Written by: Justin Brett
Throughout this project, we have seen men covered who were very ambitious, be it in politics, recreation or business. But we have not seen anyone that could be called a true capitalist quite yet. In that regard, few could be seen as more iconic in Sault Ste. Marie than Francis H. Clergue.
Though of French descent, Clergue was born in Maine following his father’s emigration to the United States. In school Clergue was said to be popular, and known for dreaming big and having a great deal of optimism. These traits would inform quite a bit about his path in life.
For a short time Clergue practised law, but then turned to the field that he would work in for most of his life: ambitious enterprise. Clergue had quite a gift for persuasion which often inspired the wealthy to fund his ideas or purchase what he was selling. His latest business in that field before locating Sault Ste. Marie had been attempting to obtain the rights to building a railway across Persia in 1888. While unsuccessful, this goes to show how audacious a person Clergue could be.
When he bore witness to Sault Ste. Marie and the surrounding area of Algoma Clergue seems to have been inspired, and passed on that inspiration to the Toronto Board of Trade. An account of his meeting with them claims that his initial pitch was met with a standing ovation. This passion of his seems to have little to do with actually making money, but more a desire to see wilderness filled with industry and man overcoming harsh environments. Not many environments were more challenging than those around the Sault in that time.
In truth Clergue had only been passing through the small town to view another site, but saw a great deal of potential in the waters rushing down from Lake Superior. An unfinished power station was located in the area, and after a meeting with the Mayor Clergue came away with the deed to it. The only caveat was that the debt of the town for its construction until then now fell on him, but this was no issue for the enterpriser: a second meeting with financers from Philadelphia and New York gave him an investment of over $200,000, an even larger sum for that period and more than enough to begin his plans.
Clergue’s first move was to lengthen the power canal, increasing its capacity to 20,000 horsepower. This caused the unique and perhaps enviable problem of having nothing to put that power toward. To solve this Clergue then persuaded his financers to invest in building a paper mill in the area – this would end up being the Sault Ste. Marie Pulp and Paper Company, with a starting value of $2,500,000.
This led to a domino effect of industry. In order for this new mill to produce sulphite pulp Clergue equipped a laboratory, oversaw the production of sulphuric acid from pyrrhotite ores and even purchased a pair mines in Sudbury to supply the raw material en masse. Many more installations cropped up to support and be supported by the mill and generator, from charcoal and ferro-nickel plants to a second power plant in Sault, Michigan, to a developed harbor with sixteen steamships. A boom had come to Sault Ste. Marie due to this one man happening to pass through. The Algoma Tube Works, as it came to be known, was estimated to be worth $30,000,000.
Further expansion happened, involving foresting for the pulp mill and the construction of a railway that stretched from Sudbury to Manitoulin Island. A third mine was discovered and excavated. It seemed there was no limit to how big the enterprise would become.
Sadly, nothing lasts forever, and as many bubbles do the one Clergue had set up eventually burst in 1903. This came from a combination of over-expansion (a problem one can easily see in hindsight given the last few paragraphs) and poor financial decisions: whatever Clergue may have been, he wasn’t a businessman. This defaulting led to a minor incident when the Queen’s Own Rifles, a regiment of the Canadian Army, were called in after workers voiced displeasure over not receiving their pay, though fortunately no-one ended up being hurt.
One might think this would be the end of Clergue’s career, but somehow or another he managed to come out the other end more-or-less alright. He would never again lead an enterprise as large as his work in Sault Ste. Marie, but he would still find work in World War I, selling weapon patents and munitions to France and Russia. Clergue would also find himself director of the Canadian Car & Foundry Company from 1920 to 1939, when he passed away in Montreal.
Despite the collapse of his enterprise here, a surprising amount of what Clergue created lived on under new ownership. His paper mill would be acquired by the Abitibi Power and Paper Company in 1928 and pass between owners before finally shutting down in 2011. One of the two railways he had built, now known as the Algoma Eastern Railway, wouldn’t make it past the 1930s and the Great Depression before being quietly removed, while the other, the Algoma Central Railway, is still in place to this day. Perhaps most obviously is Algoma Steel, which began as Clergue’s steel mill and is now a crucial part of the Sault.
Obviously people may not have had the most positive feelings about Clergue following the Works’ collapse, but perhaps because of these remnants he seems to largely have a positive reputation these days. The Sault named several landmarks after him, even a Public School still around today – much of this information comes from a speech at its opening. Obviously that isn’t a sign of someone necessarily being a good person exactly, but it’s undeniable Sault Ste. Marie wouldn’t be the same place today without him.