Friday, June 15, 2012

Sir William Cornelius Van Horne: Prankster, Builder, and Irreverant Pleasure Seeker

William Van Horne was a central figure in the development of the Canadian West.  An American that refused a knighthood three times, before finally accepting the title in 1894, Van Horne worked his way up from modest means. As his father passed away while the boy was young, Van Horne accepted a menial job with a telegraph company.  (Canadian Stories, Kevin Patterson)

One anecdote of these early years related by Kevin Patterson shows that Van Horne could be a bit of a prankster:
Once he ran a ground wire from his employer's office to a steel plate in the [] railway yards - which could be seen from the office he was working in. The wire being charged with electricity, would shock anyone who stepped on it. This was an amusing spectacle for William until his boss stepped on the plate and unlike William's other victims knew about electricity. William was given a serious reprimand for his actions and shown the door.  (Canadian Stories)
Van Horne seen to the left of hammerer Donald Smith.  Van Horne gazes casually down at the completion of the road.
The energetic Van Horne did not let his dismissal stop him from climbing the ranks in the railway business, and he was soon an acknowledged expert in organization and construction.  His role as General Manager of the Canadian Pacific Railway served to solidify his historical reputation, and he posed for the  the most recognized photograph in Canadian history as Donald Smith pounded in the last spike of the road.  As of June 2012, Van Horne's descendants have returned the ceremonial last spike to the public, and it will be held at the Canadian Museum of Civilization.

Glenbow Museum Image No: NA-4432-1
Title: Portrait of W.C. Van Horne.
Date: June 1910
Pierre Berton notes in his popular work The Last Spike that the secret to Van Horne's incredible stamina was explained simply by the man who rose to the CPR's presidency:

"I eat all I can; I drink all I can; I smoke all I can; and I don't give a damn for anything."

Perhaps not an encouraging motto for youngsters.

Glenbow MuseumFile number: NA-2864-1771b-6a
Title: Van Horne students work on school mural, Calgary, Alberta.
Date: May 1967

As a final trivial tidbit, the song Van Horne, by Calgary rock band Chixdiggit!, has absolutely nothing to do with Van Horne himself, and probably refers to a teenage romance surrounding Van Horne high school in north-west Calgary.

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