSON, JOHN
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1998
Year of revision: 1998
Access Date: February 27, 2017