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Colonel Donald McGregor – Librarian at New Westminster and Grand Old Man of the Yukon

October 8, 2015

Colonel Donald McGregor portraitColonel Donald McGregor (1839-1927), Librarian at New Westminster in 1887, was once the best known figure in the city. By trade a journalist, he was the first west coast reporter in the Parliamentary Press Gallery and first Canadian reporter in the Yukon. Struck with the urge to ‘see the elephant,’ he participated in successive gold rushes, from the Cariboo to the Klondyke, with at least one of his claims paying off handsomely. He was known as a populist and political agitator — “tribune of the proletariat” —, and as “the man who brought law and order to the Yukon single-handed.” At 6-2, a tall man for his time, he was possessed of an innate dignity, a man able to calm a crowd of angry miners. He was a man who wrote of himself: “The wide spaces of Similkameen, Cariboo, Omineca and the Yukon have known my footsteps.” He was also the man described as the “friend of all mankind and fairy god-father of every child in the territory.” Not surprisingly,  one biographer called him a “figure of legend.”

Early in his years in British Columbia, playing a role that would become his forte, Donald McGregor had occasion to introduce to an assembly the Governor-General of Canada. His Excellency, in reply, thanked “Colonel McGregor” for his introduction. Thereafter people were pleased to honor the mistake and he was known ever-after “the Colonel.” He had no trouble adopting the rank, and while it suits the dour and disdainful Scot pictured in his official portrait, the painting gives no hint of the character “greatly beloved” by the people.

Donald McGregor was born on the family farm near Martintown, Charlottenburg Township, Glengarry County, Ontario, in 1839. Glengarry is a historic county in what was once known as Canada West. It is eastern-most county in Ontario.

His first known employment was as a political reporter in Montreal. In 1864, at the age of 24 he left home and hearth for the uncertain life of a prospector and miner in British Columbia.

Mining in Cariboo and Omineca

McGregor arrived at Richfield in the Cariboo gold region on September 08, 1864. There is no record of him ever making a big strike there, and as with most miners, he followed other pursuits in the off seasons. Among his associates in mining ventures over the years were James H Gillespie, and fellow Glengarrians, Duncan McMartin and Alexander K McLennan.

In 1870 Colonel McGregoor and his companions, old Cariboo hands infused with a new enthusiasm, made their way overland from Fort George to Hoggem on the Omineca River.

“We then took boats down the river to Jamieson creek, a small tributary, which yielded a splendid return of placer gold. . . It was not infrequent to clean up $100 a day to the shovel, and our profits for a while were $1,000 a day. Finally the gold was dug out, but for a time Jamieson creek had a population of three thousand. The camp was a law-abiding one, as the miners were mostly old-timers from the Cariboo.”

We “made a big clean-up in 1871,” stated McGregor. “I was part owner in the Payne claim.”

Riches to be found?

“I still believe the country, which is only forty miles from the Finlay will repay intelligent prospecting.” said Colonel McGregor. “The old-timers naturally ran over the country hurriedly, only selecting the richest ground.”

McGregor never seemed to have any money problems in the years succeeding, perhaps due to his gold strike continuing to pay off, or perhaps due to by income from the family farm. Although always a working journalist, he devoted a lot of time to community service.

Librarian at New Westminster

Colonel Donald McGregor first appears in the New Westminster City directory of 1887 as Manager and Librarian at the Public Library and Reading Room, although he may have started sooner.

The Library had been housed in the old mint building since 1865 and over the years a progression of interesting characters had passed through its doors, at times the most intriguing being the one who turned the lock.

The long hours spent at the library were ideal for reading, writing and conversation. The institution was more than a repository for works of literature, serving as an alternative to the many saloons as a place for miners and mill workers to while away their free time. The library had little money for improvements: dim light illuminated the reading room while the sound of rain falling on the shake roof grew progressively quieter over the years as its toupee of bright green moss grew ever more dense. Donald McGregor devoted part of his time to writing for newspapers in British Columbia and eastern Canada.

“Colonization Agent” for an unlucky settlement

In 1887 Donald McGregor was employed as a “colonization agent” in British Columbia, although he did not have a salaried appointment.

In the summer of 1887 he located a group of Norwegian immigrants in the Squamish valley. It was said the Norwegian fishermen and their families “chose this spot themselves and are delighted with it.” There was an abundance of salmon and trout in the river and the alluvial soil of the valley was conducive to farming. Eleven men, 3 women and 8 children were the vanguard, with more settlers expected the following spring.

However, no sooner had the party begun to fall trees for their houses than was pointed out that they were infringing on a First Nations Reserve. In November, George Turner was sent up from New Westminster to do a survey.

When Turner arrived he found the settlement in a state of disarray. Arriving at the mouth of the Squamish, Turner was told that upriver at the camp the waters had risen up to seven feet and the houses of the Norwegian settlers were inundated.

“The women and children are on the beds and tables, raised high enough to escape the water, and the men are roosting among the rafters. They have not been able to cook anything for days, and both provisions and goods are much damaged.”

It was a case of bad timing. In November 1887 the most severe storm in several years had blown in over the southwest coast accompanied by torrential rains. At New Westminster:

“The rain fell in torrents and the wind blew a hurricane during the whole night, shaking buildings and threatening some of the most frail with general demolishment. A number of signs suffered badly, among which was the huge watch suspended over Crake’s door. The tin roofing on the steamer Reliance was rolled up like a sheet of paper…”

In the Fraser Valley the Coquitlam River had risen to the height of the railway bridge and overflowed its banks. At Harrison the railway had been washed out, shutting down the Canadian Pacific Railway’s continental passenger service. On Vancouver Island numerous washouts put the railway to Nanaimo out of commission for several days. At Squamish at the head of Howe Sound conditions were exacerbated by abnormally high tides.

When word got back to New Westminster of the plight of the Norwegian settlers, the steamer “Stella” was chartered from the Royal City Planing Mills and Colonel McGregor personally superintended their relief and evacuation. On arriving at the mouth of the Squamish, McGregor found conditions had improved somewhat as the waters were receding. He “gave orders that everything should be packed up and got in readiness to leave a daybreak.” The settlers brought back to the Royal City were housed at the Immigrants Home for the time being.

In response to some armchair rumbling about the wisdom of locating on the flood-plain of the Squamish River, Colonel McGregor stated that he had warned the Norwegians about the freshet, but they had the final say and had expected their location was safe enough from the danger of high water. A Mr Carlson, interpreter for the Norwegians, said “the members of the colony do not attach blame to anyone, and although they have met with bad luck, are not discouraged, but will choose another locality and make a success of it next time.”

Struck by Inspiration – Colonel McGregor’s Days Off

A year after the Norwegian settlement disaster, in December 1888, a curious incident occurred in the life of Donald McGregor, telling both for what he did and how those who knew him, reacted. From press reports:

 – A Mysterious Disappearance –

Col. McGregor, the best known figure in the city has not been seen or heard of since the night before last, and his numerous friends are quite alarmed as to his safety. The public library, of which he is librarian,has not been opened since Thursday, and his boarding house people can give no information as to his whereabout. Everyone hopes nothing serious has befallen the colonel and we trust he will ‘bob up serenely’ some fine morning as good natured and handsome as ever.

 – Oh! He’s All Right –

Saturday evening’s Columbian contains a brief paragraph anxiously enquiring after the safety of Col. McGregor, one of the most popular and best known men of Westminister. The paragraph states that the Colonel had mysteriously disappeared, but offers no reward for information that will lead to his recovery. The Colonel is all right. He merely came over to Victoria for a day or two to breathe the pure air and see a little of city life, leaving word when he left Westminster as to where he was going and when he would return. His friends and the Columbian have no reason to feel uneasy.

 – The Colonel Found –

Col. McGregor has been heard from, much to the joy of his friends who were prepared to go to almost any expense to ascertain what had become of him. The colonel is somewhat erratic in his movements, and is a stern believer that inspiration alone should control the mind and body of man. On Thursday morning at 2:30 o’clock he wakened and the inspiration struck him to visit Victoria, so he arose and went down to the boat and took passage. He is now ‘doing’ Victoria, and, in all likelihood, was having a grand old time when his friends here were mourning his supposed untimely end. The next time an inspiration strikes the colonel it is to be hoped he will at least leave a card on his door so that his friends may not be unnecessarily alarmed.

He’s Right Here – The Old and Neglected Library In Dispute

Nine months after his Victorian sabbatical, another newspaper item sheds some light on the sensitivity of those reports of Col. McGregor’s disappearance shortly before Christmas.

In July 1889 the Chemist shop of Captain Adolphus Peele on Columbia Street was demolished to make room for a new building. The Captain was something of a collector and font of knowledge — people brought their “finds” to him — and the front window of his store displayed objects of scientific interest and curiosities. His “friends and admirers” mourned the loss of this cultural amenity on the main drag and the ready availability of its curator. Among his supporters was the New Westminster correspondent for a Vancouver paper, who wrote:

“it is proposed and is being actively discussed, that application be made to the Government on his behalf for his appointment as curator of a museum and repository of antiquarian, geological and botanical specimens which, under the supervision of Captain Peele, whose knowledge in these departments is well-known throughout the Province, would prove a most valuable acquisition to the city. In conjunction with the above, the Captain could carry on his meteorological work for the Government. That old and neglected relic of medieval architecture, the Free Public Library, which stands idle on Columbia street, despite of its unrivalled crops of moss and weather stains, could be finely fitted up inside and would be just the place for the weather department and the museum.”

There was just one problem with that. The old mint building had been occupied for years by a Public Library, Reading Room and Museum, was now managed and curated by Colonel Donald McGregor and was very much a going concern. Under the guise of helping one distinguished resident, the reporter had insulted another, provoking an immediate retort from a rival paper:

“The insolent remarks of the local scribbler for the New-Advertiser, and which appear in this morning’s issue of that journal have caused considerable comment. Col. McGregor, the Librarian, is an old, highly respected and much esteemed citizen. The attack is as uncalled for as it is wanton, but when the source is considered what else could be looked for?”

With the city undergoing rapid renewal, Peele’s Apothecary shop was just one of the first dominoes to go down. Within a year, the library, which had been housed in the old mint building since 1865, had been demolished also. A local scribe eulogized its demise in July 1890:

“We shall miss the old library. It was not much to look at but it had many pleasant associations for us. It was there we first met the Colonel, smoking his corn cob, and between whiffs, putting together a despatch for one or other of our contemporaries. Many an afternoon have we sat within its walls discussing men and things with Joe Armstrong or some other of those who would drop in once in a while. We shall remember the library very affectionately in spite of the fact that it looked shaky and certainly rickety.”

For a short time during his tenure at the Library, Colonel McGregor was Editor of the New Westminster Ledger, successor to The Truth.

McGregor Takes Ottawa – First West Coast Reporter in Parliamentary Press Gallery

In September 1890, shortly after the old library was torn down, Colonel Donald McGregor departed for the East.

“For some years no figure on the streets has been better or more favorably known than his, and the legion who claim him as friend all wish that his eastern trip may be a very happy one. During his absence, Col. McGregor will visit the exhibitions at London, Toronto, Montreal and St. John, N.B. He will be absent seven weeks.”

Now 50 years old, he had been in British Columbia 26 years. It would be another 27 years before he would return to live on the Lower Mainland. Meanwhile, McGregor would have time to pack in another career and join the stampede to yet another gold region.

Colonel McGregor remained in the East from 1890 until 1898 and in this time travelled, stayed some time on the family farm in Glengarry, Ontario, and stationed himself in Montreal and Ottawa as a newspaper correspondent. He was acclaimed as the “first representative from British Columbia in the parliamentary press gallery at Ottawa.” Among the major events he covered was the death of Sir John A Macdonald.

First and only Canadian Reporter in the North

Having moiled for Cariboo gold in the 1860’s and participated in subsequent mining excitements at Omineca and the Cassiar, Colonel Donald McGregor was once again inspired by gold in ’98, joining the stampede to the Klondyke.

McGregor would stay 10 years in the North, no longer prospecting or mining, occupied sometimes in journalism, but mainly engaged in public-spirited volunteerism to an extent rarely seen in any jurisdiction.

McGregor arrived in the Yukon on June 8, 1898 and reached Dawson on the 26th. He was commended by Major Walsh for being the first Canadian newspaperman on the scene.

“It may surprise you, but it is nevertheless a fact that until the arrival of Col. McGregor in July, there was not an accredited representative of the Canadian press in the district.”

Reporting to the Minister of the Interior, Walsh excoriated Canadian newspapers for ignoring a story that had generated a media frenzy world-wide. Walsh counted 140 reporters from U.S. papers, 35 from England, 10 from France and 10 from Germany.

“No one commissioned by any of our leading newspapers to examine into the conditions of the country as they existed, or its wants, and to report the result of his investigation to the Canadian people, has visited the territory. . . All the information sent out from the country was left to the representatives of English and foreign newspapers to supply.”

“Friend of Sourdough and Sovereign” – Colonel McGregor Brings Law And Order To the Yukon

Writing in the spring of 1899 to a friend at home in Martintown, Glengarry, Colonel Donald McGregor noted with unease that “the miners have lost all confidence in the administrators of the law.”

Authority in the Yukon was caught in the glare of international attention. Exhibiting a blend of disappointment and patriotic shame, McGregor wrote:

“The principal topic on the streets, in the mines or wherever one goes is corruption and fraud alleged on the part of the officials. It is stated that Canada has lost more in the Klondyke than was gained at the Jubilee. It seems rather strange that the government would permit the good name of Canada to be trailed in the dust in the presence of representatives of all enlightened nations.”

McGregor’s letter was subsequently published in newspapers across the nation.

A dramatic confrontation, characteristic of this era, was recalled by the Dawson Daily News:

“Major Walsh, discovering that a wave of public disapproval was welling up from the depths of popular indignation, formally declared that martial law prevailed in Yukon. On the strength of his declared opinion, public mass meetings were dispersed by the police. Men were terrorized, and commenced whispering their grievances instead of speaking out their minds like Britishers. . . There was just one way to disabuse the public mind and at the same time restore the British right of free speech and free opinion in Dawson, and that way was taken. Dr McDougall, George Armstrong, Frank Dunleavy, Colonel McGregor, the then editor of the Nugget, Leroy Pelletier and J. Smith, all Britishers, proceeded to call another of the forbidden mass meeting and to address it on the issue of the day. Commands to desist from speaking were disobeyed. The crowd on being ordered to disperse, moved a few feet and then, encouraged by the sight of the speakers, reassembled. Several speakers were pulled down by the police from the boxes which served for a rostrum, but none were taken to jail, and then Major Walsh, from the outskirts of the crowd of 6,000 people, changed his mind about military law prevailing, and also changed his orders to his subordinates of the Northwest Mounted Police. Liberty and freedom of speech were won without a fight, without a case in court, and without one day spent in jail.”

As dissent percolated into direct action, McGregor eschewed the objectivity of the journalist when he was drafted into the leadership of the group known as the Miners’ Watchdog.

McGregor subsequently appeared before the Ogilvie Commission of Inquiry. From the report of his testimony:

“The stampede to the Yukon has been characterized, and properly so, as the greatest of the kind that has ever taken place in the history of mining camps, and the result was, that the situation that existed during the past season here was not apprehended as it should have been. Never in his experience had there been a multitude of people congregated together so dissatisfied and discontented as they were on that scene in the Yukon. The result was that there was a series of meetings held and the appointment of this miners’ committee. He was satisfied that the community should be grateful to the committee, to a certain extent, for the influence it had had in appeasing the turbulent element in the camp. They had given promises in the meetings that they would make every effort to secure a better condition of affairs, consequently they had gotten up a memorial and sent it to the premier at Ottawa. As a result of that it appeared that they were now about to have an investigation. If they had not acted as they had, the result might have been more serious..”

It was McGregor who had played a conciliatory role, appeasing the dissatisfied miners and winning concessions from the government. A Victoria newspaper reported that “it has been said it was he who saved the country from a disastrous outbreak of lawlessness when he addressed an excited crowd of armed miners at Dawson in 1898. An eastern paper credited him as having “brought law and order to the Yukon single-handed.”

‘They say the third winter is the hardest’

Colonel Donald McGregor stayed on in the Yukon as the rush faded away into legend and calmer days prevailed. McGregor was one of the first promoters of the Dawson Public Library, which opened its doors January 1, 1899 and he continued to work as a journalist.

In the year 1900 in anticipation of the visit of Lord and Lady Minto to Dawson, Colonel McGregor was put in charge of the committee arranging a suitable welcome.  Apparently some thought they could handle the situation better, though it is obvious from Lynch’s unashamed, though entertaining account, they would have done better by just letting the Colonel do his thing.

In December of 1902 a weekly newspaper, The Yukoner, first went to press, published by Donald McGregor. McGregor was listed as Editor of The Yukoner at least until the summer of 1903.

1904 01 07 Yukon Is Betrayed - says Col. Donald McGregor - Dawson NewsThree years after his role in placating miners and touting the merits of democrary as the right way to address grievances, McGregor was plainly embarrassed by the lack of reform and the token representation of the appointed Yukon council, which he termed “an institution of hypocrisy.”

“In the early days of the camp, at a time when the situation threatened to become serious, some few of us succeeded in partially quieting the turbulent elements in the community, by giving assurance that legitimate efforts wold be made to redress the grievances complained of. . .The situation, nevertheless, still remains with little improvement. Our representatives on the council are powerless for good and only serve to give a legislative color to the sham.”

In his advancing years, Colonel McGregor took on the role that won him the accolade “Grand Old Man of the Yukon.” Always in demand as a figurehead, chairman or spokesman, McGregor devoted his time to community building. He was invariably the one in charge of organizing holiday celebrations and festivities for young and old alike. He was a more or less permanent Foreman of juries. He took charge of the maintenance of the community cemetery, including building for it a new fence. He was vice president of the Yukon Polar Expedition. He help organize churches and schools and was said to be “the god-father of every child in the district.”

His busy schedule left him none the worse for wear. At the age of 68, it was reported that: “The Colonel is still young and kittenish. His friends expect to see him hike off this summer, just as a diversion, to the Finlay river country, forty mile from which he made a big clean-up in 1871.”

Grand Old Man of the Yukon bid farewell

On leaving for the south after ten years in the Yukon, Colonel Donald McGregor was lauded by the press and citizenry for his many contributions to Dawson City and the Yukon. The Yukon World reported on his departure in November, 1907:

“The Whitehorse will be the last of the big steamers to get away. Among her passengers will be the redoubtable Donald McGregor, hero of a hundred battles. Col. Donald McGregor, friend of all mankind and fairy godfather to every child in the territory, will leave Saturday on the Whitehorse for the outside, and with his going Dawson will lose a character unique and greatly beloved.”

McGregor was lauded for having “turned down every office and fat job in the Yukon from alderman to governor.”

McGregor was “the champion of all that was best and noblest in pioneer enterprise.”

“He was justly known as the ‘Grand Old Man of the Yukon.'”

Before his departure the Arctic Brotherhood awarded him an honorary life membership. Colonel McGregor also received remembrances from the citizens of Dawson.

“Before leaving the colonel was presented with two gold medals, one from the school children and on from the citizens, in recognition of his many good offices in their behalf.”

The medal presented by the people of Dawson bore the inscription:

“Presented by John Grant, M.Y.C., on behalf of the people of Dawson, Yukon Territory, to Donald McGregor, in recognition of his unwearied efforts at all times to further movements pertaining to the welfare of the community. Oct. 10th, 1907.”

With Sympathy of Old Days – McGregor a Pioneer of Vancouver

On his arrival back in southern British Columbia in 1907, Colonel Donald McGregor re-acquainted himself with newspapermen on Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland, always receiving a generous amount of coverage. Now 68 years of age, McGregor took up residence Vancouver, a young city still seeking its identity.

Col. McGregor became a stalwart member (1864) of the Vancouver Pioneers Association and could always be counted on to reminisce about the old days and provide background for newspaper reflections of the pioneers. In 1915 McGregor, observed the passing of Jonathan Miller, Steve Tingley, Mrs Bonson and others. He appeared to realize there would be fewer like him left to remember the old ones at their passing.

“In concluding his memories of old comrades and friends, Colonel McGregor emphasized the need of collecting materials for the biographies of the pioneers, who are growing fewer and fewer every year.”

In 1916 he met Theodore Roosevelt on his visit to Vancouver. McGregor was still in demand as a speaker.

Victoria Block - 342 W Pender St - VancouverBy 1918 Colonel McGregor was living in Ste. 7 at the Victoria Block, 342 West Pender Street — next door to the studio of the Vancouver Sketch Club —, where he resided the rest of his years in the city.

In 1919, almost 80 years old, he still listed his occupation as “journalist” — although not to be confused with another Vancouver journalist of the same name.

In 1920 Colonel Donald McGregor was honored with a Life Membership in the Vancouver Child Welfare Association. This was the same year that McGregor took aside the visiting Sir Robert Kindersley of the Hudson’s Bay Company for a private chat about the grave of Simon Fraser.

During his later years in Vancouver McGregor continued to serve the public as an unofficial ombudsman for “soldiers’ dependants,” aiding them in obtaining “the Government separation allowance and the relief from the Patriotic Fund to which they are entitled.” It was a matter of faith really, he was not an MP, he was not even a real Colonel, yet the people believed he could do something and he put himself forward to good effect.

Western Canada to Canada West – McGregor goes home

After leaving Vancouver in 1921 to undertake the Simon Fraser gravestone project, it appears McGregor remained in the east for his final years.

In 1925 Colonel Donald McGregor was elected a non-resident Fellow of the Royal Colonial Institute, London, England, a recognition by the establishment of his service to the Empire.

Donald McGregor gravestone St Andrew's Church WilliamstownIn the same year, the Dawson Daily News referred to Colonel McGregor as “the erstwhile tribune of the proletariat in ye imperial city of Dawson.”

Colonel Donald McGregor died on April 14, 1927 at the age of 88. He is buried in the cemetery of St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Williamstown. McGregor’s own gravestone is inscribed with some misinformation. He was never “Mayor of New Westminster.” Was it written in error, or was it another contribution to the legend?


Biographical information from the Dictionary of Glengarry Biography.

Donald McGregor had two sisters, both unmarried, who came to British Columbia and taught in the public schools. The obituary for Margaret McGregor noted that she was well-known for a poem she wrote called “The Fraser River,” publication as yet undiscovered.

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