Man who built Hydro lies in Hamilton Cemetery


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.