Friday, February 27, 2015

Stanley Bagg and the Lachine Canal. Part 1: the Contract

The original section of the Lachine Canal, near the Fur Trade of Lachine National Historic Site
Many of the family stories I heard about my ancestors turned out to be incomplete or wrong. One story that proved to be true is the claim that my three-times great-grandfather Stanley Bagg (1788-1853) was a contractor who built Montreal's Lachine Canal in the 1820s. The family story did not explain how he got the contract, what his role was, or what a complex undertaking it was.

In the days before highways and railways, the St Lawrence River was an important transportation corridor between the Atlantic Ocean and the heart of North America, but the Lachine Rapids, a few kilometers upstream from Montreal, made navigation difficult. People talked about the need for a navigable canal around the rapids, but the government did not want to spend the money.

During the War of 1812, the St. Lawrence River was used to transport military supplies from Montreal to Kingston, and the government began to recognize its importance. But just as the population of the Great Lakes region began to swell with new immigrants, the commercial potential of Montreal and the St. Lawrence River became threatened when the Americans began construction of the Erie Canal between Lake Erie and the Hudson River in 1817.

Two years later a group of Montreal merchants received permission to build a canal with private financing. They hired British engineer Thomas Burnett to propose a route, but when they read his report, they realized the project was too big to be built by private enterprise. Finally the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada agreed to pay for the canal. It set aside 45,000 pounds and appointed a Board of Commissioners to manage the project. One of the commissioners was Thomas Phillips, a master plasterer.

By now it was the end of June 1821 and, if any excavation work was to be done that year, it had to start soon, before the rain and cold of autumn arrived. Suddenly, the tender process was underway and moving quickly. No one had ever undertaken a canal excavation and construction project of this magnitude in Canada before, so the bidding process must have involved a lot of guesswork. “The lowest bid was submitted by a group composed of Stanley Bagg, Oliver Wait, Andrew White and Thomas Phillips (who had resigned his appointment as commissioner)”, historian Gerald Tulchinsky explained in his 1960 thesis about the canal’s construction. “They were awarded the contract, not only on the grounds of price, but because they offered to dig the whole canal, whereas others offered to excavate only sections,”

The four partners all had some construction experience and Phillips, as a former member of the commission, must have had a good idea of the canal’s requirements. White was a carpenter, and Bagg and Wait had previously collaborated on several construction contracts for the British army. The commission’s 1821 annual report described the four men as “persons of character and considerable property.” On this project, Bagg acted as treasurer.

The commissioners responded to the Phillips groups’ offer, forcing them to take risks on the types of soil and the amount of rock they might encounter as they excavated. Then, on July 9, the commission awarded them the contract. 

partners' agreement
The ground-breaking ceremony took place on July 17 with the commissioners and the four contractors in attendance, along with the labourers who had already been hired. Newspaper reporters, friends and family members and Lachine residents looked on. Commission chairman John Richardson turned the first sod and each of the commissioners and contractors took a turn with the ceremonial shovel. Richardson made a short speech, a military band played and everyone dug in to the meat pies and beer provided. Soon the commissioners and contractors withdrew to a nearby inn for more toasts, while some of the drunken labourers back at the construction site got into fights.

As the contractors began to get organized and hire subcontractors, they still had to finalize their own partnership. On August 29, Phillips, White, Bagg and Wait signed an agreement with each other, pledging not to undertake any other contracts until this one was complete.

The job took four years, thousands of labourers were involved, costs ballooned and the contractors encountered many unexpected difficulties. My next post will describe in more detail the massive construction project Stanley Bagg and his colleagues undertook.

photo credits
above: Janice Hamilton
right: BAnQ. Griffin 187-3888 29/8/1821


The historical background for this article comes from Gerald Tulchinsky’s 1960 M.A. thesis for the McGill University Department of History, “The Construction of the First Lachine Canal, 1815-1826”. It can be found at the McGill library and online,

University theses are an often overlooked resource; they can provide background on a variety of subjects, and the bibliographies they include can identify other sources. To search a list of Canadian theses, see

I also consulted primary sources to learn more about my ancestor’s role in this project. One of the best sources of information about the construction of the canal is the Bagg Family Fonds at the McCord Museum in Montreal. Members of Stanley Bagg’s family kept his records and eventually donated them to the museum’s archives. The Lachine Canal collection (P070/A3.1 to P070/A3.5) includes contracts and account books, and many names are mentioned.

The minutes and annual reports of the Lachine Canal Commission, 1821-1842, are held in the archives of Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa, RG43-C-III-2 and R555-5-2-E. They are on microfilm, but I managed to see the original documents. It appears they are now in the process of being digitized.

The third primary source of information for this topic are the records of the Montreal notaries who wrote the contracts. Henry Griffin handled the agreement between the four contractors; see his act number 187-3888, dated 29 August, 1821. Griffin’s records are available on microfilm at the Bibliothèque et Archives nationale du QuĂ©bec in Montreal and should eventually be digitized.

Friday, February 13, 2015

My Tocher Family

The word tocher, of Scottish Gaelic origin, means dowry. Tocher magazine features old Scottish tales, songs and traditions. The tiny place named Tocher in Aberdeenshire consists of a few houses set among farmers’ fields. Uncommonly, Tocher is also a family name.

My Tocher family can be traced to Alexander Tocher, (c1733-c1798) of Grange parish, Banffshire, who married Jean Shepherd in nearby Cullen parish church, Banffshire on February 12, 1752.

Cullen Parish Church

Family history notes passed down to me by a cousin said Alexander was a “Miln of Pathnic and Proprietor of Garmouth”. Miln is a Scottish word for miller, and there was a mill on the Burn of Paithnick, I have not yet confirmed whether Alexander owned property in Garmouth. The same source says Alexander died in May 1798, age 65, and Jean died in September of the same year.

The couple had two children: Alexander, baptized July 28, 1754 and Margaret, baptized September 21, 1756. When Alexander grew up he attended university in nearby Aberdeen. “Mr. Alexander Tocher, Banffiensis” is listed among the recipients of arts degrees from the University of Aberdeen and Kings College in 1779. He then found a position as a schoolmaster in MacDuff, a fishing town on the Banffshire coast, overlooking the Firth of Moray.

On November 17, 1798, Alex'r Tocher married Elizabeth Stephen at Gamrie parish church in MacDuff. He and Elizabeth had three daughters: Margaret (1799-c1870), who married MacDuff rope manufacturer Alexander Carney (or Carny) in 1821 and had 10 children; Elizabeth (1801-1885), who did not marry, and Jean (also known as Jane), my direct ancestor, born March 17, 1803.

Two years later, on June 19, 1805, Elizabeth died, leaving Alexander with a young family to raise. He remarried in 1808. He and his second wife, Ann Haslopp, had no children.

In 1823, daughter Jane developed an interest in MacDuff school’s assistant schoolmaster, a young man named James Avon Smith. In fact, Jane became pregnant. She and James were married in Gamrie and Macduff parish on July 5, 1823, and she gave birth to son Alexander in October.

Jane died at age 35 on February 28, 1838, a month after giving birth for the ninth time. This baby, John Murray Smith, was my future great-grandfather. Jane is buried in Doune cemetery, MacDuff, along with two daughters who died very young, and with her father, who died February 10, 1844, aged 89 years. Ann Haslopp who died on January 3, 1850, aged 83, is also buried with them. 

Reading the Tocher monument, Doune Cemetery, MacDuff

The inscription on the monument that marks their grave notes that Alexander Tocher was schoolmaster at MacDuff for 67 years. Maybe he had to continue working to support the family, or maybe he really loved his job, but after so many years in the classroom, he must have been set in his ways. Hopefully the community celebrated his long service with a big thank-you.

The 1841 census of Scotland found Alexander Tocher, schoolmaster, living on Duff Street in MacDuff with his wife Ann, unmarried daughter Elizabeth and teenaged grandson Alex Smith, while son-in-law James Avon Smith lived around the corner on Gellymill Street with the six other children.

By the mid-1840s, the Smith family had started the move to North America, with Jane's unmarried sister Elizabeth Tocher accompanying them to help look after the children. “Aunt Tocher” died in Toronto in 1885, aged 84, and is buried in the Smith family plot in Toronto's Necropolis Cemetery. With her passing, the name Tocher died out in my family.


I used a website called to research the Tocher family. Similar to the volunteer-run and, this site allows the researcher to quickly survey the old parish records. A search for Tocher baptisms in a ten-year period in Banffshire brought up all the baptisms of children with Tocher as the mother's last name and all the babies with Tocher as the father's name. Clicking on the number beside the entry brings up the names of the witnesses. Once I had identified the people I thought were my Tochers, I paid the Scotland's People website to see the actual images of the parish records.

The website of the Scottish Genealogy Society has many useful resources, including links related to education. The page links to a book that lists officers and graduates of the University of Aberdeen, with Alexander Tocher’s name on page 254.

The campus of the University of Aberdeen
Places are as important as historic events when it comes to researching our ancestors’ lives, and Scotland has some excellent online resources for exploring them. See to check out the fascinating collection of old maps on the National Library of Scotland’s website, and to learn more about the old buildings with which our ancestors might have been familiar. The website of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland includes maps, photographs and descriptions of hundreds of structures around the country. A search for Paithnick on this site shows the location of the mill:

There has been a church at Cullen since the 13th century. See

The information about Elizabeth Tocher was given to me by the staff at the Necropolis cemetery in Toronto. There is no gravestone to mark the Smith plot.