Thomas C. Brainerd (1837-1910)
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By Will Adye-White BAS, CFP TEP

His technical specialty was high velocity explosives that blasted a passage for Canadian expansion westwards.

Dr. Thomas C. Brainerd, American immigrant, would alter the Canadian landscape, both figuratively and especially physically as he became Canada’s gunpowder, explosives and ammunition magnate. Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on September 27, 1837, he graduated from Yale University in 1859 at the age of 22. His interests turned to medicine, which he studied at Jefferson Medical College, practising as a private assistant to Doctor Agnew. They would both serve as field surgeons with the Union Forces during the American Civil War, where Brainerd, due to his organization and management skills, was soon in charge of the largest military hospital in the country in Philadelphia.

Near the end of the Civil War, he married Mari Laflin Boies, daughter of Joseph M. Boies, an influential American gunpowder maker whose family gunpowder heritage preceded the American Revolution of 1776. After the Civil War, in 1867, Brainerd abandoned medical practice to enter the family gunpowder business as agent for the Laflins, Boies & Turck Powder Company.

In 1869, a number of powder companies were merged to become the Laflin & Rand Powder Company, then one of the three largest gunpowder makers in the U.S., the other two being I.E. Dupont of Delaware, and The Hazard Powder Company of Connecticut. In 1870, Brainerd became secretary of the new company.

In 1872, the six largest gunpowder makers in the United States collaborated to form the Gunpowder Trust or Gunpowder Trade Association (GTA). This was a trust that would regulate the production, pricing and markets of the members. It would also acquire, buy out, or force out competing powder companies that were not members of the trust. Brainerd soon became secretary. In 1874, when the position of President of the Laflin and Rand Company came vacant, Brainerd was passed over by the shareholders. He immediately resigned his position with Laflin & Rand and quit the GTA. This was to be a fortuitous moment for Canada. The road to Canada’s good fortune would test all of Brainerd’s entrepreneurial skills.

It all began in 1874, when Brainerd purchased a small gunpowder mill in York, Pennsylvania, and immediately initiated a trade war against former partners in the GTA. He sold blasting powder to the coal mines of Pennsylvania and as far west as St. Louis and Chicago. He manipulated his selling prices for powder below GTA prices, soon making quite a nuisance of himself. This lasted for two years until an agreement was reached between Brainerd and the GTA. By agreement, Brainerd ceased making blasting powder. The Gunpowder Trust bought the York Pennsylvania Mill from him, paid off the debt incurred by Brainerd during his trade war, and dismantled the York Powder Mill.

In 1876, as part of the agreement, Brainerd was appointed vice-president of the newly-formed Gunpowder Export Company (see label from Hagley Museum). His salary was paid by the GTA. His responsibilities for all exports to Canada, England and other foreign countries presented an immediate challenge.

In 1876, members of the GTA were short on powder production to supply demands of their American customers. The GTA had no powder for the Gunpowder Export Company to export to Canada or other foreign markets. American demand was so great that the Hamilton Powder Company of Canada gained inroads to the north-eastern American powder markets. Through the Gunpowder Export Company, Brainerd would have to acquire a Canadian powder company to gain access to the Canadian market. These proved to be fortuitous circumstances for Canada, as Brainerd moved to Montreal, a major centre of Canadian commerce.

When he moved to Montreal, the Canadian gunpowder industry was controlled by a number of small companies, the largest being the Hamilton Powder Company, of Hamilton, Ontario. This was an incorporated company, having been set up by an act of parliament in 1862. The other Canadian rivals were the Acadia Powder Company in Nova Scotia and the Windsor Mills Powder Company, in Windsor Mills, Quebec.

With financing through GTA’s capitalized assets of $200,000, the purchase of the Hamilton Powder Company would not be too difficult. Brainerd immediately sprang into action. After preliminary negotiations, The Hamilton Powder Company was purchased in late 1876. The deal included the powder mill at Cummingsville, just north of Hamilton, and the nitroglycerine plant in Kingston. The Kingston plant closed in 1879 when he purchased the Windsor Mills Powder Company in Windsor Mills, Quebec. The cost of purchase, $108,000, was paid by various officers of the GTA and the Gunpowder Export Company. The largest share of the cost was paid from the personal fortune of Lammot Dupont, who became the majority shareholder with 70 per cent of the outstanding shares of the new acquisitions.

An examination of the profitability of the gunpowder trade reveals that the Hamilton Powder Company paid dividends of 25 per cent on invested capital in 1873, with an increase to 38 per cent by 1875. This was based on sales of sporting powders, blasting and mining powders and contracts for blasting powders consumed by major public works projects. These included construction of various railways, and the Lachine and Welland canals, all of which consumed large quantities of products made by the Hamilton Powder Company.

Within a very short time of the purchase, the head office of the Hamilton Powder Company was moved to Montreal, Quebec. A third acquisition was added at Beloeil, Quebec, to produce dynamite. It was excellent timing for the company, when in 1877 it secured an exclusive contract to supply black powder and dynamite to the syndicate that was building Canada’s national railroad. This was a contract that would employ most of the company’s plants working on a 24-hour, six-days-per-week basis, and required a temporary explosives plant to be established at Cross Lake, Manitoba, in 1879.

The construction of the Cross Lake plant and its supply of explosives proved to be critical to the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) as well as the military campaign during the Riel Rebellion. Up to that time, in Western Canada, the CPR (which was not incorporated until 1881) was just a collection of uncompleted and unconnected rail lines. The Cross Lake supply of dynamite and nitroglycerine provided the explosives required by the railway contractors to finish and connect their sections of rail across the Western provinces. With these sections of rail complete, during the Riel Rebellion of 1885, troop movement to Saskatchewan from the East proved to be feasible.

Completion of the railway played a major role in maintaining Canadian unity, and the successful resolution to the Riel Rebellion allowed Prime Minister John A. MacDonald to ask parliament for more money to finish the CPR’s construction in the West. The Cross Lake plant also provided a large portion of the company’s profits during the 1880s and 1890s.

Soon a powder trade war ensued within Canada between the Acadia Powder Company and the Hamilton Powder Company. In fact, relations between the two companies became quite chilly after Acadia built a powder mill midway between Montreal and Toronto to invade the Ontario and Quebec markets. This was an area that Brainerd considered his own territory: he had the members of the Gunpowder Trust in the U.S. sign an agreement to stay completely out of the Canadian market for a number of years. The fact that the Canadian government imposed a tariff on imported gunpowder expedited the agreement.

Brainerd immediately retaliated against Acadia. He hired away Acadia’s most experienced powder man at triple his normal wages. He then aggressively started to market into the east coast of Canada, Acadia’s traditional market. Brainerd’s assault on Acadia was so successful that he was able to purchase the company in 1883 for a price of $74,000, with two thirds of the purchase price paid by Lammot Dupont. This was a significant coup, since Nobel Explosives of Scotland had purchased Acadia earlier in 1883, and Brainerd and Dupont were able to snatch it out of Nobel’s grasp by late summer of 1883.

Once acquired, the Acadia Mills continued to operate as a separate entity. Acadia had purchased the Pacific Powder Mills very early in 1883 but was forced to sell these mills to Hamilton upon the purchase of Acadia late in 1883. This resulted in a financial loss for Acadia. The Pacific Mills were immediately shut down by Brainerd.

Lammot Dupont had been a staunch supporter of the Hamilton Powder Company from the date that Brainerd conceived the idea of entering the Canadian powder market. Dupont would not enjoy the long-term benefit of his support. Dupont died in 1884 in an explosion in a dynamite plant in New Jersey. Brainerd would acquire Dupont’s shares in the Hamilton Powder Company from his estate and would acquire the outstanding shares owned by the members of the Gunpowder Trust.

For Brainerd, 1884 was to be a watershed year. With Dupont’s death he lost a formidable backer of his business. On October 8, 1884, he lost the Cummingsville gunpowder mill to an explosion. Luckily, only five men were killed in the explosion, which occurred at lunch time; otherwise, all of the 200 men and women working at the mill at the time would have been in harm’s way and the death toll would have been horrendous. Brainerd immediately moved all of his black powder production to Windsor Mills, Quebec, and all of his dynamite production to Beloeil, Quebec.

In January 1886, Brainerd, together with Sir John C. Abbot (later the third prime minister of Canada), A. Allan, J. Hodgson and A.L. Howard (“Gatling Gun” Howard of Riel Rebellion fame) formed the Dominion Cartridge Company. Abbott was the first president with Brainerd as general manager. By 1888, Brainerd had become president. Dominion Cartridge occupied the old Pacific Mills Gunpowder property, owned by the Hamilton Powder Company. It sold the land to A.L. Howard who had obtained concessions from the Canadian government with regards to tariffs on cartridges and cartridge manufacturing machinery. The concessions were contingent on starting a plant for cartridge production in Canada.

This was the first major commercial ammunition company in Canada. Since the Hamilton Powder Company dominated the gunpowder and dynamite market in Canada, the Dominion Cartridge Company would dominate the ammunition business. By October 1886, the plant was producing ammunition. This plant would become the pre-eminent ammunition maker in Canada. It satisfied the demands of Canadian hunters and sportsmen for 90 years and contributed to the supply of ammunition for the Canadian military through two world wars. When the Dominion Cartridge Company was formed, the Canadian population was largely rural-based. At that time, every farm and rural home had at least one shotgun or rifle, and most of the male members, as well as a number of the female members, of the households hunted for food when they were old enough to do so safely.

Firearms were tools used to provide a significant portion of the meat consumed by the households of the day, and they were produced by a diversity of large and small firearms manufacturers. Many of the weapons they produced used ammunition that was specific to their weapons. There was no standardization of single types of ammunition for all weapons. As a result, the Dominion Cartridge Company was able to produce a very wide range of calibres and loadings and thus domestically supply the needs of the country.

The diversity of calibres and loadings also proved to stimulate the consumption of gunpowder produced by the Hamilton Powder Company. What better way to sell your powder than to a sister company who resold the powder in cartridge form. In today’s business environment, this practice would be called vertical integration. In the terms of the 1880s, it was called smart and profitable.

The economic value of gunpowder produced by gunpowder mills in Canada during the 1880s through to 1911 is expressed in the following statistics:

1881 six mills produced $254,200 worth of powder

1891 nine mills produced $556,500 worth of powder

1901 seven mills produced $543,844 worth of powder

1911 seven mills produced $2,168,500 worth of powder

Among the six to nine mills, the Hamilton Powder Company controlled the majority, as well as the majority of the powder produced. For an average inflation rate of 3 per cent over the 124-year interval from 1881 to 2005, the amount of $254,200 in the year 1881 would translate approximately into $9.9 million in today’s value. In other words, in 1881, $254,200 was a very substantial amount of money. By contrast, in 1851, before Canada had any gunpowder production, imports of powder to Canada from England were approximately 100,000 Pounds valued at 11,000 Pounds Sterling. This was a princely amount at that time.

By the time of his retirement in 1903 at the age of 66, Thomas C. Brainerd had engineered a small fragmented gunpowder industry into an industrial powder house that dominated the gunpowder and dynamite industry in Canada. He had rationalized the industry by eliminating the small struggling mills, and established large efficient plants. He was a major player in the ammunition business in Canada through the Dominion Cartridge Company. The high explosives that the Hamilton Powder Company produced were essential to building some of the most impressive public and private works in Canada. Also, the work that was accomplished through the use of Brainerd’s black powder, dynamite and nitroglycerine, were to help consolidate Canada as a country.

Brainerd died in 1910. That year, both of his companies, together with other Canadian explosives companies and several chemical companies, were merged into Canadian Explosives Limited, which in 1927 became Canadian Industries Limited, or better known to many simply as CIL.

Thomas C. Brainerd’s guiding hand contributed to the physical joining of the provinces of Canada and thus strengthened the Dominion. Although difficult to measure, it is apparent that much good was done by a man who manufactured such a destructive product. After his retirement in 1903, Brainerd’s influence continued in the gunpowder and explosives industry in Canada, as his four sons, Dwight, Henry Boies, Winthrop and Herbert Whiting Boies all held positions within the explosives and ammunition industry for many years to come.

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