People: Scots of Windsor's Past
Alexander Cameron (1827-1893):
Born in Ireland in 1827, this Ulster Scot was the son of Allan Cameron, a soldier with the 79th Highlanders. Allan immigrated to Amherstburg, Upper Canada, in 1834 and became a customs inspector while Alexander worked at a grocery store. As a child the future "Earl of Essex" was left to master literature, handwriting, history, and arithmetic on his own, being self-educated until entering Upper Canada College at sixteen. He supported himself by teaching young school-children and free-lancing for various newspapers and periodicals. While still a student, he wrote to the pre-eminent Reformer Robert Baldwin requesting an articling position with his law firm, suggesting that he could article and earn his university degree at the same time. After the 1848 Reform victory, Cameron wrote again to Baldwin, this time petitioning for a clerkship, as he was "one whose services for the cause are such as deserves reward." 1 If Baldwin responded to this presumptuous youth, there is no record of what he said.
Cameron's drive, however, was undeniable. He eventually articled with Stephen Richards, who put him into contact with Andrew Norton Buell, another leading Reformer and the Master in Chancery. In 1853, Cameron cemented the favourable relationship by marrying Buell's youngest daughter, Calcina Medora. He was called to the Bar that same year, and immediately jumped into the thrall of local politics. Rising above the fascinating swirl of intrigue and controversy was Refomer and Upper Canada premier Francis Hincks, for whom Cameron zealously campaigned in 1854. "[William Lyon Mackenzie] gave me great credit for my electioneering speeches in Oxford," an enthralled Cameron wrote to his father-in-law on 4 November 1854.
His appetite for politics had been whetted, but Cameron found it difficult to secure a commission: business, particularly land speculation, offered more immediate rewards. In November 1853, Cameron purchased 15,000 acres of Clergy Reserves in Essex County at a rate of seven shillings per acre, convinced that "every acre in this Western country will be worth $10 in the course of ten years." 2 Stricken with an acute case of land fever, Cameron continued to snatch up tracts of land over the next few years, determined to get rich quick and "retire upon my laurels," as he confided to his father-in-law. "I always hope for a good time coming." 3
But good times were not to be had. Cameron was so enchanted by the venture that he failed to notice that land values were stagnating. By the summer of 1858, it had become clear that he had over-extended his investments, and he had to beg his father-in-law for financial assistance. The 1858 crash in land prices crippled speculators throughout the province; many of Cameron's Essex County lots were sold by the sheriff for arrears of taxes.
Adding to these difficulties was tension in the home. Medora was unhappy in Windsor while her husband was constantly traveling between his law offices there and in Toronto, and soon decided to live with her family in Brockville. So indebted was Cameron at that time, however, that he could not pay for her living expenses, and she had to rely on her father for care. His constant business activity, moreover, left little time for visiting, and so he was largely absent from the lives of his children.
Cameron remained on this path until reaching a turning point in 1867. At last deciding to seek election to the provincial legislature, Cameron, whom George Brown had called him a "coming man", was confident that he would win. But despite his leads in Windsor and Amherstburg, his opponent, Solomon Wigle, maintained control over the southern townships. Arthur Rankin, Cameron's friend and supporter, even wrote to Sir John A. MacDonald to get him to try to convince Wigle to pull out of the race. This was to no avail; Cameron lost by a considerable margin and decided to abandon politics altogether.
Rededicating himself to building a fortune, Cameron strengthened his law offices in Windsor and Toronto. Entering into a partnership with Francis Cleary ensured that the firm of Cameron & Cleary would be among the most successful practices in Windsor for the next quarter-century, while in Toronto he joined with George S. Holmstead to engage in equity practice. Late in 1867, he teamed with prominent Windsorite Charles Baby and bought out the Sandwich Street Plank Company, a toll company to which the municipality had leased the Talbot Road from Essex to Sandwich. Cameron also bought stock in a woolen factory and engaged in a money-lending practice in the county. In 1870, he added a newspaper, the Liberal Essex Record, to this multitude of ventures. He described a typical week of his fast-paced life to Alexander Buell in November 1872:
"My office is like a Governor's levee every day I am in town. I am likewise constructing two toll gates. I have to be at Chatham on Wednesday, I made an appointment to be at Petrolia ten days & had to break the engagement. I have pressing business urging me to London. I have a fair share of law business, and from daylight to midnight day after day I am found in the treadmill grinding away at one thing or another."
He also continued to deal in land speculation - this time with a rational head - and it was finally beginning to pay off. The low-lying interior of Essex County was at last being drained and cleared; its population, which had been among the smallest in the province, was about to blossom, and with it, Cameron's speculations. In 1872, he bought 100 acres where his Talbot Road intersected with the soon-to-be-built Canada Southern Railway line in the centre of the county, hoping to replicate the success James Dougall had had with the Great Western in the 1850s.
On this land Cameron built the foundations of the town of Essex. He laid out its streets and its lots, added two saw mills, and had a large hotel built at the nucleus of the town next to the railway depot and freight yard, which were completed in 1874. The Detroit Free Press reported four years later that "Essex Centre is growing to be a very respectable village." 4 Cameron was realizing his dream: through his efforts, Essex was becoming "what she should long ago have been made, virtually the garden of Canada." 5
Unlike his business schemes of the 1850s, Cameron this time worked in partnerships, sharing the profits and minimizing risks. John Curry, a young Windsor banker, was a perfect partner. Two years after his brother James, with whom he had operated a store and the Curry Brothers Bank of Windsor, passed away in 1877, he joined with Cameron to become banking partners under the name of the Essex County Bank. Cameron later acknowledged that the day he "engaged the services of John Curry" was "the luckiest day of his life," as the bank provided the ideal way to obtain money to buy and subdivide land to sell for profit. 6
The growth of the town of Windsor, moreover, was crucial to the future of Cameron's land holdings. With the Canada Southern Railway directing much of the rail traffic to the middle of the county 7, Detroit and Windsor businessmen planned to make their cities the principal transit point between the New York City-Chicago line. Cameron was instrumental in persuading Windsor to advance $30,000 to "Commodore" Vanderbilt, the railroad baron, to built a railroad linking Windsor and the Great Western to Essex Centre and the Canadian Southern. One attendee at a meeting of businessmen was convinced that the bonus must be a good idea because he "knew Mr. Cameron would not part with a dollar unless he was sure of getting more in return." 8
Cameron indeed earned huge profits on his properties when the line was built. It was in operation by 1882, with the Essex Record reporting that "no event has occurred within the history of Windsor of so much importance to the people, as the swinging in hither of the Southern Railway." 9 Windsor boomed "from a struggling hamlet to a town of 10,000 in 1887," with American merchants, retailers, and manufacturers spilling over for business. An influx of workers necessitated housing development, and Curry and Cameron built around Dougall's central holdings. Between 1880 and 1892, they owned, in whole or in part, five of Windsor's nine largest housing developments, subdividing 1,287 lots to the east and west of the downtown core.
Windsor's skyrocketing growth finally made Cameron the fortune of which he had always dreamed. In 1871, the town's total real estate value amassed to less than one million dollars. It had crawled up to 2.3 million by 1887, and boomed to 4.6 million by 1890. Meanwhile, the population of 10,000 had soared to over 200,000 within those three explosive years.
He had achieved such a level of prosperity during the 1880s that he was able to provide his new family - three years after Medora passed away suddenly in 1875, he had remarried Catharine Ward, the widow of a wealthy Detroit shipbuilder - with a lifestyle mimicking that of the Vanderbilts. The social activities of Cameron and his wife made headlines in the society pages, and the family spent the entire summer of 1882 touring Europe. Catharine's daughter, Clara, heir to the Ward fortune, made national headlines in 1890 when she married Marie Joseph Anatole Pierre Alphonse de Riquet, Prince de Caraman-Chimay, a Belgian nobleman and member of the Belgian Chamber of Deputies, becoming the Princess de Caraman-Chimay.
Alexander Cameron, dubbed by the Detroit papers as "Western Ontario's Croesus," was worth $700,000 at the time of his death in 1893. His fast-paced life has, however, been largely forgotten. He accomplished nothing in politics, launched no major enterprises, and left a small legacy. The streets that bear his name are the only current remainders of "the Earl of Essex's" hectic career.
For a more thorough examination of the activities of Alexander Cameron, consult Brode, Patrick, Alexander Cameron and the Flowering of the County of Essex, 1853-1893, Occasional Paper No. 4, Essex County Historical Society: Windsor, Ont., 1987. Available in the Central branch of the Windsor Public Library. Call no. 971.33103 BRO