Michael John O'Brien

Michael John O'Brien, railway builder, industrialist, philanthropist (b at Lochaber, NS 19 Sept 1851; d at Renfrew, Ont 26 Nov 1940). O'Brien left school while he was in grade 8 to work as a water boy on a railway construction site.

O'Brien, Michael John

Michael John O'Brien, railway builder, industrialist, philanthropist (b at Lochaber, NS 19 Sept 1851; d at Renfrew, Ont 26 Nov 1940). O'Brien left school while he was in grade 8 to work as a water boy on a railway construction site. He loved his work and eventually became a labourer, foreman, sub-contractor and contractor, venturing to wherever there was railway construction to be done. This brought him to RENFREW, Ont, in 1879 where he and 2 partners won the contract to build the Kingston and Pembroke Railway. In 1891, shortly after building a branch for the Canadian Atlantic Railway, he lost everything. He slowly reasserted his presence, winning numerous railway-building and concrete-bridge contracts in Nova Scotia, a section of the Welland Canal, docks and slips at Ojibway, Ont, and grain terminals at Fort William and Port Arthur, Ont. From 1902 to 1905 he was commissioner of the fledgling Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway (now ONTARIO NORTHLAND).

His scope was not limited to the railways and construction. He acquired the O'Brien mine, one of the richest silver deposits in the world, at COBALT, Ont, in 1903. He helped to form the National Hockey Association (NHA) in 1909, the forerunner of the NATIONAL HOCKEY LEAGUE. He funded 4 of the 5 teams in the NHA league, including his own Renfrew Creamery Kings, to be later known as the Renfrew Millionaires, and the MONTREAL CANADIENS, possibly the most storied franchise in Canadian sport. He recruited and outfitted railway battalions, sending 1018 men to the World War I effort. He acquired vast sections of timber rights, power rights, and farms in the east and large tracts of land in the west as well as properties in the United States and Mexico. His influence in Renfrew and the surrounding area was everywhere, including a dairy, woollens and knit factories, and saw and planing mills. O'Brien's philanthropic acts were equally numerous and diverse.


Further Reading

  • Scott Young and Astrid Young, O'Brien (1967).