John Rudolphus Booth

Lumber King and Entrepreneur

J.R. Booth of the Canadian Atlantic Railway, 1900-1925 National Archives of Canada / C-046480

John Rudolphus Booth was born on April 5, 1827 in a stone farmhouse on a homestead in Quebec Eastern Townships. The farm was located in Shefford County near what later became the village of Waterloo. His parents were John Booth and Eleanor Rawley Booth, immigrants from Ireland. Booth was educated at a local county school. At the age of 21, he left his parents and their agrarian lifestyle and struck out on his own. His first job, which he held for three years, was working as a carpenter building bridges for the Central Vermont Railway. During his years as a carpenter, Booth met Rosalinda Cook, whom he married on January 7, 1852.

In 1854 Booth arrived in Ottawa with Rosalinda and nine dollars in his pocket to make his fortune. After taking part in several small enterprises, including working in a machine shop in Hull and spending his evenings making shingles to sell for extra money, he obtained a lease of a sawmill near Chaudiere Falls in 1856-a move that launched his outstanding business career in the lumber and railway industries. A Presbyterian all his life, at the time of his death in 1925, Booth had amassed a fortune consisting of a number of thriving businesses and an estate estimated at $33,000,000 together with a reputation for industry generosity and fairness second to none in the community. Booth became Ottawa's biggest taxpayer and the City's largest private employer, consistently exhibiting concern for the needs of his employees.

J.R. Booth was renowned for his strong work ethic. He worked well into his 90s, remaining fully cognizant and continually astonishing others with his astuteness. In October, 1919, J.S. Knapman, a Toronto purchasing agent in the lumber industry, visited Booth in his saw mill. When he entered the gloomy mill he encountered Booth, who recognized him and, mentioning his name, remarked, "Yes, it is just 12 years since you used to come around here. You bought a good many thousand poles from me for the Bell Telephone Company, and I have not seen you since you went out of business." Knapman was amazed at the remarkable memory the old lumber king possessed.

Booth's character was a study in polarity. He was actively engaged in all aspects of his business, yet he was a very private man. For example, although he fully involved his nephew, J.R.B. Coleman, in his lumber operations, Booth didn't tell his nephew that he operated a fleet of ships on the Upper Great Lakes. He preserved his privacy even after his death, ordering all personal and business records destroyed.

The activity of his business career is contrasted by his hidden passion: flowers. Throughout his life, Booth never missed an opportunity to see a flower show. After his death, despite the wishes of his family that flowers be omitted at the funeral, so many paid their respects through floral arrangements that six automobiles of blossoms followed the funeral procession. In 1932, Thomas McKee, greenhouse foreman at the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa, began to develop a yellow exhibition chrysanthemum in honour of J.R. Booth.

Booth always detested eulogy and shrank from publicity as if it were the plague. He even refused to attend the wedding of his granddaughter, Lois Frances Booth, to Prince Erik of Denmark, in February 1924-probably the most renowned society wedding ever to take place in Ottawa. One of his last public appearances took place in March of 1920 when Booth, a few days before reaching his 93rd birthday, attended a Stanley Cup hockey match between the local team and the Seattle Puckchasers of the Pacific Coast League. Booth was escorted to the centre of the ring by his grandson, J.R.Booth Jr., where he threw the puck for the opening face-off. The veteran lumber king received a tremendous ovation from the 7,000 fans, and was presented a large floral horseshoe by the Ottawa Club.

Right Honourable Arthur Meighen, ca. 1920-1930 National Archives of Canada / C-005799

Despite his inherent dislike of publicity, his influence extended throughout the business and political circles of the capital. Even taking into account the language of the day, the description of a local businessman in a front-page newspaper article as a "king," "emperor of the woods," and "monarch of the Upper Ottawa," indicates Booth's unique standing in the early days of Canada's capital city.

Speaking at the time of Booth's death, former Prime Minister, Rt. Hon. Arthur Meighen said,

"For nigh unto a century, Mr. Booth has watched and in many ways directed the progress of his province and his country. The Canada of his old age was a much-changed country from the Canada of his youth. A pioneer in lumbering, in railroad construction, and many other activities, he has given to this Dominion services of a nation-building character and had done much towards alleviating the difficulties of human life. His vision, his unerring judgment, his quiet generosity, and his sincerity made him an outstanding gentleman among his fellows. The words of admiration and goodwill one hears from all those who worked for and with him are a tribute as well to his character as to the eminence of his place among Canadians."