Sunday, June 18, 2017

Thomas McQuesten:  Master Builder, Ontario’s Forgotten Builder
By Jennette Lukasik

Whitehern Museum in downtown Hamilton is the beautifully restored Victorian home of the McQuesten family. Mary Baker McQuesten, IsaacBaldwin McQuesten and their six children Mary, Calvin, Hilda Belle, Ruby, Thomas and Marguerite (1884-19350) lived in the house from 1852-1968.
 Many years of annual Christmas trips to Whitehern with Kindergarten children and volunteer parents in tow instilled in me a fondness and a familiarity with the home as an example of a lovingly cared for building. It was always comforting to see the large Christmas tree decorated with old-fashioned glass ornaments of fruit and vegetables in the cosy morning room. The library with over 3500 books and the children’s toys in the upstairs bedrooms evoked an air of family and stability. The trips also piqued my interest in the members of the family. What had become of them?
The book titled ‘Tragedy and Triumph’ Ruby and Thomas B. McQuesten, written by Mary J. Anderson PhD provided me with a deep insight into the two most important members of the family and  the legacy of good works and monuments left by Thomas  to Ontario and Canada. On the occasion of Canada’s 150th birthday it is time to recognize Ruby and Thomas, and to give them the recognition and gratitude due them. It is a recognition that has been sadly long in coming.
Ruby and Thomas were born into a privileged, upper-class family. Their grandfather Dr. Calvin McQuesten came from New England in the 1830s. He opened Hamilton’s first foundry because of the shipping advantages the area offered. Calvin was a smart business man but made bad personal decisions. A spendthrift second wife and the entrusting of his financial affairs to his alcoholic son Isaac lost Calvin the fortune he had amassed through his lifetime. A good decision on his part was the purchase of a large home named Willowbank along with the grounds surrounding it. After Calvin’s death, his son Isaac with his wife Mary and their six children moved into the home. Mary renamed it Whitehern.
Ruby and Thomas along with their siblings lived a life of great advantage. Their lives were defined by wealth, social standing in their Presbyterian Church and the community. Within the family unit, it was soon recognized that it was Ruby and Thomas who were scholastically inclined. Ruby was beautiful and artistic and Thomas was handsome and thought of as being robust. They outshone their siblings and as a result much was expected of them.
Isaac McQuesten, their father had developed a dependency on alcohol and stimulants. The combinations of opium, morphine, mercury, belladonna, laudanum and calomel along with alcohol had worn him down. He became preoccupied with death and suicide. He died on March 7, 1888 at the age of 41. With Isaac’s sudden death the lives of Mary and her children changed drastically.
The tragedy was exacerbated by Isaac’s loss of his father’s fortune, and the loss of most of Mary’s inheritance. At the time of his death Isaac’s liabilities were $900,000 and his assets approximately $9000. His wife was left with Whitehern and limited income. The building had been neglected and was in dire need of repairs but there was little money left to do anything. The circumstances around Isaac’s death—the bankruptcy and suspicion of suicide caused a loss of prestige and honour in the community for Mary and her children. As well, Mary’s limited income and no outside assistance of any kind left the family poverty-stricken.
After a period of mourning and a breakdown, Mary came up with a plan to at least restore the family’s honour in the community, if not their wealth. Mary carefully assessed her children, as to their potential to help the family. She zeroed in on Thomas as the most likely child to achieve her goal, He would need a profession to do so. The one problem with the plan was that he would need an expensive education, money that they did not have.
“Behind every great man, there is a woman.” This old adage certainly applied to both Ruby and Thomas. Thomas became a great man only because of his sister Ruby. Mary set a scheme into action to achieve the goal she had set for the future of her family. She concentrated some money on her capable daughter Ruby. She arranged for her to be educated as a teacher at Ontario Normal College in Hamilton. She then found her a job at Ottawa Ladies’ College, where Ruby began to teach in 1899 at the age of 20.
For years, through homesickness, then physical illness, Ruby sent home most of the money she earned so that Thomas could receive an education. Ruby’s prolonged financial and physical sacrifice for her family ended with her death at the age of 31. Ruby, the talented artist, the uncomplaining, loving, young woman was a sacrificial lamb offered on the altar of the McQuesten family for the restoration of honour and prestige.
Mary J. Anderson describes Thomas McQuesten, the child chosen by his mother to restore the family, as a visionary and master builder. In reading about his achievements I felt a certain sadness that so little seems to be known or acknowledged about a Hamiltonian who left such a mark on Ontario, Canada and our own city. The author describes him as a Renaissance man, who had the imagination of the lawyer-engineer-artist. These are words I was happy to read. I feel that, in some measure, Ruby’s sacrifice was not in vain.
In June 1909, Thomas McQuesten became established as a lawyer in James Chisholm’s law office in Hamilton. After an initial defeat in a run for city alderman, he was elected in 1913 and served until 1920. Upon his election he began to implement a parks and beautification agenda for the city. Within 10 years he had been instrumental in accumulating enough park lands that Hamilton had the largest acreage and best planned parks in Canada. Of the twenty-three parks established some of the better known ones are: Gage Park, La Salle Park, Rock Garden and Royal Botanical Gardens, H.A.A.A. grounds to name a few.
Thomas approached the provincial government to share the cost of a road and bridge to highlight the Northwest entrance into Hamilton. His modesty prevented him from having his name associated with the bridge. He was finally honoured for his accomplishment posthumously as the bridge became The Thomas B. Mcquesten High Level Bridge.
In 1934, McQuesten was elected to the Provincial Government of Ontario. Dedication, honesty and hard work earned him several offices and portfolios. As  Minister of Highways he was instrumental in numerous projects, the Queen Elizabeth Way, highways throughout  Ontario, three international bridges, Ivy Lea, Blue Water and the Rainbow Bridge.
Personally, I am most grateful for the work that he accomplished as Chairman of the Niagara Parks Commission. The beautiful parklands that surround the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, admired by visitors from all over the world are a legacy of the vision that Thomas McQuesten was able to implement. I am grateful on every visit to that area.
McQuesten has been extolled as one of Canada’s master builders while at the same time being lamented as Ontario’s Forgotten Builder. A man of great modesty, he sought no praise for his accomplishments and has been overlooked far too long. The following eulogy Jan. 17, 1948 delivered by Rev. Ketchen captured the essence of the man.
Thomas McQuesten is one of Canada’s master builders.
No other politician has created so many good works for Canada.
Very few men can point to so many public benefits of enduring value.
Like Christopher Wren’s, your monuments are beauty spots.
Canadians, but more importantly Hamiltonians owe a great debt of gratitude to the accomplishments of Thomas Baker McQuesten for the legacy he left behind.


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