Born in Bismark, North Dakota in 1883, McLean came to Canada at age 22 to work for the Toronto Construction Company. That launched a career of building railroads, hydroelectric plants and military bases, across two wars and the Great Depression.
Determined and innovative, McLean got the nickname “big pants” because of his girth. In his personal life, he married more than once, but had no children. It's generally agreed that he drank to excess and preferred to avoid the spotlight. Some of his antics made a perverse sort of sense, as when McLean claimed he'd rather give his money away than let the government have it.
And what does “Sons of Martha” mean? Massive projects often involve the risk of injury, or death. Reportedly, after hearing Rudyard Kipling personally recite the poem in question, McLean was inspired to build cairns commemorating fatalities at his worksites. Kipling's springboard was the biblical story of Jesus chiding Martha for putting practical tasks (like feeding her guests) ahead of spiritual matters:
Rudyard Kipling's “The Sons of Martha” (first stanza)
The Sons of Mary seldom bother, for they have inherited that good
But the Sons of Martha favour their Mother of the careful soul and troubled heart.
And because she lost her temper once, and because she was rude to the Lord her Guest,
Her Sons must wait upon Mary's Sons, world without end, reprieve, or rest.
This past June, Charland's book received the W. Gordon Plewes Award from the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering for notable contributions to the study of the history of civil engineering in Canada or by Canadians elsewhere. We thank her for making Harry McLean's story better-known, and salute the engineers and workers of the world, for improving life in general.
After a break over the summer, members and guests gathered in North Gower at the Rideau Branch of the Archives to hear Merrickville author Teresa Charland detail the unusual life of Harry F. McLean.
The audience of 26 included Betty Bartlett, Charland's history teacher at South Carleton High, a connection that added a warm sub-text to the evening.
Harry McLean was one of Merrickville's most famous residents. At times, he's best remembered for oddities like throwing money out of windows, funding winter sports for Merrickville's children and having a private zoo. That reputation for eccentricity perhaps overshadowed McLean's major accomplishments as a builder of important infrastructure projects.
Charland spent a full decade researching and writing her book. Challenges were plentiful, including ambiguous records and letters. (For example, she ran into two different men named George Cook, plus a Col. Ramsey and a Col. Ramsay, points of confusion that took years to unravel!)
Charland says her work was greatly assisted by oral histories in the National Archives and invaluable help from members of the Bytown Railway Club, who always seemed to know otherwise obscure technical details.
Harry F. McLean
Presenter: Teresa Charland
Article by Lucy Martin