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People: Scots of Windsor's Past

John McEwan (1812-1892):

John McEwan
John McEwan

Prominent Windsorite John McEwan was born in Saratoga, New York, to Jane McDonald and Charles McEwan, who had left Scotland in 1809. The family moved to Gananoque, Ontario, while John was a small child. In the 1830s he married Margaret Arnold, the granddaughter of the infamous American traitor Benedict Arnold. The couple moved to Sarnia in 1846, where John worked in the timber industry. Two years later, he relocated to Windsor to open up his own lumber yard.

John found instant success in the new village. He was made Clerk of the Court in 1849, a position he held for four years. When the Great Western Railway came to town in 1853, he was forced to close his lumber business, as tracks were laid through the yard. As consolation the Great Western made him Windsor's first station agent, and he later earned a promotion to the Canada Southern Railway. Ever adventurous with new opportunities, McEwan founded the Windsor Herald, the village's first newspaper, in 1855. The following year, John A. MacDonald appointed him Sheriff of the County of Essex. (Unfortunately, he had to resign this post in 1883 after two murderers escaped on his watch.)

No single event speaks to the characters of John and Margaret better than the cholera train episode. In July 1854, a cholera-riddled train full of Norwegian immigrants pulled into Windsor Station from Hamilton. The passengers had been crammed into windowless cars and were abandoned for two days in Tilbury without provisions after the train derailed due to the tracks swelling in the heat. They had become infected with the disease when they drank from the contaminated waters of Baptiste Creek. Thirty-three people collapsed on the station platform. Windsor's population at that time was 750: the village had no hospital and only one doctor.

John set up a makeshift hospital at the Great Western storehouse, and he and his wife wasted no time ministering to the sick. They spent countless hours performing what they called their "Christian duty" with no regard for the danger to which they exposed themselves. Although John's robust system fought off the disease with little difficulty, many of the passengers were not as lucky: fifty-seven people in all - men, women, and children - died despite the best efforts of volunteer caregivers. The death of one married couple left two children orphaned, so the McEwans took them in and raised them until they were old enough to look after themselves. The Great Western Railway presented Mrs. McEwan with a gold watch for "her kind and Christian benevolence" in January 1855.

John built the yellow brick house at 131 McEwan Avenue in 1871. His granddaughter Grace opened the road between Riverside Drive and University Avenue (then Sandwich Street and London Avenue) that bore her family's name in 1913 in response to the rapidly-growing city's needs.

John and Margaret's son, James (1846-1917) became a respected member of the community in his own right. In 1872, he was appointed Crier of the Court, and in 1895 he was chosen to be the head of the newly-formed Humane Society. His 1895 marriage to Amanda Rogers resulted in four children, and the Commemorative Biographical Record of 1905 praised his character, insisting that "there are few residents of this pleasant little city who can make an evening pass more pleasantly for a visitor than can Mr. McEwan." 1

John and Margaret McEwan Memorial
John and Margaret McEwan Memorial
James P. McEwan
James P. McEwan
  1. Commemorative Biographical Record of the County of Essex, Ontario, J. H. Beers & Co.: Toronto, 1905. 434.
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