SMITH, GEORGE ROBERT, mining executive and politician; b. 17 Feb. 1860 in Newark, N.J., son of Benjamin Smith and Mary Ann Codmer; m. 3 March 1886 Isabella Frances Parker in Buckingham, Que., and they had five sons and two daughters; d. 20 Feb. 1922 in Thetford Mines, Que., and was buried in Sherbrooke, Que.
George Robert Smith took commercial courses in Newark and moved to Canada at the age of 16. Soon after his arrival he became interested in the mining industry. He began his career by working in the silver mines near Kingston, Ont. He then managed the mica, graphite, and phosphate mines belonging to William Anderson Allan near Buckingham from 1881 to 1886. From 1886 to 1892 he was a representative of the Ingersoll Rock Drill Company, an American enterprise that had a branch in Montreal during the 1890s. In this capacity he made frequent visits to the mining companies of the Eastern Townships and got to know various owners. His experience there was no doubt what prompted the Englishman John Bell to appoint him manager of his firm, Bell’s Asbestos Company, in 1892. Smith now moved to Kingsville (Thetford Mines) and became the first of a long line of Smiths to hold a managerial position in this corporation. Following the purchase of Bell’s Asbestos by the American firm of Keasbey and Mattison Company, Smith in 1906 became vice-president and manager of mining operations, positions he held for the rest of his life.
With his enterprising spirit and marked interest in mining, Smith was able to invent and improve equipment that greatly enhanced the reputation of what was commonly known as the Bell Mine, which was considered a leader in new technology. In 1893 it became the first in the world to own an asbestos reduction plant; this innovation was the result of work done by John J. Penhale (who had perfected the technique of milling asbestos for the mines at Black Lake) and extended by Smith. In 1893 and 1894 Smith also developed the notion of underground galleries to facilitate operations during the winter. In 1894 he invented the suction fan, driven by the motor of a steam-powered winch, which separated the fibre from the rock and graded it mechanically. It was an ingenious concept, and one that increased productivity. In 1906 the Bell Mine became one of the first enterprises of its kind to use a steam locomotive, another innovation attributable to Smith’s creative genius. During his 30 years in management at the Bell Mine, Smith worked at progressively mechanizing the mining industry and improving its performance. As a result of mechanization 95 per cent of the ore could be milled at the mine itself, a total of about 500 tons a day, by 1894. Under Smith’s leadership, the enterprise, which had between 450 and 500 employees, enjoyed a sound financial position and an excellent reputation around the world. The company’s exports went mainly to the United States, but at the turn of the century, Great Britain, Belgium, France, and Germany became important customers for the Bell Mine.
Smith was involved in a number of activities related to mining. From 1895 he was one of the principal promoters of what became, in 1898, the Canadian Mining Institute. Founded following the success of the General Mining Association of the Province of Quebec [see Benjamin Taylor A. Bell*], it sought to ensure the protection and prosperity of mining companies in Quebec and the rest of Canada. In addition to being co-founder of the institute, Smith was its president from 1906 to 1907. In 1908 he moved to Montreal, where he remained long enough to set up, at the request of his superiors, a plant for manufacturing products made of asbestos (tiles, textiles, packaging material, brake linings). His brother William Henry replaced him at the Bell Mine, and George Robert became vice-president and general manager of the Asbestos Mining and Manufacturing Company, located in Lachine and owned by Keasbey and Mattison Company. In 1912 he had to return to Thetford Mines to supervise the work involved in enlarging the milling plant at the Bell Mine.
Besides devoting himself to professional activities, Smith belonged to a variety of associations, including the exclusive Montreal Club. He also served in the 11th Hussars, a cavalry regiment of the Canadian militia at Richmond, in which he held the rank of major and commanded a squadron until 1908. He spent his rare free time gardening or working at a small farm on his property in Thetford Mines, where he raised domestic animals, including horses, of which he was particularly fond.
Smith also had a career in politics. In the provincial election of 1897 he was returned as the Liberal member for the constituency of Mégantic, with a majority of 267. Since 1878 there had been a number of mlas from the region, including George Irvine*, Andrew Stuart Johnson, and James King*, who had had an important role in the development of local mining enterprises, serving on their boards and looking out for their interests. Smith was re-elected by acclamation in 1900 and 1904, but was defeated in 1908. During his last term, he worked on the request for incorporation by the town of Thetford Mines. On 5 Jan. 1911 he was appointed legislative councillor for the division of Victoria, an office he retained until his death on 20 Feb. 1922. His funeral service was held in Thetford Mines. Before being interred in the Elmwood Cemetery in Sherbrooke, his coffin travelled more than 60 miles on a train crowded with people who had come to pay him their last respects.
George Robert Smith’s appointment as vice-president and manager of the Bell Mine marked the beginning of a long family tradition with the company. From 1892 to 1972 the firm (which became Bell Asbestos Mines Limited in 1936) always had a member of the Smith family as president. The history of this man and his descendants exemplifies the control that Americans and English Canadians had over the asbestos industry in Quebec before it was nationalized by the province in 1978. It also illustrates all the efforts made by these men to develop the mining sector of the economy.
ANQ-O, ZQ127/25, 3 mars 1886. Musée Minéralogique et Minier de Thetford Mines, Qué., G. W. Smith, “La famille Smith et la Bell Asbestos Co. de 1892 à 1971” (texte dactylographié, 1972). Le Devoir, 21 févr. 1922. Montreal Daily Herald, 4 March 1905. La Tribune (Sherbrooke, Qué.), 21, 24 févr. 1922. Romain Dubé et al., Thetford Mines à ciel ouvert: histoire d’une ville minière, 1892-1992 (Thetford Mines, 1994). [Clément Fortier], Black Lake: lac d’amiante, 1882-1982 (2v., s.l., 1983-86), 1. G. W. Smith, Bell Asbestos Mines Ltd., 1878-1967 (n.p., 1968).