Charles M. Hays – A Titanic Loss

by Lynn Salmon 2014

Charles M. Hayes

Prince Rupert’s deep water harbour, ships at anchor, cruise ship dock at lower left corner, overlooking Cow Bay. (Photo from the Laura Yerex collection.)

The early 1900s in Canada were a time of great and rapid expansion; construction on an epic scale was embraced and lauded. In 1910 Prince Rupert was carved from the dense forest that towered over the shores of one of the deepest natural harbours in the world. Situated on the northern coast of British Columbia at the southern tip of the Alaskan panhandle, it was strategically located to divert coastal trade and exploit the seemingly endless natural resources of the area.

Development was intense, anticipating the wealth and prestige of being the terminus of the ambitious Grand Trunk Pacific Railway – a line that would run from Montreal right across the prairies to the profitable shores of British Columbia. The city boomed in its infancy; stump–laden, muskeg–mired lots just 25 feet in width sold for hundreds of dollars sight unseen by speculators eager to cash in on the easy money of a resource town. Fishing, logging, mining, railroads: Prince Rupert looked to be the next big boom. Prime Minister Sir Wilfred Laurier, a champion supporter of expansion westward, came out to visit in 1910. There seemed to be no limits to the successes that awaited the fledgling city.

On the other side of the Atlantic in the Irish town of Belfast, the White Star Line, a subsidiary of millionaire J.P. Morgan’s International Mercantile Marine, was building the second of three large ocean liners. The RMS Olympic was already a resounding success in her initial year of transits between Southampton, Cherbourg and Queenstown (now Cobh) and New York. The RMS Titanic, under construction eleven months behind her sister, was slated to make the same run on the opposite schedule. Titanic lived up to her name: massive and grand and White Star Line was rightfully pleased with their building efforts. Her maiden voyage was set for April 10th, 1912 and due to a just–ending coal strike in England the bunkers of other liners were robbed to fill the holds on Titanic. This meant the passengers booked on those ships were now transferred to Titanic as well. She sailed with 2200 persons aboard and Charles M. Hays was among them.

Charles M. Hays

Statue of Charles M. Hays at the City Hall, Prince Rupert BC. (Photo from the Laura Yerex collection.)

Charles M. Hays was an American railroader whose vision for a northern rail line terminating in Prince Rupert sent him to Europe looking for capital investors. The Grand Trunk Pacific was struggling to grow and compete with the Canadian Pacific Railway for a share in the transportation market. The idea for a northern transcontinental rail line terminating at Prince Rupert was ambitious; magnificent in scale and an enterprise that required a lot of money and the indomitable drive of one man.

Charles Melville Hays was born at Rock Island, Illinois in May 1856. He was working on the railway by the age of 17 and by 22 had established himself with Missouri Pacific Railway as the secretary to the manager of the rail. In his personal life he married in 1881 to Clara Gregg and they had four daughters. He continued to work for various rail lines in the States until he took an appointment as general manager of the Grand Trunk Pacific based out of Montreal in 1896.

Hays secured funds from the Laurier government to begin construction on the rail line in 1902 but the costs involved skyrocketed and by 1911 the debt accumulated was nearing 100 million dollars. His answer to this was to continue building: investing in rolling stock, track laying and erecting grand hotels in competition with the prosperous Canadian Pacific Hotels. The Chateau Laurier (named in recognition of the prime minister’s support) was almost ready to open in Ottawa and plans were readied for six similar luxury hotels at locations across the country including Prince Rupert. Francis Rattenbury, the architect of the Parliament Buildings in Victoria BC, was commissioned to design one of the grandest terminals yet to be seen in Canada at Prince Rupert. (The plans for the building can be viewed at the Prince Rupert archives.)

To see the completion of his grand schemes and secure even more money to spend his way out of debt, he travelled to England to address the Grand Trunk Railway board of directors (the GTP’s parent company) and convince them to continue investing in the company’s future. He won the tentative approval from the GT board to continue with his plans and with this knowledge he mercilessly pursued the White Star Line with his ideas of connecting ships and rail lines, convinced that profits were just around the corner.

It would be a tough sell and an ultimately futile one. When Hays went down in the Titanic in April 1912 he took the GTP with him. He was travelling with a large party on board, his wife and one daughter among the group. When the call came for women and children to board the lifeboats, Hays saw both women safely into a lifeboat and remarked that he was confident the ship would remain afloat for ‘a good ten hours’. Hays was fatally wrong. His body, identified by an engraved watch he was carrying, was recovered twelve days later by the ship Minia. He was returned to Montreal in his private rail car where he was laid to rest in Mount Royal Cemetery beneath a conspicuous monument. On the day of his burial all GTP workers across the country ceased for a five minutes to pay respect to the man who had taken the vision of a second transcontinental railway to the government and attempted to make the concept a reality.

In Prince Rupert, though the rail line was completed, the grand hotel was never built and GTP was in financial ruin by 1914. By 1920 the Federal Government stepped in and created the Canadian National from the remnants of the GTP. Hays’ impact on Prince Rupert, and across the country, is commemorated by a statue that stands beside the city hall in Prince Rupert, and the naming of the towns of Melville (Saskatchewan) and Hays (Alberta) as well as the large mountain that rises above Prince Rupert.

Incidentally, the rail car that delivered his body to Montreal has been preserved and is now displayed at the Canadian Railway Museum in Quebec. He was offered a knighthood in 1910 but declined it as he did not want to relinquish his American citizenship. The Japanese awarded him the Order of the Rising Sun in 1907. This medal is on display at the Lyman House Memorial Museum in Hilo, Hawaii.

The Grand Trunk, the Titanic and Charles Hays have long since vanished. Prince Rupert, as a primarily resource–dependent city, has continued over the decades in cyclical booms and busts. They celebrated their centenary in 2010 expressing a still hopeful future. Today the city is anticipating a resurgence of investment as gas and oil interests build facilities to handle the shipping of their products westward. Log exports continue and the container port expands as shipping demand increases.

One can only wonder what Prince Rupert’s future would have been had Charles Hays survived the Titanic. His was indeed a titanic loss.

To quote from this article please cite:

Salmon, Lynn (2014) Charles M. Hays – A Titanic Loss. 2014.

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