Tag: McCord Museum

Stanley Bagg and the Lachine Canal. Part 1: the Contract

The original section of the Lachine Canal, near the Fur Trade of Lachine National Historic Site. JH photo.

Many of the family stories I heard about my ancestors turned out to be incomplete or wrong. One story that proved to be true is the claim that my three-times great-grandfather Stanley Bagg (1788-1853) was a contractor who built Montreal’s Lachine Canal in the 1820s. The family story did not explain how he got the contract, what his role was, or what a complex undertaking it was.

In the days before highways and railways, the St Lawrence River was an important transportation corridor between the Atlantic Ocean and the heart of North America, but the Lachine Rapids, a few kilometers upstream from Montreal, made navigation difficult. People talked about the need for a navigable canal around the rapids, but the government did not want to spend the money.

During the War of 1812, the St. Lawrence River was used to transport military supplies from Montreal to Kingston, and the government began to recognize its importance. But just as the population of the Great Lakes region began to swell with new immigrants, the commercial potential of Montreal and the St. Lawrence River became threatened when the Americans began construction of the Erie Canal between Lake Erie and the Hudson River in 1817.

Two years later a group of Montreal merchants received permission to build a canal with private financing. They hired British engineer Thomas Burnett to propose a route, but when they read his report, they realized the project was too big to be built by private enterprise. Finally the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada agreed to pay for the canal. It set aside 45,000 pounds and appointed a Board of Commissioners to manage the project. One of the commissioners was Thomas Phillips, a master plasterer.

By now it was the end of June 1821 and, if any excavation work was to be done that year, it had to start soon, before the rain and cold of autumn arrived. Suddenly, the tender process was underway and moving quickly. No one had ever undertaken a canal excavation and construction project of this magnitude in Canada before, so the bidding process must have involved a lot of guesswork. “The lowest bid was submitted by a group composed of Stanley Bagg, Oliver Wait, Andrew White and Thomas Phillips (who had resigned his appointment as commissioner)”, historian Gerald Tulchinsky explained in his 1960 thesis about the canal’s construction. “They were awarded the contract, not only on the grounds of price, but because they offered to dig the whole canal, whereas others offered to excavate only sections,”

The four partners all had some construction experience and Phillips, as a former member of the commission, must have had a good idea of the canal’s requirements. White was a carpenter, and Bagg and Wait had previously collaborated on several construction contracts for the British army.

partners’ agreement; BAnQ. Griffin 187-3888 29/8/1821

The commission’s 1821 annual report described the four men as “persons of character and considerable property.” On this project, Bagg acted as treasurer. The commissioners responded to the Phillips groups’ offer, forcing them to take risks on the types of soil and the amount of rock they might encounter as they excavated. Then, on July 9, the commission awarded them the contract. 

The ground-breaking ceremony took place on July 17 with the commissioners and the four contractors in attendance, along with the labourers who had already been hired. Newspaper reporters, friends and family members and Lachine residents looked on. Commission chairman John Richardson turned the first sod and each of the commissioners and contractors took a turn with the ceremonial shovel. Richardson made a short speech, a military band played and everyone dug in to the meat pies and beer provided. Soon the commissioners and contractors withdrew to a nearby inn for more toasts, while some of the drunken labourers back at the construction site got into fights.

As the contractors began to get organized and hire subcontractors, they still had to finalize their own partnership. On August 29, Phillips, White, Bagg and Wait signed an agreement with each other, pledging not to undertake any other contracts until this one was complete.

The job took four years, thousands of labourers were involved, costs ballooned and the contractors encountered many unexpected difficulties. My next post will describe in more detail the massive construction project Stanley Bagg and his colleagues undertook.


The historical background for this article comes from Gerald Tulchinsky’s 1960 M.A. thesis for the McGill University Department of History, “The Construction of the First Lachine Canal, 1815-1826”. It can be found at the McGill library and online, http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/obj/thesescanada/vol2/QMM/TC-QMM-112940.pdf. University theses are an often overlooked resource; they can provide background on a variety of subjects, and the bibliographies they include can identify other sources. To search a list of Canadian theses, see http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/services/theses/Pages/theses-canada.aspx.

I also consulted primary sources to learn more about my ancestor’s role in this project. One of the best sources of information about the construction of the canal is the Bagg Family Fonds at the McCord Museum in Montreal. Members of Stanley Bagg’s family kept his records and eventually donated them to the museum’s archives. The Lachine Canal collection (P070/A3.1 to P070/A3.5) includes contracts and account books, and many names are mentioned.

The minutes and annual reports of the Lachine Canal Commission, 1821-1842, are held in the archives of Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa, RG43-C-III-2 and R555-5-2-E. They are on microfilm, but I managed to see the original documents. It appears they are now in the process of being digitized.

The third primary source of information for this topic are the records of the Montreal notaries who wrote the contracts. Henry Griffin handled the agreement between the four contractors; see his act number 187-3888, dated 29 August, 1821. Griffin’s records are available on microfilm at the Bibliothèque et Archives nationale du Québec in Montreal and should eventually be digitized.

Mary Mitcheson Clark

Mary Mitcheson Clark (1776-1856)

A portrait of my four-times great-grandmother Mary Mitcheson shows a plain but pleasant looking woman with dark eyes, rosy cheeks and a frilly cap. The wife of Montreal butcher and landowner John Clark, she held a book in her hand and had rings on her fingers that suggest a certain level of refinement. 

Mary was born at Stowe House, in the tiny village of Cornsay, County Durham, in northeast England, to Joseph Mitchinson (an earlier spelling of the family name) and his wife, Margaret Phillipson. She was baptized in 1776 at Whickham parish church, her mother’s parish. Mary had five younger siblings: Robert (born in 1779), Margaret (1781), William (1783), Elizabeth (1785) and Jane (1793).

On June 10, 1794, Mary Mitchinson, age 21 (or so she said,) of Lanchester, married John Clark at St Giles parish church, on the outskirts of the city of Durham. The following year, she gave birth to a daughter. Mary Ann Clark was baptized in Lanchester, the rural parish in which Mary’s father had grown up. 

At some point over the next few years, Mary, John and their little girl left England. The first evidence I have found of their presence in Montreal is a deed showing they had purchased a property on de La Gauchetière Street in 1799. A few years later, Mary gave birth to a son, John F. Clark. He died in June 1806, aged eight months. 

Mary may have enjoyed a level of financial independence unusual for a woman at that time. When she turned 21, she inherited 50 pounds from her grandfather. When her father died in 1821, he left her 100 pounds, specifying in his will that it was for her use alone; usually a woman’s property automatically became her husband’s. And when they sold the de La Gauchetière property in 1810, both John Clark and Mary Mitcheson signed the deed of sale, so perhaps they were co-owners of the property. 

In 1819, daughter Mary Ann married Stanley Bagg, an American-born merchant who had rented an inn known as the Mile End Tavern from John Clark. The following year, the Clarks’ only grandchild, Stanley Clark Bagg, was born. By this time, the young Bagg family was living at Durham House, on St. Lawrence Street, while the Clark couple lived up the road at Mile End Lodge. 

John Clark died in 1827, at age 60. He left Mile End Lodge and another property, the Clark Cottage Farm, which was further north on St. Lawrence Street, to Mary. He willed his other properties to his daughter and to his young grandson. A clause in his will ensured that Mary Ann would give her mother 1,000 bundles of good timothy hay every year. Perhaps Mary continued to raise some cattle and needed the hay to feed them over the winter.

Mile End Lodge

But Mary must have found Mile End Lodge too big, so about a year after John’s death, she moved to a smaller house known as Clark Cottage or Mitcheson Cottage. It can still be identified today at the northwest corner of Bagg Street and Clark Street in Montreal’s Plateau district.

As a widow for almost 30 years, Mary seems to have been active in running her properties. In 1844, Stanley Clark Bagg, by then a notary, looked after a lease for his grandmother and, on at least one occasion, she placed a rental notice in the local newspaper for Mile End Lodge. 

Mary Ann died in 1835, Stanley in 1853. Mary outlived them both, dying on January 15, 1856, age 80. She is buried with her husband, daughter, son-in-law, grandson and other family members in the Bagg family mausoleum at Mount Royal Cemetery. 

Edited May 29, 2014 to correct Mary’s place of residence at the time of her marriage.

Photo credits: Mary Mitcheson Clark, private collection                                                       
Mile End Lodge, painting by John Hugh Ross, copyright Stewart Museum.

Edited June 3, 2014 to correct date of marriage.

Research remarks: Regular readers of this blog may find the name Mitcheson rings a bell. That is because Mary’s brother Robert immigrated to Philadelphia around 1817. His daughter Catharine Mitcheson married her first cousin once removed, Stanley Clark Bagg, in 1844. 

I did a lot of research on the Mitcheson family when I first started doing genealogy five years ago. I found most of the baptism and marriage records on www.familysearch.org, but I had help getting started: a cousin had done some research in the 1970s, and another descendant contacted the vicar of Lanchester parish in 1914. The vicar sent him records for the Mitcheson family going back to the early 1700s, but Mary’s name was not included since she was baptized at Whickham.

There is a note in the Bagg family Bible indicating that Mary was born at Stowe House. I had no idea where that was, but when I hired a local retired genealogist to take us to Lanchester, Whickham and some other parish churches around Durham a few years ago, he took us to Cornsay. We were not sure which house it was, but now I see online that Stow House has been renovated and made into vacation rental cottages. 

The following newspaper clipping can be found in the Bagg Fonds at the McCord Museum in Montreal: “Mile End Lodge: two-storey stone house near St. Lawrence Toll Gate, with stable, garden, use of well; within half an hour’s walk of post office; rent moderate. Apply to Mrs. Clark, Mitche­son Cottage, near the premises, or to S.C. Bagg, Fairmount Villa. Feb. 3, 1853.” 

Notarial records of deeds, wills, leases and so on can be found at the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, https://www.banq.qc.ca. The deed of sale I mentioned in the article was #2876 in the records of notary J.A. Gray, dated 18 October, 1810.

Most Durham wills are kept at the archives of the University of Durham, but I ordered Joseph Mitcheson’s will online from the National Archives in London.