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SENÉCAL, LOUIS-ADÉLARD (often written Sénécal, but he signed Senécal), merchant, shipowner, entrepreneur, and politician; b. 10 July 1829 at Varennes, Lower Canada, son of Ambroise Sénécal, a farmer and grain merchant, and Marie-Anne Brodeur; m. 15 Jan. 1850 at Verchères, Delphine, daughter of Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Dansereau, a merchant; d. 11 Oct 1887 in Montreal.
The Sénécal family came from Rouen, France. Adrien, a tailor by trade, immigrated to New France in 1673. Settling first at Trois-Rivières, he moved a few years later to Boucherville where his descendants turned to farming, and increased rapidly in number. Little is known of Louis-Adélard’s early years, although his father is believed to have moved the family to Verchères soon after his son’s birth. It is thought that he went to the local parish school, that he spent about two years in Vermont, during which he attended the common school in Burlington for some months, and that he returned to Verchères at the end of the 1840s. His marriage contract reveals a businessman’s prudence: the couple agreed to community of property but each retained certain objects and rights acquired before the marriage. One clause provided that the wife could “on giving up community [of property] take back what she had brought to it,” and another stipulated that the husband was to keep a legacy from his mother, amounting to £6,500 (sterling), which he “had employed for the purchase of trade goods and other chattels.”
For Senécal, the years following his marriage were formative. On 13 May 1850, with Michel Senécal of Saint-Marc, he set up a general store at Verchères under the name of L. A. et M. Senécal. The contract provided that each partner would invest £100 in the firm’s capital stock. Michel was to manage the store and keep the books, to be closed annually on 1 May; he was to receive a salary. The partnership was to run for three years, and provided that the parties “could not withdraw from the said company for any reason whatsoever.” At the end of each year losses or profits were to be shared equally. It is to be noted that in this contract the role of Louis-Adélard was not specified, and it was Michel who took on the day-to-day management of the undertaking, leaving his partner the time to attend to other business. On 12 July 1851, L. A. et M. Senécal was prematurely dissolved by mutual agreement: Michel bought the business with all the buildings, stock, and accounts, in return for a number of promissory notes issued in favour of Louis-Adélard.
In the autumn of 1851 Ambroise Sénécal joined forces with his son, appointing Louis-Adélard special procurator and sole business agent for a grain business. Louis-Adélard was authorized to buy grain for his father, set the price, and collect arrears of payment. Responsible for storage and delivery as well as for the bookkeeping, he agreed not to trade in grain on his own account. His father advanced the working capital and paid him a commission, while retaining access to the account books at any time and his right of veto in important decisions.
At the beginning of 1852 Louis-Adélard Senécal was forced to announce his bankruptcy, as a result of losses incurred in earlier commercial transactions. On 15 January he came to an agreement with the 24 creditors, who for the most part were Montreal suppliers of earthenware, paint, hardware, and other articles. His debts amounted to £1,864, and he agreed to pay eight shillings on the pound, in five quarterly instalments without interest. Among his creditors were the Richelieu Company, of which he would one day be president, and Adolphe Roy, who later became one of his principal financial backers. Ostensibly at least, Senécal was ruined – a painful situation which allowed his family to display its solidarity. At the time of the agreement of January 1852 his father mortgaged three properties to reassure Louis-Adélard’s creditors, and his wife gave up her rights to a lot which he sold on 25 June for £4,000. Back on his feet again, Senécal kept his eyes open for a profitable venture and on 2 March 1853, in partnership with his father and father-in-law, he bought the steamship George Frederick for $4,700 from Edwin C. French of Cornwall, Canada West. They renamed it Verchères and Louis-Adélard, who had somehow learned the art of navigation, became its captain. On 9 April, before all the ice had gone from the river, the Verchères made a memorable maiden voyage from Ogdensburg, N.Y., to Montreal and, with the establishment of regular service between Verchères and Montreal a few months later, “le capitaine Senécal” (as he was later dubbed by the people of the region), would unknowingly become a local legend.
In the mid 1850s shipping was a promising field of endeavour. Neither roads nor railways were as yet serious competitors. In the Richelieu region there were signs of a new vitality and settlers were filling in the back sections of the seigneuries, between the Yamaska and Saint-François rivers. With the progress of industrialization in the United States from the 1840s and the Reciprocity Treaty in 1854, a promising axis for trade between Montreal and New York was opening via the Richelieu River, an axis strengthened in the 1860s by the American Civil War. No doubt Senécal did not immediately see all these possibilities, but he became aware of them as time passed. Even more important, shipping brought him into contact with the Montreal business community as well as with local figures, thus opening horizons to challenge his imagination and daring. According to an article in La Minerve of Montreal in 1887, Senécal established links between William Henry (Sorel), Canada East, and Montreal with the Verchères soon after it commenced service in 1853, between Sainte-Anne-de-Sorel and Montreal with the Yamaska at the beginning of 1858, between the Saint-François River and William Henry with the Cygne, and between Quebec and Montreal with the Ottawa in 1860 – the last endeavour to compete with the Richelieu Company [see Jacques-Félix Sincennes*]. This simplified outline, emphasizing Senécal’s personal accomplishments during these years, disguises a much more complex, collective activity. It seems that Senécal was always a co-owner of the vessels, and his role in the different companies that were involved varied considerably. The case of the Verchères is revealing. On 4 Aug. 1854 he joined with his father-in-law and his brother Adolphe (who had inherited his father’s share of the original company) to form a new company, Senécal, Dansereau et Compagnie to use the Verchères on the St Lawrence. Ownership of the company was divided into three equal parts, and its assets would consist of the Verchères as well as any other barges or boats the partners might acquire. The partners undertook to give priority to the venture and not to carry on any independent shipping business. All three could, as individuals, enter into transactions on behalf of the company and had unrestricted access to the account books. The partnership agreement was renewed periodically, with changed terms and a succession of partners: on 25 April 1855 Joseph Dansereau acquired Adolphe Senécal’s share; on 9 Feb. 1857 Louis-Adélard sold a third of his stock to Pierre-Édouard Malhiot; and on 28 July the firm became Dansereau et Compagnie. More important, from 1855 the terms were altered to allow the partners to work alone or in other shipping companies, a change probably made at the request of Louis-Adélard, who was seeking to diversify his investment portfolio.
Senécal’s entrepreneurial spirit showed in his readiness to seize every opportunity for profitable shipping transactions. On 30 Nov. 1855 he acquired a share in the People’s Line. On 28 Jan. 1858 he went into partnership with other businessmen in the Yamaska Navigation Company, capitalized at $12,200; he expected thereby to be able to engage in transportation on the Yamaska and Saint-François rivers, as well as on the St Lawrence between Saint-Hugues and Montreal. It was Senécal who built the Yamaska for this company – in less than two and a half months, according to his obituary – as well as the Cygne. In 1859 he went into partnership with Sévère Dumoulin and Édouard-Louis Pacaud to form the Compagnie de Navigation de Trois-Rivières. In the same year, he joined his brother Adolphe, as Senécal et Senécal, to buy grain on commission in the parishes along the St Lawrence, and transport it to Victor Hudon*’s mills in Montreal. The following year he managed an office at Sorel for the Yamaska Navigation Company. He continued to diversify his activities and on 5 Feb. 1862 undertook to build five barges at a cost of $7,500 for H. Robertson and Company of Montreal. In April 1869, with Pierreville merchant Henri Vassal, Montreal merchant Louis Tourville, Adolphe Roy, and others, he set up a dredging enterprise, the St Francis and Yamaska Rivers Improvement and Deepening Company, with a capital reserve of $100,000.
The increased demand for labour, grain, hay, and manufactured products engendered by the American Civil War stimulated intense economic activity in the region of Montreal and the Richelieu River in the early 1860s and provided speculators with numerous opportunities. Senécal, who had been in business for some ten years, was in a position to take full advantage of these circumstances. Hundreds of notarial documents relative to land purchases, the transport of goods, shipbuilding, and lumber production attest to his feverish and wide-ranging activity. In effect, trade between Montreal and New York State via the Richelieu region formed the backbone for all his projects during this period. He is reputed to have had an interest in a fleet of some 11 steamships and 89 barges, used to transport lumber and grain between Montreal, Sorel, and Whitehall, N.Y. These barges (some 100 to 125 feet long and 20 to 23 feet wide, with holds 4 to 7 feet deep) cost about $1,500 each and could carry 6,000 to 10,000 bushels of wheat. Shipping became the springboard for an extension of Senécal’s business, and the region between the Yamaska and Saint-François rivers, which in addition to a number of seigneuries included the townships of Wickham, Grantham, and Upton, constituted the territorial base for his economic interests.
During this period Senécal plunged boldly into land speculation. In 1860 he bought from Jonathan Saxton Campbell Wurtele*, a merchant and seigneur of Rivière-David, about $1,500 in copyholders’ arrears. This contract apparently enabled him to acquire certain lots belonging to copyholders unable to pay their debts. Senécal was to use this method many times. Even more important was the purchase, in February 1866, of all the properties of Charles James Irwin Grant, Baron de Longueuil, in the township of Upton, with the capital and arrears on the rents, a sizeable acquisition, including 300 claimable debts totalling £10,287. On the purchase price of $24,000, he was to pay $12,000 down, $7,000 on receipt of the titles, and $5,000 in the next 18 months. Isaac Coote, Grant’s agent, entered the service of the purchaser and took charge of managing the estate. In March 1866 Senécal increased his holding by buying the entire estate of the late Ignace Gill*, including a magnificent property bordering on the Odanak Indian Reserve, a piece of land on Île Ronde, and some lots in Durham and Upton townships. On 6 April he delegated Henri Vassal to settle the debts and liabilities of the estate. Then on 15 Feb. 1867 he completed his holdings by acquiring for $3,000 a number of lots owned by Grant in the townships of Hereford and Barford as well as in New Hampshire. But he was not solely interested in purchasing large blocks of land; the minute-books of local notaries record numerous transactions in his name concerning the purchase or sale of small lots. For example, apparently through the good offices of a municipal secretary, he bought several small parcels in the parish of Saint-David, sold by the corporation of Yamaska County for tax arrears, including a group of nine lots acquired on 7 Jan. 1867 for $149.43.
This property speculation did not prevent Senécal from expanding his network of businesses. On 15 Dec. 1862 he went into partnership with Carlos Darius Meigs, a skilled workman of Saint-Guillaume, under the name of Senécal et Meigs. At first the firm confined itself to operating a sawmill on Rivière David. Senécal provided the working capital and had sole right to the profits. Meigs managed the mill, was responsible for maintaining the equipment, and guaranteed to process annually 30,000 pine logs into planks, laths, and shingles; he received a monthly salary of $100, as well as a commission on the sawn lumber. Subsequently the company expanded into buying and selling barges, speculating in land, and dealing in mortgages: it usually lent at between 8 and 20 per cent interest. On 12 Oct. 1866 Senécal, acting in both his own name and that of the company, appointed Edward Campbell Wurtele, a merchant of Saint-David, general and special agent to manage the affairs of the firm and to direct the commercial operations he himself had undertaken until then.
Relieved of various responsibilities, Senécal took advantage of the heavy demand for timber of all kinds to invest in other mills; he developed a plan to build a modern mill with a large productive capacity at Pierreville, and hence sought to tighten his hold on vast areas of forest. He next endeavoured to reconcile his interests in lumber manufacture and in landed property; thus he had land cleared to supply his sawmills, then sold the land to settlers, who undertook as partial payment to clear another lot for him, and so the cycle began again.
In the spring of 1866, therefore, Senécal undertook to set up the Pierreville Steam Mills Company. He went into partnership with Henri Vassal, Valentine Cooke (a merchant of Drummondville), Louis Tourville and Joseph-Guillaume Tranchemontagne (both merchants of Montreal), and also with his associate Meigs. The partnership agreement of 12 May provided for an authorized capital of $24,000, divided into shares of $1,000. The board of directors, consisting of a president (Senécal) and a secretary (Vassal), was to deal with current matters, and an annual meeting of the shareholders would determine the distribution of dividends, elect the directors, and examine the account books. On 15 Aug. 1866 the Legislative Assembly ratified this agreement, despite a petition signed by about 100 opponents who claimed the proposed company was likely to monopolize the processing of timber in the region. Work began in the autumn, at a tongue of land on the Île du Fort, in the lower part of the Tardif channel, a body of water 50 to 100 feet wide that provided a natural passage for the wood to the mill. Meigs obtained the $26,500 contract for the construction of the establishment, to consist of two buildings: a sawmill 75 by 55 feet, equipped to produce 50,000 to 60,000 feet of planks daily, with a circular saw, five frames holding 89 vertical saws, and modern devices for making laths and shingles; and a flour-mill 65 by 46 feet housing, in addition to the millstones, machinery for carding and fulling cloth. A complex assembly of boilers and steam-engines drove the machinery. The company facilities included breakwaters, a bridge linking the Île du Fort to the north shore of the channel, and a loading dock. Meigs was given the responsibility of running the establishment and maintaining the equipment for two years, in return for a commission based on production. The mill began operations in December 1866 and immediately became an important centre of local development: it even became fashionable to take a trip from Sorel to visit it. La Gazette de Sorel of 21 Aug. 1869 noted that the establishment – which then included three mills, a carding-mill apparently having been added – employed more than 120 men and produced 83,000 feet of lumber daily, and that since the spring 59 vessels had left Pierreville, mostly bound for the United States; furthermore, the company is reported to have bought from the government a 37,000-acre timber limit in the townships of Simpson, Grantham, and Wendover. Senécal was closely involved in the management of the company. His principal concerns were keeping the mill supplied with logs, selling and distributing planks, and maintaining the firm’s working capital. Since the company’s cash reserve was small, it was often short of funds and Senécal resorted to discounting notes receivable to obtain liquid assets. Much later, his partners publicly accused him of having used the company to obtain funds for himself, either by personally collecting the discount on notes endorsed by the company, or by demanding excessive advances for logs which were not always delivered. In this way he eventually incurred a $40,000 debt to the company.
Senécal needed liquidity because of the growing multiplicity of his business operations. On 28 Jan. 1867 he and Vassal formed Vassal et Compagnie, to trade (from 14 Jan. 1867 to 1 May 1870) in “dry [and perishable] goods, grain, and any other items.” The partners invested the same amount and all profits and losses were shared equally. On 25 March 1867 Senécal formed a partnership for a period of five years with Edward Campbell Wurtele, under the name of Wurtele et Senécal, to trade in lumber and grain with the United States, using 15 barges valued at $15,000. Here again, the partners had equal shares in the firm’s capital, divided profits and losses equally, and were each authorized to make transactions binding on the company, which had its headquarters at Sorel.
By the autumn of 1867 Senécal was therefore the central figure in a vast commercial network. He was 38, and his contemporaries estimated (though without proof) that his annual volume of business reached $3,000,000. After living in Verchères during the 1850s, and then at Saint-David or Saint-Guillaume during the 1860s, he settled his family in Montreal. But his roots were in the Sorel region and he liked to identify himself as a Pierreville merchant. His father and father-in-law having died, he seems to have remained close to only one of his brothers, Ambroise, with whom he carried on business. He had two daughters: Delphire, who married Charles-Ignace Gill on 1 Jan. 1870, and Octavie, later the wife of William Blumhart. His two sons-in-law became both the sons he did not have and his business partners. For the present, Senécal was powerful and his fame had already spread far and wide. Auguste Achintre in his Manuel électoral describes him as “tall, thin, bony, with a long neck, long legs, a bare forehead, prominent cheekbones, a keen eye, [a man] of few words”; always on the move, “he does not walk, he runs: if he sometimes stops, it is in a vehicle, to gain time, to decipher twenty telegrams and to reply to them.” The key to his success lay in an irrepressible imagination which allowed him to marshal scattered resources around projects swiftly conceived and swiftly executed, extraordinary physical endurance, boldness and sang-froid in both the conception and realization of projects, rather flexible business ethics, and ever-alert curiosity. These qualities enabled him to bring together in aid of any given project Montreal capitalists to whom he paid high rates of interest, regional agents whose participation he secured through commissions or profits, and cheap local manpower. He knew all the tricks to get working capital: discounting bills of exchange, overdrawing his account, mortgaging property, manipulating the funds of the businesses he managed, ignoring dates of payment, charging exorbitant interest, quick speculation, and so forth. But Senécal was a conductor with a weakness: he played without a score – he had no overall accounting system for his transactions – and without rehearsal; he liked to conceive and execute pieces but did not like to develop them in detail.
It is not surprising that Senécal decided in the autumn of 1867 to have a go at politics; the double mandate enabled him to run in both the provincial riding of Yamaska and the federal constituency of Drummond and Arthabaska. For this powerful man, politics was another way of doing business, one more trump card. This opportunistic attitude did not prevent him, in this period, from having a few political ideas. He was at first linked with the Rouges, as a result of a previous relationship with Jean-Baptiste-Éric Dorion*, whose newspaper Le Défricheur (L’Avenir) he had financed; this paper, at Senécal’s request, had then passed into the hands of Wilfrid Laurier* [see Pierre-Joseph Guitté*]. Senécal stood in 1867 as a Liberal candidate; he sat in the Quebec Legislative Assembly until 1871 and in the House of Commons until 1872. He was a discreet member, more active and talkative in committees where he drew on his business experience than in the house where he expressed himself with difficulty. Plagued with financial problems, he was often absent from parliamentary sessions.
On 20 Nov. 1867 Senécal went bankrupt in his own name and in the name of Senécal et Meigs, and deposited “all his assets and personal effects, property, books, letters and documents” with the official assignee, Tancrède Sauvageau. The bankruptcy brought about the dissolution of the Wurtele et Senécal partnership, Senécal giving up his rights in the company. A provisional statement of the creditors – for, as Sauvageau noted, “M. Senécal in drawing up the said statement had recourse to his memory rather than to his account books, having not kept regular accounts” – evaluated the bankruptcy at about $410,000, without considering debts to at least 14 other creditors. The real reasons for this bankruptcy remain obscure. Contemporaries felt that the business crisis precipitated by the closing of the American market following the end of the Reciprocity Treaty in 1866 caught Senécal short: he had fixed assets and inventories but no liquid assets to meet his many obligations. He proposed a composition with his creditors by which he would reimburse fully the preferred creditors’ debts, amounting to $17,480, and pay 50 cents on the dollar, in semi-annual payments of $30,000, for the rest. He also agreed to the nomination by the creditors of three trustees to administer his property, with management expenses up to $2,500 annually to be charged to the estate. In return, he requested that Meigs and Vassal be discharged from liability for the notes they had endorsed. These terms were accepted by the 51 creditors at meetings held on 7 Dec. 1867 and 22 Jan. 1868, and on the latter date the property was officially transferred from Tancrède Sauvageau to the trustees. An important clause in the deed of transfer, however, declared that Senécal was to be employed at an undisclosed salary to administer and realize the estate under the supervision of the trustees, and to proceed with the business he had previously conducted. Senécal therefore was again in charge of his property, but under the vigilant eye of three trustees. With Meigs and Vassal, he continued his operations in the Pierreville Steam Mills Company, which had not been directly affected by this bankruptcy.
Senécal was not at the end of his troubles. On 20 June 1868 the Pierreville mills burned down: he rebuilt them in 47 days, equipping them with 146 vertical saws. In August fire razed his factory “for the extraction of liquid from hemlock bark” at Saint-Guillaume. On 14 Jan. 1870 fire again devastated the mills at Pierreville, but he got them back in operation, reportedly in 30 days. These were indeed difficult years and when he signed the marriage contract of his daughter Delphire, on 31 Dec. 1869, he was only able to provide her with $6,000 to be paid in six instalments, or, in the event he had no cash, in land and real property. No doubt unable to meet the repayment obligations of his 1867 composition with his creditors, Senécal was again declared insolvent at the beginning of 1870 and control of his property reverted to the official assignee, Sauvageau. According to a statement of his creditors, his debts totalled $407,559.79, and involved major Montreal firms: Adolphe Roy et Compagnie ($71,939), the Merchants’ Bank of Canada ($66,899), E. Hudon, Fils et Compagnie ($61,310), Louis Gauthier ($31,060), the Banque du Peuple ($30,055), Louis Tourville ($17,008), Thomas Wilson ($16,773), and P. Larose ($16,509). The Pierreville Steam Mills Company made a claim of $15,079. The creditors held an emergency meeting. There were differences of opinion and, it can be surmised, much activity behind the scenes. On 11 Feb. 1870 Vassal offered to buy the assets of the bankrupt estate, paying the creditors eight cents on each dollar owing, with notes falling due over a period of several months. The notes, curiously enough, were endorsed by Adolphe Roy and Thomas Wilson. The creditors accepted Vassal’s offer on 18 February and he immediately became the owner of Senécal’s property. Nevertheless he was not free to sell the assets without Sauvageau’s consent until the notes given as a guarantee had been paid. In this transaction, Vassal seems to have been in collusion with his partner and, four days later, “all the movables and intangible assets which have been sold and assigned to the said Henri Vassal” returned to Senécal for the sum of $35,000, which Vassal declared he had received. On 26 September Senécal also recovered from Vassal some 60 lots in Saint-Bonaventure and some 50 in Saint-Guillaume for $45,222, apparently paid in cash. He mortgaged these properties in December to borrow $44,000 from Adolphe Roy and Thomas Wilson, the Montreal financial backers who continued to give him credit and honour his notes, “in order to sustain his business and help him in his speculations.” In October Senécal and Vassal had made an agreement terminating their commercial operations and settling the share due to each; considering the small proportion of assets allotted to Vassal, it is clear that in all these undertakings he was little more than Senécal’s agent. At the end of 1870, therefore, Senécal was by no means ruined as a result of his bankruptcy: still alert and on the look-out, he was waiting for better times.
Railway construction, which in the 1870s became a large-scale endeavour in Quebec, provided Senécal with a field of activity that came to occupy almost all his time, as shipping and lumbering had done in the 1850s and 1860s. He did not, however, abandon his still considerable interests in the Sorel region, but increasingly relied on such agents as his brother Ambroise (appointed on 16 March 1870), Charles-Ignace Gill (9 Jan. 1871), Pierre-Nérée Dorion (3 March 1871), and Louis Caya (25 Nov. 1873). At the beginning of the 1870s Senécal worked principally on building the Richelieu, Drummond and Arthabaska Counties Railway, of which he progressively obtained control. In the autumn of 1871 he completed the 48-mile section connecting Sorel and L’Avenir via Drummondville. Opened in 1872, this line rapidly became unusable when the wooden rails did not stand up to the rigours of the Quebec climate. On 12 November Senécal therefore sold the line to the South-Eastern Counties Junction Railway Company for $100,000. Three years later, this company gave him the contract to rebuild the Sorel–Drummondville section with steel rails and extend it south to Acton (Acton-Vale). The construction of this track, which was completed in 1876, proved truly epic and put Senécal’s talent, energy, and enthusiasm to the test. Working in difficult circumstances and beset with obstacles, he was at the mercy of governments for financing, local interests for the route, businessmen for working capital, and inexperienced workmen and rudimentary equipment for construction. In order to succeed, he needed allies in the various levels of government and straw men in the head offices of the companies he directed. For this purpose he intervened in elections, and to help candidates of his choice maintained good relations with papers such as Le Pays (Montreal). But by 1871 Georges-Isidore Barthe*, the mayor of Sorel, had denounced the advent of the “reign of shady speculation,” the practice of purchasing “electors retail” and reselling them “wholesale later,” and the existence of a local network of politicians in Senécal’s pay: Charles-Ignace Gill (member for Yamaska in the Quebec Legislative Assembly, 1871–74), Joseph-Nestor Duguay (member for Yamaska in the House of Commons, 1872–74), Jean-Baptiste Guèvremont and a man named Marchessault, both active in municipal politics. With the aid of his newspaper La Gazette de Sorel, Barthe also stood up for the taxpayers’ interests against Senécal’s plan to get the municipalities to increase their railway subsidies and to pay them before the completion of work. The mayor was not anxious to finance an individual who provided no guarantee, manipulated head offices, determined the location of stations to suit his friends, and claimed $80,000 when he was owed barely $27,000. These two implacable enemies engaged in a fight to the finish. In 1872 Senécal forced Barthe to resign as mayor over an issue involving a conflict of interest. In the federal election in Richelieu that year, he helped ensure the victory of Michel Mathieu*, which entailed the defeat of the ex-mayor. Nevertheless, Barthe was re-elected mayor at Sorel in January 1873.
In the field of railway construction, Senécal used the procedures that had served him so well in the past. He obtained the necessary lumber from his own mills on the Yamaska River, in Kingsey Township, and elsewhere. Straw men collected the grants and were responsible for the expenditures, the exact amount of which is unknown. He also had well-known financial backers, including Valentine Cooke (manager of the South-Eastern Counties Junction Railway Company), Adolphe Roy (now the president of the Pierreville Steam Mills Company), and Louis-Hercule Lafleur (a Montreal merchant). To get money quickly, he used his favourite technique – land speculation. In the autumn of 1873 alone, he bought 1,775 acres of land in the district of Arthabaska, 1,300 acres in the township of Wickham, and 800 in the township of Kingsey, not to mention the 6,450 acres he acquired for the Pierreville Steam Mills Company. His insatiable need for liquid assets led him to make things difficult for his friends. Around 1873 he is thought to have swindled Adolphe Roy out of $17,000 by issuing notes without funds to cover them, and in 1878 he apparently conspired to put the Pierreville Steam Mills Company into bankruptcy.
His need of money may also explain why in 1874 he abandoned the provincial Liberal party, which had been relegated to the opposition. He had long known that political power and capital on a grand scale went hand in hand and that charters and grants were obtained if “one is on the right side.” An anecdote illustrates the kind of motivation behind his political activity: having invited his principal organizer in Yamaska County, Antoine Laferté, to desert to the Conservative camp, he apparently said to him: “Toine, I have decided to change parties and to wear blue, . . . with the Bleus I am going to make a lot more money . . . and we are going to get rich.” While he was associated with the Liberal party, Senécal had dreamed of a coalition of Bleus and Rouges in provincial politics, in order to facilitate his relations with the government. But Henri-Gustave Joly*, the leader of the Quebec Liberals, opposed such a coalition in December 1874 and, as a crowning ingratitude, the Liberal party, once in power in Ottawa, refused to appoint Senécal a senator. Consequently, he began to cast sidelong glances at the Bleus. He made the acquaintance of Joseph-Adolphe Chapleau* and Clément-Arthur Dansereau* of the Conservative leadership, and in the federal by-election in Drummond and Arthabaska in 1877 took a stand against Laurier, whose defeat he ensured. Ironically, thanks to Luc Letellier de Saint-Just’s coup d’état, the Liberals came to power in Quebec in 1878 just when important decisions were about to be taken concerning the Quebec, Montreal, Ottawa and Occidental Railway. This railway, launched and owned by the government, was to go along the north shore of the St Lawrence. The ambitious Senécal, who scented a killing in this venture, as well as in railway politics as a whole, wanted to be in on the spoils. Far from meeting his expectations, the new government, on the initiative of the premier, Joly, even refused to pay him $15,000 as reimbursement for work already completed. Senécal therefore used every possible means to get the lieutenant governor, Letellier de Saint-Just, relieved of his post and the Joly government defeated in the Legislative Assembly. Despite financial difficulties which forced him to mortgage his insurance policies, he was instrumental in the ousting of the Liberals from power in 1879. Upon becoming premier, Chapleau was therefore in no position to ignore him, especially since Senécal expected some expression of gratitude.
The Conservatives’ assumption of office marked the beginning of a form of secret government in which the dominant figures were Dansereau, the party’s publicity man, and Senécal, its treasurer. In office until 1882, the Conservative party was none the less torn by disputes: the ideological factions of moderate “Chapleautistes” and ultramontane “Castors” [see François-Xavier-Anselme Trudel] competed for intellectual dominance while rival financial factions – in particular the Canadian Pacific Railway Company, the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada, Sir Hugh Allan and the Montreal Ocean Steamship Company, and the Bank of Montreal – each sought to get their hands on issues of government bonds, railway grants, and the ownership of the Quebec, Montreal, Ottawa and Occidental Railway. On 1 March 1880 Chapleau appointed Senécal superintendent of the last-named company; Senécal brought in his son-in-law William Blumhart as secretary and general supplier. Senécal’s salary was to equal 2.5 per cent of the net profits from the operation of the railway. He was given an official mandate to manage in the best interests of Quebec a company that was a heavy burden for the government, and an unofficial mandate to exploit the railway as an instrument of power for the “Chapleautistes.” He himself added a third mandate: to take care of his own interests. The challenge was worthy of the man. He carried out his responsibilities by completing the Quebec, Montreal, Ottawa and Occidental through the construction of branch lines feeding the main line, and then transforming the railway into an instrument for patronage and a major source of revenue for the party. This was indeed a dark period in the political history of Quebec, when the man responsible for a public company was also the chief treasurer of a political party, and Senécal earned a severe rebuke from Laurier in an article entitled “La Caverne des 40 voleurs” in L’Électeur of 20 April 1881. In this article Laurier labelled Senécal a swindler, claiming that he had stolen from many of his former associates and ruined them, and he accused him of seeking to do the same with the people of Quebec. This virulent attack provoked Senécal into suing Laurier for “a false, scandalous and defamatory libel.” The trial opened in Montreal on 5 Oct. 1881 and Laurier’s counsel presented a survey of Senécal’s business career, going back as far as 1858 when he was found guilty of receiving $50 under false pretences – a decision later reversed by a higher court. Accusation followed accusation and during the whole of October the trial was the centre of attention across the province. When it finished on 2 November the jurors were irremediably split and the case closed without a verdict. None the less, the expression “Sénécaleux” from then on became synonymous in the public mind with cheat, thief, and pilferer of the public purse.
As superintendent of the Quebec, Montreal, Ottawa and Occidental, Senécal reconstructed on a grand scale the scenarios that had become his trademark. Thus he bought the St Lawrence and Industry Village Rail-road, repaired it with materials belonging to the Quebec, Montreal, Ottawa and Occidental, and then sold it at a high price to the government. His greatest success was the liquidation of the Quebec, Montreal, Ottawa and Occidental in 1882. In February, he managed to sell the western section (Montreal-Ottawa) and its branch lines to the CPR for $4,000,000, realizing a personal profit generally estimated at $100,000. During the negotiation of the sale of the eastern section (Montreal-Quebec), Senécal was involved as the unnamed principal behind the North Shore Railway financial syndicate, one of the two groups interested in the purchase. This syndicate included Thomas McGreevy*, Joseph-Aldéric Ouimet, and Alphonse Desjardins*. Senécal’s participation was revealed at the beginning of March, soon after the provincial cabinet had accepted the North Shore Railway offer of $4,000,000, and, despite a heated debate over Senécal’s activity as a government employee, the Legislative Assembly approved the transaction, which was officially sanctioned on 27 May. In December Senécal resold this section to the Grand Trunk. He thus made an immediate profit on the sale, receiving both cash and shares in the Grand Trunk as payment, and then later realized a second profit when the shares rose in value with the Grand Trunk’s sale of the same section to the CPR in 1885.
This crucial episode in railway development may in the end have been to Quebec’s advantage, but definitely proved beneficial for Senécal. Certainly he made many enemies who attacked him from all sides – for example, the Liberals in L’Électeur and the Ultramontanes in a pamphlet entitled Le Pays, le Parti et le Grand Homme, which was published at Montreal in 1882. Yet, on the other hand, he became one of the most influential men in Quebec at the beginning of the 1880s. In 1880 he had been practically insolvent, to judge from the 78 notices of protest served on him by creditors, but by 1882 he was on his feet again financially. Managing a government undertaking had also opened new horizons. In 1881 and 1882 he went to France, as superintendent of the Quebec, Montreal, Ottawa and Occidental Railway, to negotiate the issue of a public loan, and he made contact with some of the important international financiers. After Chapleau left for the federal scene in 1882, Senécal decided to carve a place for himself in the vast network of international capital. He was rich enough to afford newspapers that lavished praise on him, and he benefited from his relations with the high financial circles of Montreal, where he was feared for his low cunning and admired for his boldness and energy. Furthermore, he had some important leverage: he was president of the Richelieu and Ontario Navigation Company (1882–87), the North Shore Railway Company (1883–86), and the Montreal City Passenger Railway Company (1883–84). In 1883 he was given the cross of commander in the French Legion of Honour, which earned him a demonstration of friendship and testimony of admiration from the highest-ranking Montreal political and financial figures, both English and French. The celebration was no mere public event. In a sense it became an historic moment, establishing for succeeding generations the image of a mythical Senécal who, in the words of Jean-Baptiste Rolland, “personifies the commercial and industrial genius of the country,” and who, according to Chapleau, was the living symbol of the economic awakening of French-speaking Canadians. Quoting the motto which had inspired him all his life – “where there’s a will, there’s a way” – Senécal affirmed his resolve to continue his labours on a national scale.
The issuing of public bonds in Paris and the establishment in Quebec of the Crédit Foncier Franco-Canadien in 1881 had aroused an infatuation for “vieille France” in political and financial circles. It was fashionable to trade with France, which might become an important partner in the economic recovery of French Canadians and the development of Quebec’s resources. Rumour had it that Senécal had returned from France and England in 1882 full of fresh ideas. In fact he was nursing three large projects that involved millions of dollars and brought him the adulation of some Montreal financiers: a company to install a transatlantic cable from Halifax to the coast of England, thereby decreasing the cost of telegraphic communications; a shipping link between Rouen and Quebec, financed by capital from Rouen, Montreal, and governmental sources; and a colonization company, drawing on international capital, to develop Quebec’s natural resources. These were ventures worthy of an American “tycoon.” The third project, the General Colonization and Industrial Enterprise Company, was beyond a doubt the most ambitious ever conceived by Senécal. The company, with a capital of 6 to 10 million dollars, was to be based on the acquisition of the properties comprising the estate of the late George Benson Hall*, which included the famous mills at Montmorency (now part of Beauport), with their extensive timber limits in the Gatineau, Saint-Maurice, and Beauce regions, as well as the Radnor ironworks near Trois-Rivières and several townships, or parts thereof, in southern Quebec.
With Sir Charles Tupper* (the Canadian high commissioner in London) and other associates, Senécal concentrated particularly on this last project during 1883. On 29 January Hall’s heirs signed a promise of sale to Senécal. The following month Senécal asked the Quebec Legislative Assembly to grant a charter to the company, which included 27 prominent financiers from various regions of Quebec, and five foreign investors: R. H. Kimball, a New York banker; J. Belloni, owner of collieries in the United States; René Manraize, a Paris merchant; Émile Bonemant, a French agronomist, and Bradley Barlow, a Vermont senator. At the end of February, fearing that lobbying by the ultramontane members might block the grant of the powers demanded by the company, Senécal bought from Sherbrooke businessman Charles King the charter of the Eastern Townships Land and Improvement Company, which conferred extensive powers and enabled him to conduct his operations more freely. On 7 June he acquired the Hall properties in his own name for $1,600,000: $250,000 was paid in cash and four payments, ending on 2 July 1884, were scheduled for the remainder. Although the stakes were high, Senécal realized a substantial profit when he resold these properties two months later to the General Colonization Company (which he had meanwhile incorporated) for “$2,500,000, with $1,000,000 immediately, in paid-up company stock, and the balance of a million and a half, also in paid-up stock, as soon as he has supplied the company with a full discharge of any mortgage on the said property.”
Still in search of investors, Senécal went to Europe in the autumn of 1883. He had numerous discussions with Poursin-Escande (the Canadian government agent in Paris), Hector Fabre* (the Quebec representative there), Sir Charles Tupper, and one Fichet (a millionaire from Le Havre, France). Negotiations dragged on and, worse still, an article in the Mail of Toronto and the Morning Chronicle of Quebec attacking Senécal’s credibility put investors on their guard. Back in Canada in December, Senécal launched a libel action for $200,000 (raised to $250,000 in November 1884) against the first newspaper and another against the second. It seems, on the evidence of a handwritten note in Senécal’s papers, that in January 1884 “the insurers in Edinburgh reportedly received unfavourable information from Montreal and changed their minds.” Was this to be the end of a splendid dream? On 29 Jan. 1884 the board of directors of the General Colonization Company – on which sat Senécal, John McDougall Jr, Charles Rudolph Hosmer*, Louis-Joséph Forget, Télesphore-Eusèbe Normand, Jean-Baptiste-Amédée Mongenais, Paul-Étienne Grandbois, and Jean-Baptiste Renaud – for want of capital revoked the purchase of the Hall properties concluded with Senécal the preceding year. Through his attorney, Alexandre Louthood, Senécal followed suit with Hall’s heirs, thus losing his first payment to them of $250,000 and the interest on a payment of $210,000 which he owed. But despite his disappointments he did not give up, and on 15 February negotiated the purchase of the Radnor ironworks from Hall’s heirs for $150,000. On 3 June this contract was renewed until 1 September on other terms but finally expired when the first instalment of $25,000 was not met.
Senécal’s three national ventures collapsed for reasons still unknown. In fact, both the transatlantic cable project and the proposed Rouen-Quebec shipping company met the same fate as the General Colonization Company: despite some support in both French and English political circles, Senécal was unable to attract the capital necessary for projects of this magnitude. For 18 months they had claimed much of his time and energy, but had not prevented him from investing in a great many undertakings, such as the Coleraine Mining Company on 11 Oct. 1882, the Magog Textile and Print Company ($10,000) on 2 May 1883, and the Compagnie d’Imprimerie of La Minerve the following year. At the time of his death he held securities in the Anglo-Canadian Asbestos Company ($12,738), the Beet Sugar Company of the Province of Quebec ($1,000), the Sovereign Fire Insurance Company of Canada ($1,000), the Canadian Electric Light Company ($40,000), the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada ($500), the Household Fire Extinguisher Company ($2,000), the Megantic Mining Company ($10,000), the Richelieu Paper Manufacturing Company ($5,000), and the Royal Electric Company ($2,000). Various speculations accompanied these investments. On 19 Nov. 1885 he even attempted to return to railway construction, going into partnership with Philippe-Elisée Panneton and Marie-Louise-Alphonsine Giroux, the wife of Télesphore-Eusèbe Normand of Trois-Rivières, in order to build the Saint Lawrence, Lower Laurentian and Saguenay Railway, which would link Saint-Jean-des-Piles to the Quebec and Lake Saint John Railway. Two years later only a 22 1/2-mile section had been built.
Senécal’s great interest henceforth was the Richelieu and Ontario Navigation Company. On 13 Feb. 1882 he had been elected president, ousting Hugh Allan, who since 1875 had managed the company with an iron hand and made it one of Canada’s largest shipping firms. In 1882 the company, operating between Quebec City and the Great Lakes, had a paid-up capital of about $1,500,000 and 22 ships. None the less, its earning capacity was decreasing, net profits having dropped from $90,722 in 1880 to $32,682 in 1881. The shareholders’ dissatisfaction had served the purpose of Senécal, who aspired to the presidency to realize an ambitious project: to amalgamate the eastern section of the Quebec, Montreal, Ottawa and Occidental Railway with the Richelieu and Ontario Navigation Company to secure a monopoly of transportation on the St Lawrence. He had acquired 559 shares in the company – playing the stock exchange on margin, wrote La Minerve, pilfering from the public treasury, said his enemies – had found allies among the groups opposed to Allan, and had succeeded in getting himself elected director and then president.
Senécal’s immediate objective was to make the company show a profit. The new board of directors took an inventory of assets, examined the various departments, analysed the books, revised the charges, and signed agreements with rival companies. Thus on 11 March 1882 the Quebec, Montreal, Ottawa and Occidental, of which Senécal was still general superintendent, undertook to pay $2,000 annually to the Richelieu and Ontario Navigation Company, provided the latter agreed to cancel its services to Maskinongé, Louiseville, and Yamachiche. On 16 November a similar agreement, involving a one-week suspension of services to Quebec, was concluded, in return for a payment of $1,000, with the North Shore Railway financial syndicate, which now owned the eastern section of the Quebec, Montreal, Ottawa and Occidental. It was at a meeting on 21 November that Senécal really showed his hand: he persuaded the directors to allow the North Shore Railway syndicate, of which he was also president, to lease the Richelieu and Ontario Navigation Company for 99 years at the rate of $80,000 annually. When the syndicate agreed in December to sell the eastern section of the Quebec, Montreal, Ottawa and Occidental to the Grand Trunk, Senécal abandoned his attempt to unite these two great companies and to monopolize maritime and rail transportation in the St Lawrence region.
The administrative reforms instituted by Senécal in the operations of the Richelieu and Ontario Navigation Company did, however, begin to bear fruit. To the great satisfaction of the shareholders, profits rose to $85,806 in 1882 and the board of directors succeeded in reducing the operating costs by $24,000. During 1883 the company continued its cost-cutting policy, reducing staff and salaries wherever possible. Sorel became the sole “depot of the fleet,” where the ships were laid up in winter and repaired. Moreover, efforts were made to eliminate rivals, or at least to reduce their number. By managing to place three of its directors, including Senécal, in the head office of the rival Lake St Francis Railway and Navigation Company, the Richelieu and Ontario extended its control.
Absorbed by his great international projects, Senécal was often absent during 1883, missing 26 of the 54 meetings of the board of directors of the Richelieu and Ontario. Subsequently he attended with greater regularity and used his energy to thwart its numerous competitors. In February 1885, in order to consolidate the firm’s position in the western section of its territory, he signed an agreement with the Rome, Waterton and Ogdensburg Railway Company, whose terminus was at Cape Vincent, N.Y. By its terms, the Richelieu and Ontario was to provide a marine link between this terminus and Montreal, Toronto, and even Niagara Falls, Ont., on an agreed timetable and rates. It thus effectively excluded its competitors from a large part of the traffic in goods originating in New York State.
In 1886 the Richelieu and Ontario became interested in the Longueuil Navigation Company and the Laprairie Navigation Company among others, and on 5 February the directors authorized Senécal to increase their company’s capital by $200,000 in order to acquire these two transportation companies. During the same year the Saguenay River circuit, operated by the St Lawrence Steam Navigation Company, was made over to the Richelieu and Ontario for nearly $200,000, with the guarantee that no other link would be set up by the former in the same sector or in any other sector served by the purchaser.
Thus, thanks to Senécal’s aggressive policy, the prestige, profitability, and ascendancy of the Richelieu and Ontario Navigation Company increased greatly. His activity with this company also brought him personal advantages. Through the support of a number of members appointed to the board by virtue of shares which he had assigned to them, Senécal had made sure he had control of the company. It is not altogether clear how he proposed to utilize this power, but the inventory of his assets at his death shows that he had begun to use the company’s funds for his own purposes and owed it $17,115 .
Senécal was, however, beginning to feel the wear and tear of the years and in the autumn of 1886 he was forced to stay away from the board meetings on his doctor’s orders. His friend Chapleau insisted on his being appointed to the Senate, an honour which he had been denied in 1883. Sir John A. Macdonald* allowed himself to be persuaded this time and on 25 Jan. 1887 invited Senécal to take the place of Louis-François-Roderick Masson*. It was the last token of appreciation offered to him by the Conservative party he had served so well. Stricken with paralysis at the beginning of October, Senécal passed away on 11 Oct. 1887 at his mansion on Rue Dubord in Montreal. His estate was left in extreme confusion. The notaries valued his assets at approximately $514,280, not counting his share in the Saint Lawrence, Lower Laurentian and Saguenay Railway; his liabilities, amounting to $700,000, included a gift of $50,000 to each of his two daughters. The inventory also mentions other assets of $800,000 from legal actions still in process, such as his $250,000 suit against the Mail and another of $100,000 against Laurier.
To follow Senécal’s career is to describe in detail the fluctuations in the state of Quebec’s economy during the second half of the 19th century. In 1850, when he was about 20, he had already begun to speculate in grain and lumber, and then to trade in them; by the end of his life he had become the most important French Canadian capitalist of his time. In the mid 19th century, trade in merchandise was an important source of profit, a situation he was able to exploit to the full. From the outset he applied himself rigorously (even in a scandalous and dishonest fashion, his critics alleged) to the accumulation of capital, in order steadily to enlarge his participation in a given economic sector or to launch into other promising fields. With capital amassed as a local merchant, Senécal broke into shipping, thanks in particular to the purchase of boats, shipbuilding, the rental of barges, and dredging. Continuing to expand his interests, he turned to lumber manufacture and trade, as well as to land speculation, in the end becoming an important landowner.
Despite his three bankruptcies, a consequence of too rapid an economic ascent, Senécal displayed cleverness and foresight, temporarily slowing down his activity and then, at the beginning of the 1870s, venturing into railway construction, an expanding field of considerable promise. At that time, by coordinating his economic and political efforts, he made an important place for himself in this sector of activity. His administrative participation in the Quebec, Montreal, Ottawa and Occidental, as well as in the North Shore Railway Company, placed him at the nerve centre of Quebec’s railway system, a position from which he was well able to derive personal profit. The projected monopoly in shipping through the Richelieu and Ontario Navigation Company, at the beginning of the 1880s, shows the extent to which he had succeeded in asserting himself. Moreover, it was in this period that he decided to try his luck in business on the international scene. The project of the General Colonization Company alone involved him in a $3,000,000 transaction, but it collapsed for want of investors, causing Senécal enormous losses. Having returned to the national scene, the “capitaine de Pierreville” devoted his attention to the Richelieu and Ontario Navigation Company during the last years of his life.
In a period marked by the extensive growth of trusts in the United States and of large companies like the CPR in Canada, Senécal throughout his career remained an individual capitalist and conducted his affairs in a distinctively personal manner. Disdaining any integrated system of accounting, resorting to innumerable agents, sometimes acting against his own partners, and using for his personal investments the funds of companies for which he was responsible, he managed to conceal his operations from his contemporaries, but nevertheless was unable to gain the confidence of large investors and bankers who were indispensable to the success and continuance of his projects. Because of his complex personality and the aggressive way in which he conducted his affairs, he acquired a controversial and contradictory public image; he was seen on the one hand as a political, monopolistic, and pilfering “boss,” and on the other as a patriot incarnating the economic ascent of French Canadians.
Despite the disorganized state of his affairs at his death, Senécal had succeeded in following the changing economic currents of his day better than any of his French Canadian contemporaries. The diversity and significance of the economic activity in which he engaged placed him in the front ranks of Canadian capitalists in the 19th centuret, although he was a leading entrepreneur who put a great deal of money to work, Senécal lacked the perspicacity to enable the painstaking bringing to fruition of projects which might have remained important national institutions in the economic development of Quebec.
[There is as yet no adequate biography of Louis-Adélard Senécal. The handful of authors who have written about him have taken their material from the lengthy obituary published in La Minerve (Montreal) of 12 Oct. 1887, without further verification. Senécal’s role as superintendent of the Quebec, Montreal, Ottawa and Occidental Railway, is examined in B. J. Young, Promoters and politicians: the North-Shore railways in the history of Quebec, 1854–85 (Toronto, 1978), and in Gaétan Gervais, “L’expansion du réseau ferroviaire québécois.”
The lack of serious works on Senécal can be attributed both to the breadth of his personality and accomplishments and to the absence of archival sources. Senécal did not keep his personal papers, with the exception of cheque stubs, receipts, and a few documents which he stored in his attic and which have largely been destroyed. Only the Musée d’Odanak (Odanak, Qué.) holds a small collection of Senécal papers, consisting of notarial acts, telegrams, scattered letters, and a ledger relating to the affairs of Upton Township from 1866 to 1882. This repository also holds the Fonds Charles-Ignace Gill which contains certain documents pertaining to Senécal.
To write a life of Senécal proved a difficult task; it was therefore necessary to turn to the minute books of notaries, the records of the Richelieu and Ontario Navigation Company, and the newspapers of the day. However, there remain other unexplored sources, such as the correspondence of politicians closely connected with Senécal’s career, as well as the archives of banking institutions and brokerage houses. h.f., j.h., and j.k.]
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