RHODES, NELSON ADMIRAL, industrialist; b. 3 May 1845 in Amherst, N.S., one of the nine children of John Rhodes, a farmer, and Parmelia Parker; m. 17 Dec. 1872 Sarah Davison Curry in Boston, and they had two children; d. 30 Sept. 1909 in Amherst.
Nelson Admiral Rhodes stayed in Amherst until the age of 13, when on the death of his father he went to live with a sister in nearby Sackville, N.B. He continued his schooling there, and then, it seems, returned to Amherst in order to become a carpenter’s apprentice. Around 1867 he went to Boston, where he worked for an architectural firm as a journeyman carpenter before becoming superintendent of construction for a contractor.
In 1877, the year after their son Edgar Nelson* was born, Rhodes and his wife Sarah, who was also a native of Nova Scotia, moved to Amherst, accompanied by Sarah’s brother Nathaniel*, a former employee of American mining and railway firms. There a partnership was formed between Rhodes, Curry, and Bayard Dodge, a producer of sashes and doors. After Dodge’s exit, Rhodes and Curry began to develop the company into a construction firm. One of their first contracts was for the new main building and the ladies’ seminary building at Acadia College in 1878. They probably won the competition because they were Baptists and could exploit their strong connections in the church.
The publicity from the Acadia undertaking brought the company to notice just when the Canadian economy was on the verge of recovery. In addition, its growth was aided by the building boom which accompanied the industrialization of the Amherst region in the 1880s. At a time when most building contractors in the Maritimes focused on their home areas, Rhodes, Curry and Company took advantage of Amherst’s location on the expanding rail network to ship building materials and work crews to other towns and cities of the region. The company also acquired mills and plants in order to manufacture its own lumber, brick, and other building materials, and it obtained licences to sell products such as roofing and glass. Rhodes, Curry came to erect a vast number of buildings in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island. Among its projects were Halifax’s city hall (1889), a house near Baddeck for Alexander Graham Bell* (1893), the administration building of the Presbyterian College in Halifax (1898), wireless telegraphy towers at Glace Bay for Guglielmo Marconi* (1902), stations, offices, and roundhouses for the Intercolonial Railway, a large number of buildings in the coal and steel districts of Nova Scotia, including several hundred workers’ houses, and many court-houses, churches, banks, and schools. Rhodes directed the operations, which employed several hundred men. He also supervised the production of building supplies, negotiated with clients, and dealt with architects including James Charles Philip Dumaresq.
The company did not, however, engage only in contracting. From about 1880 Curry had begun to repair railway cars, and he later started to construct them. The wisdom of the diversification soon became apparent, for by 1885 the National Policy of the government of Sir John A. Macdonald* had helped create a strong market for this wood-based industry, which was served by the same lumber mills as the contracting operations. In 1893 Rhodes, Curry acquired the Harris Car Works and Foundry of Saint John, N.B. [see James Stanley Harris*], and moved it to Amherst. The equipment and skilled workers of the Harris firm allowed Rhodes, Curry to undertake the construction of complete railway cars, and the company became one of the leading manufacturers of secondary iron products in Canada.
In 1891 Rhodes, Curry had been incorporated, with Curry as president and head of the railway-car section and Rhodes as vice-president and general manager of construction contracts. The company was twice recapitalized, and in 1908 its capital stock was raised to $3 million. Based in Amherst, the firm established branches in New Glasgow, Sydney, and Halifax, and at its peak was one of the largest businesses in the Maritimes, employing 1,200 persons. A newspaper report of 1894 attributed the partners’ success to their time in the United States, where they were said to have taken in “American ideals, [and become] inoculated with the spirit of Yankee hustle and enterprise.” It is more likely that the growth of the firm was aided by informal recommendations arising from political, religious, and fraternal connections.
Rhodes was often absent from Amherst on business, and he was unable to participate in civic affairs as actively as Curry. Perhaps disliking the hurtful, personal nature of local politics and possibly alarmed by the increasing activity of candidates backed by labour groups, he took a dim view of the electoral process and seems to have favoured government by commission. In 1904, with some reluctance, he ran for mayor, and he was elected. During his year in office few major issues arose. He appears to have been the opposite of his partner, whose leadership in municipal affairs was quite aggressive. A supporter of the Conservatives, he probably donated money to the party, but he left the lobbying on behalf of the firm to Curry.
Rhodes’s death in 1909 preceded by a month the amalgamation of Rhodes, Curry and Company with the Canada Car and the Dominion Car and Foundry companies of Montreal. This union, engineered by Montreal entrepreneur William Maxwell Aitken* and supported by Curry, produced the manufacturing giant of Canadian Car and Foundry. The construction operations of Rhodes, Curry were included in the transaction because there was no legal distinction between the branches. In 1920, however, the building firm separated from Canadian Car and Foundry, and it continued in business until the 1950s, when it dwindled to a close.
At one time a governor of Acadia, Rhodes had also been a member of the Amherst branch of the Oddfellows, and like many in the town he had been a supporter of temperance. His estate amounted to just under $100,000, a modest sum for a partner in one of the Maritimes’ most important manufacturers. In his will he left $9,500 to his church in Amherst and other Baptist organizations; his widow would later establish a fund at Acadia.
Cumberland County Court of Probate (Amherst), Estate papers, no.1742. Mass., State Dept. of Public Health, Registry of Vital Records (Boston), Marriage records, 17 Dec. 1872. Chignecto Post (Sackville, N.B.), 7 March 1878. Daily News (Amherst), 17 Sept. 1894, 3 Feb. 1904, 26 March 1907, 30 Sept. 1909. Daily Post (Sydney, N.S.), 3 Feb. 1904. Novascotian, 8 Oct. 1909. Biographical review . . . of leading citizens of the province of Nova Scotia, ed. Harry Piers (Boston, 1900). Peter Latta and Diane Tye, “Symbols of change: the legacy of two early twentieth-century Nova Scotian builders,” N.S. Hist. Rev., 9 (1989), no.2: 18–34.