Sir Casimir Stanislaus Gzowski (1813-1898)
Buy the Book

By Peter Gzowski (Reprint with permission from Maclean’s Magazine, May 23, 1959)

Without his foresight today’s magnificent Niagara Parks system would likely never have existed; for 20 years he was a member of the senate of the University of Toronto and he became chairman of its Anglican theological college, Wycliffe.

SIR CASIMIR STANISLAUS GZOWSKI paved Toronto’s Yonge Street, built Niagara’s International Bridge, much of Montreal’s harbour. He was a colonel, a lawyer, an educator, a sportsman and a close friend of Sir John A. Macdonald’s. But today people can’t even pronounce–let alone remember–our family name.

I estimate that 3000 times during my six years as a working journalist, I have had to leave my name with a secretary or switchboard girl. On 2997 of those occasions I have been forced to spell my name: “G for George - no, GEE - Z - that’s right ZED-O-W-S-yes, GEE-ZED-O-W-S-K-I-no, I-S-K-I - pronounced ZOSKI.”

The exceptions were two calls to my grandfather, also named Gzowski, and one to the secretary of the public-relations department of the Ontario Jockey Club.

Yet this difficult to pronounce, impossible to spell and now all-but-forgotten name was once well known–and as important–in Canada as any of the legions of Mac’s, O’s, ‘sons and occasional ‘bakers that now swell our archives, right through Hansard and shine from brass plaques in a thousand grey public buildings.

The first man to bring this name to these shores–in 1833–was a swashbuckling engineer-nobleman-lawyer, exiled from his native Poland for his part in a revolution in which he fought against his father. He was knighted by Queen Victoria and was appointed her colonial aid de camp; Sir John A. Macdonald was among his closest personal friends and his business partners included some of the greatest men of his era. He built the nucleus of the CNR; he was a key engineer for Toronto’s Yonge Street, the longest and probably most famous thoroughfare in Canada; he designed and built many of Montreal’s harbour facilities and the International Bridge over the Niagara River.

Without his foresight today’s magnificent Niagara Parks system would likely never have existed; for 20 years he was a member of the senate of the University of Toronto and he became chairman of its Anglican theological college, Wycliffe; he was visitor to the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., Colonel of the Royal Canadian Engineers and a founder of the Canadian Society of Civil Engineers. Toronto has named a park after him–though not the one occupying the land on which his mansion once stood–and Kitchener, Ont., has named a street for him.

If suggestions he made in the 19th century had been carried out we would have had a St- Lawrence Seaway or comparable waterway many years ago; and Toronto, instead of being one of the ugliest cities, might have been one of the most beautiful, with a sweeping vista of waterfront unmarred by tangled miles of smoggy railway yards. On his death in 1898, the Toronto Globe took two and a half columns to list his achievements.

The secretary the Ontario Jockey Club recognized my name because my ancestor was the club’s first president, and starter for the first Queen’s Plate, now celebrating its centennial. But for all his accomplishments, Sir Casimir Stanislaus Gzowski is scarcely remembered even where he was once honoured most highly. My wife once telephoned Toronto’s parks department to inquire precisely why a small park in the west end had recently been named after Sir Casimir. “Oh, we honoured a lot of foreigners last year,” she was told. “Gzowski was some sort of musician.” (During the same splurge of internationalism a park had been named after Jean Sibelius, who was of course a Finnish composer, and whom the parks department clerk described to my wife as a Polish engineer.

Only the Polish community has tried to keep Sir Casimir’s memory alive. The solitary book written about him to date is in Polish and in it he is described as the most distinguished representative of that nation ever to settle in Canada. But through the normal processes of assimilation his descendants have lost touch completely with things Polish. I, for example, am Sir Casimir’s great-great-grandson and, proud as I am of my heritage, I am only one sixteenth Polish; and I have too much difficulty with passable restaurant French to start learning still another language.

This lamentable ignorance of Polish on the part of most of Sir Casimir’s descendants has resulted in some amusing moments. Between the wars, my grandfather, Lt. Col. H.N. Gzowski; my grandmother, my great-aunt Mrs. Wanda Gzowski Lindsey, and a few other descendants were asked by Toronto’s Polish community to take part in ceremonies at Toronto’s Massey Hall honouring Sir Casimir. Through speech after speech in a language they did not understand they sat on the platform, smiling benignly at the outbursts of applause and wondering whether they should change their name to Jones. Finally the program appeared to end, and the family whispered to each other about how to leave, while an orchestra burst into what the Gzowskis thought was a swelling recessional. Then Aunt Wanda turned around. They had chattered gaily through the first chorus and half a verse of the Polish national anthem while 1500 pairs of Slavic eyes glowered at them unheeded.

But even Sir Casimir had become so Canadianized that shortly before his death he remembered little of his mother tongue. When the brilliant Polish pianist and later prime minister Ignace Paderewski visited Toronto in 1893, Sir Casimir attended the concert. Afterward, when Paderewski received him backstage by speaking to him in Polish, Sir Casimir wept. His Polish biographer, Dr. Victor Turek, of the University of Toronto, offers the theory that the tears were brought on not by the old man’s embarrassment but because it had been so long since he heard the language of his motherland.

That land was not always kind to him. Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1813, first son of Count Stanislaw Gzowski of Janosa, Poland, then Colonel of Czar Alexander I’s. Light Guard regiment, he seemed destined for a distinguished career. Like many young noblemen of his time, Casimir was enrolled at the Russian Military Engineering School at Krzemieniec and at 17 was commissioned in the Imperial Russian Engineers. But for two years Poland had been ruled by the Grand Duke Constantine, despot brother of the Czar. No red-blooded young Pole could be happy without having a whack at revolution.

Casimir joined the rag-tag Polish army which rose against Constantine. After a near victory, the Poles were trampled by Russian troops–including the Guards commanded by Casimir’s father. The rebel was wounded, captured and imprisoned for 18 months. In 1833 he was released and promptly became involved in another abortive revolt. He was captured again and was taken to Trieste. From there, with 233 other hot-headed young nationalists, he was marched on to an Austrian ship bound for North America.

When the boatload of disillusioned aristocrats arrived in New York, each was turned loose with five dollars in gold.

For the young Casimir, the new world was both a new challenge and a new catastrophe. Though he spoke four languages easily–Polish, Russian, German and French–he had not a word of English, for even in those czarist days, English textbooks were banned from Russian schools. Where could he best learn the language of this strange land? A lawyer’s office would be a good place, be decided. He applied and was accepted for apprenticeship with the firm of Parker L. Hall of Pittsfield, Mass., with whom Daniel Webster had once been associated.

To supplement the pittance he earned as a tyro lawyer Casimir taught fencing, riding, drawing and violin at a girls’ school in Pittsfield. The dashing and titled instructor–he stood six feet two and had a fine mane of blond hair–cut quite a swath among the maidens of the school. As soon as he became a full-fledged lawyer Gzowski married a U.S. debutante, Maria Beebe of Erie, Pa. Maria was 17: Casimir 26. He became a U.S. citizen the next year and, as a lawyer and engineer, was snapped up by an enterprising Pennsylvania contractor.

In 1842 Gzowski was sent to Kingston, then the capital of Upper Canada, to bid on a contract for improvements to the Welland Canal. Sir Charles Bagot, then governor-general, had previously been British ambassador to the Czar’s court at St. Petersburg. For once, the unusual name stood a Gzowski in good stead. Casimir was summoned before Bagot.

“Are you related to Count Stanislaw Gzowski?” Bagot asked.

“He is my father.”

“Ah,” said Bagot, “then we must keep you in Canada”

Gzowski was offered the position of engineer of roads and waterways in the London, Ont., district. And the next month, he and his bride moved to Upper Canada.

For all the nepotism that got him his job, he was a capable–sometimes even daring–engineer. In 1890, in a speech as president of the Canadian Society of Civil Engineers, he told this story:

“I had to build a bridge across the River Thames near London on the road to Sarnia, to replace the temporary structure then in use. The new bridge was a single span one hundred and sixty feet. When it was completely ready for traffic and just before the removal of the temporary bridge, I was waited upon by several of the leading citizens of London, who inquired if I had absolute confidence in its ability to carry the heavy traffic that the improved condition of the road would bring upon it. They thought it too light and spidery.

“Fortunately, batteries of the Royal Artillery were then quartered in London. I asked the commanding officer to take them across to test its strength. “Yes,” he replied, “if you will stand under it.” The batteries crossed the bridge at a walk, then at a trot, without even disturbing the camber (arch). The citizens were convinced.

By 1846 he had risen to the top job in Upper Canada’s public-works department, and was working on the first survey of what was to become Yonge Street. A writer of the time noticed “the young Polish engineer, hard at work,” and concluded “no Canadian was to be found equal to the task.” But in the same year, there was at least one who was, for Gzowski took out naturalization papers as a British subject.

Two years later he left the civil service and became chief engineer of the St. Lawrence and Atlantic Railroad, one of the components of the Grand Trunk, later the CNR. For four years he lived in Sherbrooke, Que. In 1852, the newly formed firm of Gzowski and Co. gained a charter to build a railway from Toronto to Guelph, Ontario, with an extension to Sarnia. Partners in the company were David Macpherson, Alexander Galt and Luther Holton. Both Galt and Holton later became finance ministers of Canada. Early in 1854, Gzowski and Co. was awarded a contract to build an esplanade for the city of Toronto. A wide sweep of landscaped grounds would have been laid out between the burgeoning city and its still unsullied waterfront. But the next year, city council squabbled over cost and canceled the contract, and today the “esplanade” is the dirty pattern of railway yards and grimy factories that greets travelers arriving in Toronto and is a prime reason for the city’s international reputation for ugliness.

In later years, Gzowski was chairman of a government commission of waterways that strongly recommended deepening of the St. Lawrence River and construction of a canal from the Bay of Fundy to the Gulf of St. Lawrence through the Isthmus of Chignecto–a canal the Maritimes are still convinced would alleviate many of their economic woes.

Probably his most outstanding engineering feat, though, was the building of the International Bridge, crossing the Niagara River from Fort Erie to Buffalo.

The biggest problem was the current, which ripped and swirled up to 12 miles an hour past the site. To counteract it, Gzowski designed massive wooden caissons filled them with concrete, floated them into the current on rafts and sank them as bases for the towers.

His first giant footing met disaster. It was wrenched from its mooring when a 2000-foot raft of lumber from Tonawanda was snatched by the current and buffeted forward alongside its own tugboat. The slack cable neatly lassoed Gzowski’s newly planted tower-footing jerking it downstream. From then on Gzowski stationed three tugs upriver to guide timber rafts safely past his footings.

At the ceremonies marking the opening of the International Bridge in 1873, the president of the Grand Trunk Railway, which had commissioned the job, said, “There is no other man in the country who could have carried it out.” During the construction Gzowski’s crews hauled a great oaken log from the bottom of the Niagara River. Gzowski had it carted to Toronto and carved into furniture–including the cumbersome, ugly Victorian desk upon which my typewriter is perched as I write.

But there are more impressive monuments at Niagara. It was he who first suggested a system of parks around the falls. He was first chairman of the parks commission and largely responsible for putting his own suggestions into practice. His statue still stands in the doorway of the administration building at Niagara Falls, a few miles from his bridge which, with only some steel added to accommodate heavier traffic, remains much as he built it.

For all his achievements as an engineer, Gzowski never forgot his military training. In 1864, three years before Confederation, he organized a meeting of prominent Toronto citizens to protest withdrawal of Imperial troops from border areas. The possibility of a raid by Irish nationalists in the U.S.–the Fenians–worried him, and he drew up complex plans for fortifying the frontier.

A year later, Gzowski paid his own way to England, where he argued with the war office that the embryo dominion would be vulnerable to military attack. By June of ’66, his fears were proved well founded: the Fenians attacked Fort Erie and the eastern townships of Quebec. They were repulsed by Canadian volunteers–and the British Imperials Gzowski had pleaded for.

Six years after the raids, Gzowski’s military background and foresight were recognized; he was made lieutenant colonel of the newly formed Royal Canadian Engineers, and at the suggestion of his friend John A. Macdonald of the engineers’ militia.

Macdonald and the Pole were close friends. The Canal Commission on which Gzowski served–and whose recommendations are still considered worth implementing–was taking too much of his time. He wanted to retire. Macdonald wrote him: “Please stay. I cannot talk confidentially to anyone on this Body but you.”

At the crest of Macdonald’s power, in l872, Gzowski was named a trustee of a $67,500 fund set up by Tory business leaders to look after the prime minister’s well-being.

Perhaps it was only this close association that kept Gzowski from leaving his stamp on even more of Canada. Two days after Macdonald’s fall, Alexander Mackenzie, the new prime minister, asked Gzowski to go to British Columbia for a conference on the CPR upon whose completion confederation with the Pacific Province rested. Gzowski, out of loyalty to Macdonald, declined.

He had many other interests. He was the first president of the Dominion of Canada Rifle Association–and sharpshooters still vie for the Gzowski Cup, though few can pronounce its name. He organized the first Canadian rifle team to compete in Empire matches and, accompanying the competitors to Britain, he threw lavish parties at his own expense during the Wimbledon competition. Gzowski trophies are still the object of lusty intra-service competition in military drill among regiments of the Canadian Army. He was President of the original Ontario Lawn Bowling Society and the spacious grounds of The Hall, his rambling Toronto home, were the scene of weekly bowling tournaments He was president of the exclusive Toronto Club.

In 1879 he was made a full colonel–head of the Royal Canadian Engineers–and named colonial aide-de-camp to the queen. If Victoria had ever visited Canada her chief host and guide would have been the engineer with the unpronounceable name. She never did of course, but the next year, serving dually as ADC and first president of the Ontario Jockey Club, Gzowski introduced the Marquis of Lorne and Princess Louise to Woodbine race track for the Queen’s Plate.

(Though Gzowskis have carried on some of Sir Casimir’s traditions–my grandfather became colonel of the RCE between the wars–I expect to watch this year’s royal visit to the Queen’s Plate from my usual position in the stratosphere of the public stands.)

In 1887, Gzowski was nominated for an Order of the Bath. He was turned down–the Bath is reserved for those of British blood. But three years later, for his “service to Canada,” Queen Victoria made him Knight Commander of the Order of St. Michael and St. George.

The rest of his career is a parade of honour upon honour: two jubilee medals from the queen; a fellowship in the Royal Geographic Society; chairmanship of countless commissions. In 1896, the lieutenant governor of Ontario, Sir George Kirkpatrick, became ill and Sir Casimir was appointed administrator. He was urged to assume the lieutenant governorship permanently. He refused. He was too old.

In 1898, 85 years old, he died. Two years later his opulent home at Toronto’s Bathurst and Dundas Streets was sold to the city for $65,000. Today it’s a city park–Alexandra. A skating rink on his front lawn is open to neighborhood youngsters all winter. I, like most of the Gzowskis, live in a rented apartment, just big enough for my wife and me and a six-month-old named Peter Casimir. For in spite of all the difficulty he’ll have over his name, I’d rather like our little guy to grow up in the shadow of that great towering figure with the scarlet tunic and the mutton-chop whiskers and the ornate hat topped by what looked to me, in the Notman photograph that hangs in my grandparents’ living room, much like an upside-down badminton bird.

I hope he’ll get as much fun as I do out of people who speak slowly to him so he’ll understand English.

But I also hope some day people will learn to say Gzowski. It’s pretty hard to be a snob when people stumble over your surname.

The only satisfactory solution I’ve heard was evolved by my father. He was playing bridge with some strangers when North looked shyly at him and smiled: “Just how do you pronounce your name?”

“Smeeth,” my father bellowed, echoing the rage we’ve felt now for five generations, ‘S-M-I-T-H,-Smeeth.”

Copyright © 2009 by Association of Professional Engineers of Ontario. All Rights Reserved.
This website and its content are protected by copyright law. No content may be copied, published, distributed, downloaded or otherwise stored in a retrieval system, transmitted or converted, in any form or by any means, electronic or otherwise, for any use other than personal or educational.