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PORTEOUS, THOMAS, businessman, jp, politician, militia officer, and office holder; b. 8 Dec. 1765, probably in the province of Quebec; m. 20 Dec. 1786 Olivia Everest in Addison (Vt); d. 20 Feb. 1830 in Montreal.

A grain merchant, Thomas Porteous was the proprietor of he Bourdon, near Montreal, where he resided, profiting from the island’s advantageous geographic location for commercial transactions in the “Château fort” of the North West Company. With a fleet of bacs, bateaux, and canoes, Porteous operated a ferry service between Lachenaie and Montreal Island. About 1790 he opened a commercial establishment near the church of Sainte-Rose on Île Jésus. Four years later he began trading in wheat in the village of Terrebonne. Already prosperous by 1800, in that year he offered £20,000 for the seigneury of Terrebonne, renowned for its production of wheat and flour. In 1805 he opened a store and potashery opposite the church in Sainte-Thérèse-de-Blainville (Sainte-Thérèse).

In 1804 Porteous was elected to the House of Assembly for Effingham County. Although often absent, he usually voted with the small merchant party, led by John Richardson, and took a special interest in the improvement of water transportation. In the legislature he lost no opportunity to promote his own commercial interests. To attract people from Montreal to Île Bourdon and make the island a commercial entrepôt, he sought and obtained provincial legislation permitting him to construct two wooden, two-tracked toll-bridges, one between the island and the mainland over the Rivière des Prairies, the other, a drawbridge, joining the island and Montreal at Bout-de-l’Île. Although the bridges were built at Porteous’s expense, the act regulated tolls and forbad for a period of 50 years the construction of other bridges or the operation of ferries between Montreal Island and the mainland within three miles of the bridges. The opening of the first bridge was announced on 28 Oct. 1805, and the second was opened the following year. Both, however, were carried away by ice in the spring of 1807, and in 1808 Porteous was authorized to reconstruct the bridges as well as to build a third, this one from Île Bourdon to Repentigny. To facilitate traffic Porteous had manufactured, in Birmingham, England, metal tokens bearing inscriptions in French. In 1809 he and the firm of McKenzie, Oldham and Company set up a courier service twice weekly between Terrebonne and Montreal.

Prior to the War of 1812 Porteous had, at least on occasion, supplied large quantities of firewood to the military. During the war he received a government contract to supply the troops “throughout the country.” It was probably at this time that he established himself as a general merchant on Rue Notre-Dame, Montreal, and thereafter he assumed a prominent place in the city’s commercial life. In 1816 he and John Porteous were agents for the Saint-Maurice ironworks, selling bar iron and manufactured products such as cooking utensils, stoves, castings, tools, and mill machinery; they also imported English iron and steel. Two years later Thomas acquired shares in the Telegraph, a steamboat constructed for the Montreal-Quebec run, and in March 1821 he purchased a further interest jointly with Horatio Gates. The vessel was sold in June 1822 to the recently formed St Lawrence Steamboat Company controlled by the Molson family [see William Molson*]. Given his experience with water transportation and his mercantile interests it is not surprising that Porteous became a principal promoter of the Lachine Canal. In 1819 he was among the incorporators of the Company of Proprietors of the Lachine Canal [see François Desrivières] and became one of its directors. After it was taken over by the government he was appointed one of its ten commissioners.

Porteous also played an important part in the early direction of the Bank of Montreal, a strong supporter of the canal. He was among the petitioners for the bank’s incorporation, held shares, and served as a director from 1818 to 1823 and in 1826–27. In 1826 he supported George Moffatt*’s faction in its successful efforts to unseat the president, Samuel Gerrard*, and reform the bank’s financial administration. One of the institution’s largest debtors was Simon McGillivray*, who, it was charged, had received favoured treatment from Gerrard, to whom McGillivray was also indebted for a large sum. McGillivray offered a settlement to his creditors, but Porteous, placed on a bank committee to study the proposal, found it unsatisfactory, and supported Moffatt in an unsuccessful bid to force McGillivray into bankruptcy with a view to obtaining a more equitable return. In 1819 Porteous was elected a vice-president of the Montreal Savings Bank.

That year Porteous undertook another ambitious project: he formed a firm which for £5,000 bought the financially troubled Company of Proprietors of the Montreal Water Works [see John Gray]. Ownership in the waterworks was divided into 40 shares, held in equal numbers by Porteous, his wife, their two eldest sons, and a son-in-law. Porteous, as president, visited the Glasgow waterworks. After his return the new company completely renovated Montreal’s water supply system at a cost of some £40,000: its wooden pipes were replaced by four-inch iron ones; the wooden cisterns were changed for 240,000-gallon, lead-lined containers; and the spring-fed, gravitation system was replaced by a steam-powered pumping plant that drew water from the St Lawrence (at a point, as it turned out, insufficiently removed from sewage outlets). Baths were also installed. Despite these renovations, the waterworks remained only marginally profitable, and it was sold in 1832 by the executors of Porteous’s estate for £60,000.

Porteous also made a significant contribution to the civic and religious life of the Montreal district. He was made a justice of the peace in 1800 and a commissioner to try small claims in the seigneury of Terrebonne in 1809. Appointed a major in the Blainville battalion of militia in 1812, and in 1826 promoted lieutenant-colonel in the 3rd Battalion of Effingham militia, he served for a time as cornet in the “Montreal Cavalry” (possibly the Royal Montreal Troop of Cavalry, raised and disbanded in November 1813). In 1817 he was among seven men selected at a public meeting to petition the legislature for the incorporation of Montreal, primarily to provide a better police service. The following year he became president of the Fire Engine Company, a volunteer body charged with protecting the city from fire. He was also a director of the Montreal Agriculture Society, of which he was president in 1820. In 1824 he was appointed a commissioner to examine applicants for the post of inspector of pot and pearl ashes, and in 1824 and 1827 he served on grand juries for the Court of King’s Bench. He contributed to the Scotch Presbyterian Church, later known as St Gabriel Street Church, while still a resident of Île Bourdon, and in 1819 he was elected an elder (a position he retained until his death) and a member of the temporal committee, of which he was vice-president in 1820.

In 1816, before leaving on a voyage to England, Porteous willed to his wife the usufruct of his property and the annual income from a trust fund of £5,000. Upon her death the estate was to be divided equally among his seven children, with the exception that any unmarried daughter was to receive an additional £200. In February 1820 he announced his imminent retirement and offered for sale several “very valuable and extensive Commercial Establishments.” Among them were “those well-known premises . . . in Terrebonne . . . in which he so long resided,” comprising a large house, two stores together capable of holding 60,000 bushels of grain, a coach-house, a stable, and other buildings, all of stone, and a large productive garden: it was “one of the first situations for a country Merchant in the District.” He also offered for sale a contiguous smaller property with a stone house and gardens, a farm between Terrebonne and Lachenaie, and the properties in Sainte-Rose (where he had recently built a stone house) and Sainte-Thérèse-de-Blainville. The property in Sainte-Thérèse-de-Blainville included a large stone house, built in 1813–14 “of the best materials, . . . [and] laid out in a . . . superior style, according to a plan furnished by Mr. John Try[*]”; it also contained a potashery capable of producing 280 barrels a season and a 30-acre farm “in a high state of cultivation.” Porteous kept his residence on Rue Notre-Dame in Montreal. The estate he left on his death in 1830 can be assumed to have been substantial.

Carman Miller

ANQ-M, CE1-126, 23 févr. 1830; CM1, 5 mars 1830. AUM, P 58, U, Porteous to Jordan, 26 March 1800. PAC, RG 68, General index, 1651–1841. L.C., House of Assembly, Journaux, 1805: 118, 144, 171, 194–97; 1808: 176, 212; Report of the special committee, to whom was referred that part of his excellencys speech which referred to the organization of the militia. . . .(Quebec, 1829); Statutes, 1805, c.14; 1808, c.23–24; 1819, c.6; 1821–22, c.25. This was Montreal in 1814, 1815, 1816 and 1817 . . . , comp. L. M. Wilson ([Montreal], 1960), 126–27. Montreal Gazette, 28 Oct. 1805, 19 Nov. 1817, 9 June 1819. Quebec Gazette, 25 July 1799; 27 Dec. 1804; 10 Jan. 1805; 23 Oct. 1806; 3, 17 March, 7 April 1808; 5 Jan., 4 May, 19 Oct. 1809; 29 Nov. 1817; 7, 28 Dec. 1818; 12 July, 5 Aug., 6 Sept. 1819; 16, 30 March 1820; 26 March, 5, 18 June, 25 Oct. 1821; 6 Nov. 1823; 29 March 1824; 4 March 1830. Audet, “Les législateurs du Bas-Canada.” J. D. Borthwick, History and biographical gazetteer of Montreal to the year 1892 (Montreal, 1892). Montreal directory, 1819. Quebec almanac, 1801: 79; 1815: 96; 1821: 110. R. Campbell, Hist. of Scotch Presbyterian Church. Denison, Canadas first bank. F. C. Smith, The Montreal Water Works; its history compiled from the year 1800 to 1912 (Montreal, 1913), 14. Tulchinsky, “Construction of first Lachine Canal,” 43, 65. F.-J. Audet, “Des hommes d’action à la tête de Montréal il y a 100 ans,” La Presse, 4 nov. 1933: 30. Hare, “L’Assemblée législative du Bas-Canada,” RHAF, 27: 379. Victor Morin, “L’art de la numismatique au Canada,” Cahiers des Dix, 17 (1952): 78–79.

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Cite This Article

Carman Miller, “PORTEOUS, THOMAS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed July 23, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/porteous_thomas_6E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/porteous_thomas_6E.html
Author of Article: Carman Miller
Title of Article: PORTEOUS, THOMAS
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1987
Year of revision: 1987
Access Date: July 23, 2014