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Remember This? The life and extreme wealth of Sir James Dunn

In 1951, Maclean's Magazine declared that 'No Canadian lives more lavishly'
Sir James Dunn's residence Wawa residence, known as the Eagle's Nest, is pictured circa 1949 in this Sault Ste. Marie Public Library Archive photo

From the archives of the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library:

Remember This . . . Sir James Dunn

One of Sault Ste. Marie’s greatest businessmen, Sir James Hamet Dunn was born in Bathurst Village in New Brunswick in 1874. 

The exact date of his birth isn’t known since births, deaths and marriages were registered at the local church. Unfortunately the Presbyterian Church was destroyed by fire and all of these records were lost. Therefore the family settled on October 29, 1874 as the date of his birth. 

The family ran a ship building business, but when James was only a few months old his father Robert fell into the Bathurst Harbour during the winter months trying to break up a log jam. This experience caused him to get sick and he died of pneumonia.  

James Dunn graduated from Dalhousie University with a law degree in 1898, and travelled out west with a friend. He eventually established a law office in Edmonton but he did not have many clients and wasn’t making a lot of money. 

Therefore, when a client asked what his fee would be to represent him in a Federal Department of the Interior hearing, the only fee that he requested was a one-way ticket to Ottawa. He never went back!   

James Dunn appeared in front of many parliamentary committees and as payment he would receive stock in their businesses. He was soon noticed by J.N. Greenshield, a Montreal stockbroker who made him a junior stockbroker. 

In 1907, Dunn was hired as one of the liquidators when Francis H. Clergue’s empire of companies declared bankruptcy.  Dunn drew the interest of a British financier, Robert Fleming, and with a group of other British investors they purchased $25 million worth of Algoma Steel’s five percent first and refunding bonds at approximately $6 million. 

Dunn then acquired Fleming’s securities in 1925. The title of Baronet was bestowed upon him in 1921 in recognition of his war efforts during the First World War.  

On August 13, 1932, Algoma Steel again went into bankruptcy and closed. Since the city’s future was so dependent on the steel plant, the city’s mayor contacted Sir James Dunn and asked for his help in saving the steel plant. 

More than two years later Algoma Steel was re-organized, but this time Sir James Dunn controlled 80 per cent of the bonds.  Over the next ten years he managed to cancel the company’s funded debt. Under Dunn’s direction Algoma Steel rapidly became the lowest cost steel producer in North America producing half of Canada’s pig-iron and a third of Canada’s steel. 

James Dunn is credited with single-handedly saving Sault Ste. Marie. In 1951 he acquired the Canada Steamship Lines Ltd which was the largest shipping operation in the country. With this acquisition he had the means to ship the steel plant’s products out to global markets.  

Sir James Dunn amassed a considerable fortune. 

He was a multi-millionaire by the age of 40 and at his death his estate was rumoured to be worth somewhere between 70 -100 million dollars. It was stated in the September 15, 1951 issue of Maclean’s Magazine that “no Canadian lives more lavishly.” 

Sir James Dunn convalescentSir James Dunn Convalescent Home is pictured on May 9, 1945, in this Sault Ste. Marie Public Library archive photo

He was known to have food delicacies flown in from Montreal if he was unable to get them at his home in St. Andrews, New Brunswick. He was a man who wasn’t afraid to show his wealth, owning cars ranging from a Morris Minor to a Rolls Royce, even having Salvador Dali paint his portrait.  

He was a man who would save the lives of a stranger but also had a vicious temper. There was a rumour that he once purchased a hotel only to fire a chef who upset him. 

It was stated in the Toronto Daily Star that his pursuit of wealth caused him to reject large scale charity projects, believing that handouts kept people from working. 

Instead he supported hospitals in both Sault Ste. Marie and St. Andrews, New Brunswick.  

Most of his donations went to academic institutions with donations to universities including Dalhousie and the University of New Brunswick. He believed in rewarding academic excellence and the establishment of the Sir James Dunn scholarship locally was a much sought after award by high school students.  

When Sir James Dunn died in January of 1956 at the age of 81 the tributes poured in from Prime Minister St. Laurent, George Nixon, Sault Ste. Marie’s Member of Parliament and Britain’s Wartime Minister of Supply, Lord Beaverbrook. Lord Beaverbrook, his longtime friend went on to write a biography of Sir James Dunn’s life titled “Courage”.

No matter how you see Sir James Dunn he saw the potential in Sault Ste. Marie and steered it to its most prosperous years.      

Each week, the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library and its Archives provides SooToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past.

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