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John A. Macdonald:
Guelph's Most Famous Land Speculator

(published in the Wellington Business Digest, Vol. 1, Issue 4, 1985)

One of Guelph's early real estate developers was none other than Canada's first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. The great railway boom of the early 1850s sparked Macdonald's interest in Guelph.

Well placed to speculate in railway lands, Macdonald had helped negotiate the amalgamation of the Guelph and Toronto Railway Company with the newly chartered Grand Trunk Company. More significant perhaps, Macdonald was legal advisor to C.S. Gzowski and Company, the firm given the contract to build the Guelph to Toronto rail line. With this inside track, Macdonald purchased land near the Market Square in 1851, before the choice of that location for the railway station was officially announced.

Historians have largely ignored Macdonald's considerable business activities; instead, they have preferred to dwell on his extraordinary success as a politician. However, these two pursuits of business and politics cannot be separated in considering the career of this most famous of the Canadian "Fathers of Confederation."

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All historians agree that one key to Macdonald's forty-year reign as Tory leader was his control of political patronage. The Registrar for Wellington County in the 1850s was one James Webster, formerly a member of the legislative Assembly of the United Canadas. Webster had been appointed to his Guelph post on the recommendation of Macdonald; he was also Macdonald's real estate agent in Guelph. It was Webster who arranged a survey of Macdonald's property and saw to its division into 175 city lots.

Macdonald was not a bit squeamish about his business dealings. In Guelph on Nov. 30th, 1855 for his land auction - he was Attorney General for Canada West in 1855 - he found the Scottish inhabitants in the midst of their traditional St. Andrew's day festivities. While proposing a toast to the town and trade of Guelph, Macdonald confessed he had little anticipated the pleasure of the evening for he had come into town thinking only of himself and his pocket.

Sir John was not particularly successful as a land speculator. The railway bubble was gone by 1856 and the province sunk in deep recession. In Guelph, Macdonald's agent sold only 40 lots between 1855 and 1868.

Where exactly was Macdonald's property in Guelph?

Just across Allan's Bridge. Quite a sizable chunk of land too. It included nearly the whole of what is now the inner Ward. Folks in the area bounded by Arthur St. South and the Eramosa and Speed Rivers, as well as those in the triangle enclosed by Ontario Street, Neeve Street and York Road might be interested to know that one of the people who has made money out of the land they live or work on was the great man himself, John A. Macdonald, Canada's first Prime Minister.



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