Michael James Heney

Having often referred to Mr. Heney, I looked back and found that I have never done a post just on him. So here is the brief biography from Wikipedia:

“Michael James Heney was born on October 24, 1864, near Stonecliffe, Renfrew County, Ontario. He was the son of Thomas Eugene Heney and Mary Ann McCourt, Irish immigrants. His family farmed in the upper Ottawa Valley.

At age 14, Heney ran away from home to work on the newly announced Canadian Pacific Railway. Though he was soon found and brought home by his older brother Patrick Heney, he stayed home only until 1882, when he left home to work on the Canadian Pacific Railway in Manitoba. He started as a mule skinner and gradually worked his way up through all the aspects of construction. In 1883 he was included in a survey crew, spending the next three years learning more about construction as the Canadian Pacific Railway worked its way through the mountains of British Columbia.

At 21, Heney was ready to set up as an independent contractor. He returned east to earn the engineering degree his father wanted him to have, but was too impatient and was soon back in the west. By 1887 he had moved his operations to Seattle, working on the final stages of the Seattle, Lake Shore and Eastern Railway. The career of the “boy contractor” was launched. Many construction projects in Washington, British Columbia and Alaska followed.”

A chance meeting with the London financiers at the St. James Hotel in Skagway led to his most famous achievement, the building of the 110 mile track from Skagway to Whitehorse. Built in a record two years and two months it still runs today but only on the Skagway to Carcross length.

At the pinnacle of his career, Heney left Cordova, Alaska to complete some business arrangements in Seattle. On his way back north, his ship hit an uncharted rock and sank. Heney went under deck to rescue his horses, but the last boat left without him when he returned on deck. So he swam to a boat and held on to the stern while it was rowed ashore as there was no room on it. I read another account that said he swam back to help women swim to safety. In either case, shortly thereafter he developed pulmonary tuberculosis and died within a year, on this day, October 4, 1910 in San Francisco. He is buried in Calvary Cemetery Seattle.

The photo above shows him later in life with his cigar. I think it exemplifies his character more than the more common studio photo of him. He had a number of similarly strong men working for him who pushed the thousands of workers to finish the White Pass project. Seldom have I seen anything negative written about him, but I believe there was another side to management. Similarly, there has never been anything written about his private life. Heney never married nor did he have any women friends. I have seen references to his deep grief over the loss of two of his co-workers, Robin Brydone-Jack and Hugh Nelson Foy during the building of the railroad. During the reconstruction of the White Pass Depot building by National Park Service workers in the 1970’s, they found negative grifitti about Heney written on the boards under the subfloor. I believe he was a man driven to accomplish great things and was the inspiration if not the embodiment of Ayn Rand’s character of Howard Roark in The Fountainhead. However, that does not mean that he was loved by all. In those years, businesses did not have to worry about safety, insurance, worker’s compensation, or benefits. White Pass did have a hospital and they did bury their workers who died during construction. However, they did not tolerate strikes, and being a railroad town, workers and their families over the decades were at the mercy of the WP management.

Wikipedia; Minter.



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