A scan of the newspaper accounts of Sir Adam Beck’s life and death reveals an almost messianic tone to the writing, even by the more florid journalistic standards of the day. Reporting on Beck’s death from a blood disorder in 1925, the Globe described it thusly, “the mind-the greatest constructive mind in the public life of the country—was clear and active to the end. Almost to the end when the weakened body failed him, his thoughts were concentrated on the wonderful public project to which he gave his life.”
The “wonderful public project” of course, was Ontario Hydro. Beck almost single-handedly had created the vast public utility out of a disparate collection of private power companies that existed at the turn of the last century in Ontario. He was responsible for harnessing the power of Niagara through the colossally-expensive Chippewa Power station, now named for him; and for extending electrical service to all parts of the province, including rural Ontario. At his peak Adam Beck was more powerful that the provincial premiers he, nominally at least, served. He was a tough, ruthless figure, worshipped by many, but also hated by private financial interests who saw him as a threat to their control of electrical power in Ontario.
But it all ended on an August day in 1925 when Beck died in his mansion in London. He had been born in Baden near Kitchener of German extraction. After working in a foundry for his father, he later established a cigar-box manufacturing company in Galt (now Cambridge, Ontario) with his brother William. In 1885, he moved the company to London, Ontario, where it quickly flourished and established Beck as a wealthy and influential civic leader.
He was also involved in horse breeding and racing, and at a horse show in 1897 he met Lilian Ottaway of Hamilton, daughter of Cuthbert Ottaway and Marion Stinson. Lilian’s mother, by then Marion Crerar, (meaning Beck’s bride to be was a step sister of famed WWII general Harry Crerar) objected to their 21-year age difference – she was 19 and he 40 – as well as Beck’s love of horse racing, which they felt would keep him away from home. Nevertheless, they were married on September 7, 1898. Beck named their London mansion Headley, after Lilian’s parents’ home in Surrey, England.
As the Beck’s settled back in London they became the leaders of that city’s society. Lillian and Adam made a romantic and devoted couple at dinners and Hunt Club affairs. Winston Churchill stayed with them on his lecture tour in 1900 as did Governor General Lord Minto and Lady Minto in 1903, and Lord Grey when he opened the Beck Sanitorium named for the London couple in 1910. Their daughter Marion Beck was born in 1904. She went on to be a noted horsewoman and a championship golfer. Her first marriage also had a Hamilton connection. She married wealthy stockbroker John Strathearn Hay, whose mother was a member of the Hendrie family of Hamilton. They divorced in 1930.
Apparently there had been no question about where Sir Adam’s final resting place was to be. It would be in the Stinson family plot at the side of his wife Lillian who had died four years earlier at age 41 of pancreatitis.
As the Globe felt necessary to explain, “Because of circumstances that seemed to lie beyond control, Sir Adam will be buried in Hamilton. There his beloved wife, the late Lillian Beck is buried in her own family plot. Sir Adam to his friends had frequently deplored the fact that this circumstance would determine the location of his own tomb, though as he often said, his heart must remain in London, the scene of the ebb and flow of his political fortunes…
When the day of the funeral came it exceeded in pomp that of any Prime Minister. Special trains were put on to bring people to London where the funeral service was to be had. Then, another special train would take Sir Adam to Hamilton for interment. The Globe reported crowds of thousands, standing eight-deep along the streets of London to pay tribute to the man the papers referred to as the “Hydro Knight.” At the funeral were dignitaries including the Premier, a former Prime Minister, Federal Cabinet ministers and the mayors of most of the cities in Ontario who had benefitted from Beck’s Hydro expansion. After the funeral in London the casket was loaded on a special train heading to Hamilton. According to the Globe, “along the route of the special train bearing the mortal remains of the late Sir Adam Beck to their final resting place…every station had its group of people standing with bared heads as the funeral train passed.”
At Hamilton, 150 cars were pressed into service to convey all of the dignitaries on the funeral train to the cemetery. As in London, crowds lined the streets as the cortege wound its way south on Bay Street and then west on York Street to the gravesite. Then as described by E .George Smith of the Globe, “They laid away Sir Adam in Hamilton yesterday. He sleeps beside his partner in life the late Lady Beck, on a grassy plain in beautiful Hamilton Cemetery….from his tomb looking across the placid inlet waters of Hamilton Bay can be sighted the clustering buildings of Hamilton Industries which his power project in large measure helped to build up.” Actually most of those Hamilton industries were powered by electricity generated by the private power interests against whom Beck had campaigned throughout his career.
99 years ago this week, Sir Adam Beck saw his greatest achievement fulfilled with the opening of the Queenston Chippewa power station. At the time it was the largest hydro-electric power installation in the world.