A lone body bobbed in the icy waters of the North Atlantic.
The crew of the cable steamer Minia, out of Halifax, had the grim task of retrieving victims of the Titanic disaster. The vessel sailed with a ship’s surgeon, an undertaker and an Anglican rector. Her cargo on this sad expedition included 20 tons of ice, quantities of embalming fluid and 150 wooden coffins.
The steamer arrived at the site of the sinking on April 26, 1912. A corpse was soon spotted. Later, it would be registered as body No. 307. Chilled hands reached to haul it in.
The male had light-coloured hair and was estimated to be 56 years old. (He was in fact 31 days shy of his 56th birthday.) He had on him a half sovereign gold coin, three shillings in silver, and a $5 American banknote. Elsewhere in his pockets were pages of correspondence and a policy for fire insurance.
Those documents provided a good hint as to his identity, confirmed by a gold watch, bearing on its back the engraved monogram C.M.H.
These were the remains of Charles Melville Hays, an American-born Montreal resident who, as president of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, was perhaps the most famous railway executive on the continent. He had founded the northern Pacific port of Prince Rupert. Even as mariners searched for bodies, work continued on his transcontinental railroad across the rugged, mountainous terrain of British Columbia.
The surgeon later would describe Mr. Hays in a letter as the ship’s “star corpse.”
Indeed, his name appeared in newspaper headlines alongside those of wealthy victims John Jacob Astor and Benjamin Guggenheim. In a cruel twist, the earliest reports suggested Mr. Hays had survived. His wife and a daughter survived, as did the family’s maid. The disaster a century ago this weekend claimed his son-in-law and his male secretary.
Mr. Hays had been returning from a business trip to England, where he solicited financing for the railway.
The Minia stayed at sea for several more days, collecting 17 bodies, two of them buried at sea. The steamer returned to port at 1:45 a.m. on May 6. Horse-drawn hearses kept a vigil at dockside. A Grand Trunk vice-president claimed Mr. Hays’s body, which was placed aboard his private rail car, named Canada, bound for Montreal. A funeral service was held at his home before he was buried at Mount Royal Cemetery.
On the day before his body had been discovered, the Grand Trunk and its affiliated lines observed a unique tribute. At precisely 11:30 a.m. in Montreal, 8:30 a.m. in Prince Rupert, and 4:30 p.m. in London, England, all operations in the system were suspended for five minutes of silence. All trains squealed to a halt and all steamships dropped anchor. Every train station was draped in mourning.
Eight years earlier, Mr. Hays had selected an isolated spot on Kaien Island on the northern coast of British Columbia as the future site of the western terminus of his railway. “I stepped out of a boat and stood upon the accumulated muskeg of the ages,” he wrote later of the chosen site. The land had been the traditional home of the Tsimshian people for centuries. He predicted the deep, ice-free port, closer by a day’s sailing to markets in the Orient, would soon rival Vancouver and San Francisco. The prediction set off speculative boom as city lots carved from the rain forest were sold at auction.
Prince Rupert boomed. At the time of his death, it boasted rival theatres, a roller-skating rink and an opera house, where a memorial service for the city’s founder was conducted, the mayor and no fewer than three ministers presiding.
The rail link to the fledgling city was at last completed two years later, but without Mr. Hays’s driving force Prince Rupert never fulfilled his vision of being a world-famous port. Even the Grand Trunk Pacific went bankrupt, becoming part of the government-owned Canadian National.
“In Prince Rupert, they still talk of the sinking of the Titanic as if it was a local shipwreck,” journalist Allan Fotheringham wrote in 1964.
Today, the local high school is named for Mr. Hays, as is the island’s highest mountain. (Along the great expanse of the Grand Trunk route, the Saskatchewan city of Melville also honours its patron.)
At Prince Rupert City Hall, a bronze statue depicts the bewhiskered magnate standing with right hand on his hip. His railway’s logo can be seen on the timepiece at his waist. He overlooks a city that came to be known as Hay’s Orphan.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Name that boomtown
The Pacific port city proposed by Charles Melville Hays was named in a contest sponsored by his Grand Trunk Pacific Railway. Entrants were asked to use no more than 10 letters, or three syllables, and to conjure a name unique to British Columbia. More than 12,000 entries were received. Eleanor Macdonald of Winnipeg won $250 for suggesting the first governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The news was carried on the front page of The Globe under the headline, All aboard for Prince Rupert. Two other entrants also received $250 prizes for proposing Port Rupert.
The Chateau that never was
The grandiosity of Charles Hays’s vision for Prince Rupert is best expressed in plans for a magnificent hotel. He hired Francis Rattenbury, the architect responsible for the legislature and the Empress Hotel in Victoria, to prepare plans for a destination resort hotel.
Mr. Rattenbury did not disappoint. He imagined a grand, 15-storey hotel with 450 bedrooms, each with an adjoining bathroom. Faced with brick and terra cotta, the building would be larger than the Empress, covering an entire city block on Second Avenue.
The $2-million hotel was to be attached to a train station and a steamship dock, boasting a dining room in mahogany, as well as a ballroom, tea rooms, a billiards room, a barber shop and Turkish baths.
The foundation was dug, but the hotel never came close to being constructed.
“Hays went down with the Titanic,” the Financial Post noted in 1952, “and Rupert’s boom went with him.”
The blueprints went missing. They were discovered years later in the attic of the Rattenbury home on the waterfront in Oak Bay, by then being used as a private school. They are now held by the Prince Rupert Public Library.
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