PEOPLE: GENERAL ALEXANDER DUNCAN (A.D.) MCRAE
McRae was born in 1874 on his family's farm in Glencoe, Ontario. His life would take him from his humble beginnings to becoming one of Canada's financial, business and political leaders.
At the age of 24, in 1898, he had managed to save $1,000. This he invested in a very successful banking venture in Duluth, Minnesota where he turned his small investment into $50,000. Not only did he bring new capital back to Canada; McRae also brought his new wife, the former Blanche Howe of Minneapolis, with him as well. They would eventually have three daughters, Blanche, Lucile, and Margaret ("Peggy"). All the McRae women became shareholders in his ventures on Coal Creek and Woodchopper Creek in Alaska.
In 1911, McRae moved into Hycroft, a magnificent Edwardian mansion built in Shaughnessy for him by Thomas Hooper.
In 1933, General A.D. McRae from Vancouver, Canada decided to venture into gold mining. He saw gold mining as an industry that showed promise for weathering the world-wide economic depression and through his personal investigations determined that because of international tax structures, the best places to mine for gold were British Columbia and Alaska. McRae brought in some of the foremost experts in the fields of geology and mining to assist in his venture. These included: Ira B. Joralemon, an internationally known consulting geologist with decades of experience; Charles Janin, a renowned dredge engineer and expert who worked throughout the world; and Ernest N. Patty, dean of the School of Mines at the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines. Of the four men, McRae was the only one not viewed as an expert in the fields of geology and mining but then, he was the one financing the operations and he was an expert at managing businesses.
McRae first came into Pattys office in Fairbanks in 1933. Patty described him as a big man who looked as if he had force and brains. Pattys youngest son Dale describes McRae from the standpoint of a young boy meeting a giant of a man:
He was a large man with a large stomach, but carried himself straighter than any man I have ever seen. At first, he scared me silly because he was so imposing, but then we got to be real friends (I guess because he had no sons) and he treated me like royalty and taught me many things.
Using this new capital, he, along with additional Canadian associates, purchased 500,000 acres of Saskatchewan farmland from the Canadian government for $5 per acre. They increased their holdings by making purchases from railroads and others until they eventually controlled 5,000,000 acres. This in turn they sold for a profit of $9,000,000. By this time, McRae ranked as one of the wealthiest men in western Canada. Through a brilliant business career, embracing such varied interests as lumber, fishing, whaling and land speculation, he showed extraordinary organizing abilities. These, with his business methods applied to the fields of politics and war, brought him even more success.
As he continued to move his focus further west, he established the Canadian Western Lumber Company, one of the largest in British Columbia. As an indication of his business acumen, he formed the company to buy the timber he was supposed to liquidate thus capitalizing on it all the way around. To support his timber operations, McRae built the Fraser River Mill near Vancouver. Here he milled lumber for building way stations and other facilities along the route of the new Grand Trunk Pacific Railroad through northern British Columbia. At that time, it was the largest lumber mill in the world.
In addition to his lumber interests, he also established and developed Wallace Fisheries, one of the most important fishing and whaling companies, also in British Columbia. Through his innovations, McRae modernized the Canadian fishing industry by financing the first salmon cannery to clean and pack the fish with the Iron Mike instead of hand labor. He also financed the first mother ship to cut the expenses associated with whaling. In both cases, he saw that others would soon imitate his methods, thus cutting into his large profits, so he sold out after only a few good years.
When World War I broke out, McRae went to Europe as an officer in a Canadian regiment. By the wars end, he had advanced to the rank of Major General assisting Britain's Minister of Information, Lord Beaverbrook. For his services, the British crown offered McRae knighthood, which he declined.
McRae gravitated to politics after the war and was at one time touted as a future Premier. His first large-scale venture in British Columbia was the formation of the Provincial Party, but after winning no seats in the 1924 provincial election, he disbanded the party and ran federally for the Conservatives winning a seat in Parliament the 1926 election. By 1927, General McRae became a Member of Parliament (MP) representing the Vancouver North district. Apparently forgiven by the Conservatives, he organized the National Conservative Convention and through his efforts over the next three years brought the Tories to power in 1930 with the election of Mackenzie King as Premier. Although this move cost him his seat in Parliament, the following year he was rewarded for his efforts with a lifetime appointment to the Canadian Senate.
In the summer of 1933, McRae and Joralemon, both convinced that the price of gold would be rising in the near future, met with Professor Ernest Patty, Dean of the College of Geology and Mining Engineering at the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines, to examine properties in Alaska. The pair approached Patty because of his familiarity with most of the mining districts in the Territory through his 11 years of teaching at the College. In addition, he had examined several of the properties that interested them. Patty himself also took an active interest in developing mining operations in Alaska.
During the summer of 1934, McRae, Joralemon, and Patty examined four mining properties in hopes of finding one that with enough potential for developing a profitable lode mining operation. After four failures at finding a suitable lode mining property, the group turned its attention to finding an area showing promise as a placer deposit. Patty brought up a tributary of the Yukon called Coal Creek where pick and shovel miners had been able to scratch out a scanty living for almost 35 years. Patty thought that from signs he had seen on previous visits to the area, with mechanical mining (i.e., dredging) the gold bearing gravels might be mined profitably.
McRae offered something the pick and shovel miners did not have, money, and lots of it. Because of his personal fortune, he was able to bankroll the initial operations at Coal Creek, turning a profit almost immediately. Through his business sense, combined with the caliber of individuals he had working with him, he was able to expand the operations into Woodchopper Creek the following year, again turning a profit right from the start.
The McRae operations on Coal Creek and Woodchopper Creek turned out to be quite profitable. Over the history of the mines, they produced a total of 175,292 troy ounces of gold with a value of $6,335,170.90 (USD). During the late 1930s and early 1940s, the McRae operations accounted for the third largest producer of gold in the Territory of Alaska.
McRae worked quite literally, right up until the end. On the morning of June 19, 1946 he attended a session of the Canadian Senate in Ottawa where he took care of some committee business. That afternoon he was admitted to the hospital suffering from what was listed as a serious blood condition that had plagued him for years. The General passed away on the afternoon of June 26th leaving his estate to his wife Louise (he had been widowed by his first wife, Blanche Howe) and his two daughters, Margaret and Lucille. A third daughter, named Blanche after her mother, had died the previous year.
The McRae mining interests continued under the watchful eye of Ernest Patty until 1960 when the mines shut down for the final time. The assets of the companies were liquidated in 1976 bringing a close to a long and interesting history.
Source: Beckstead, Douglas. The World Turned Upside Down: A Mining History of Coal Creek and Woodchopper Creek, Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, Alaska. Fairbanks, Alaska: National Park Service, 2003.
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