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William John

I have interesting family lore I will share. I've tried to study this carefully, and so far have found it unlikely to prove, other than my source which is a family obituary for my Great Grandfather, William John McMillan.

A little background: William John was born at Montreal in 1847, and in Montreal on the 1852 census. A brother, David was born at Kingston, Ontario about 1853. I believe William John's father may have died at Kingston early 1850s, and William John's mother Margaret remarried to a John Hinds. By the 1861 census John and Margaret Hinds were at Toronto. The McMillan boys are listed with surname "Hinds", but it is shown that both William John and his older brother Arthur are absent. Other family lore indicated William John was on his own from eleven years of age. I suspect the boys may have stayed at Kingston for a time.

By 1865 Margaret was widowed again, and remarried to Matthew Todd (another of my GG Grandfather's), and they lived at Fergus, Ontario. In 1867 William John married Matthew's daughter Anderson Todd at Fergus, and they were there on the 1871 census. Births of children 1868 and 1869 and family lore indicated William John was a sailor for a few years when children were born, and by 1871 was shown as carpenter which family lore says was digging cellars. Shortly after 1871, William John became a conductor for the railroad out of Palmerston, Ontario.

In 1879, James Jerome Hill (the builder of the Great Northern Railway in the US, and referred to as "The Empire Builder"), was recruiting men in his home area of Wellington County, Ontario. William John hired on, moved to Minnesota, was a conductor, and eventually became the conductor for James Hill's special train for about 20 years. He was good friends with Hill, and organized annual birthday celebrations for Hill. In 1913 William John organized the Great Northern Railway Veteran's Association, and was President until his death in 1930. Through his negotiations with Hill, The Great Northern donated $1 million towards a retirement fund, which came after Hill's death in 1916.

William John McMillan died at St Paul, Minnesota January 1, 1930. His obituary shows he had become friends with who later became the inventor, Thomas Alva Edison, and that William John received the first telegraph message sent by Edison (I assume it's meant a message sent in Ontario?). Edison was close to the same age as William John, and I believe he became a telegrapher at Stratford in 1864. I don't know if he was in other locations in Ontario or not? The obituary indicates Edison was at Kingston, but I suspect the family had that wrong, and perhaps William John was at Kingston?

As I studied this family lore, I found Edison had at one point slept through an important warning, when 2 trains were about to collide at night. Edison was called to a meeting about the incident, and it's said during a break in the meeting, Edison feared possible arrest, so got the heck out of Canada. He was said to be a telegrapher in various places in the US for a time after that.

Here's a transcription of William John McMillan's obituary:
William J McMillan Obituary transcribed from Pioneer Press, St Paul, MN
Thursday, January 2, 1930 Dies at 88 M'Millan, Thought Oldest Shriner, Dies
Great Northern Conductor, Once Voted Most Popular on Road, Succumbs at 88

"William J McMillan, veteran Great Northern railroad conductor, and believed to have been the oldest Shriner in the United States, died suddenly Wednesday in the home of his daughter, Mrs G A Baker, 513 Portland avenue. He was 88 years old.

Mr McMillan, once acclaimed as the most popular man on the Great Northern railroad, came to St Paul 43 years ago and until his retirement eleven years ago had been a conductor on that road. He was born in Toronto, Ont and had been a conductor on the Great Western railroad in Canada.

Knew Edison as Keyman

He became acquainted with Thomas A Edison when the latter was telegraph operator for the Great Western at Kingston, Ont and is said to be the first man to have taken a telegraphic order from the electrical wizard.

Mr McMillan was president and founder of the Great Northern Veterans Association, composed of employees of the railroad who have been 25 years or more in its service. He was conductor on the first Great Northern train to Aberdeen, S D, and also on the first train to Devils Lake, N D.

He retired from active service with the railroad just before the World War, but during the conflict when men were scarce and many employees were suffering from influenza he resumed his duties as conductor and worked about nine months.

Life Member of Osman

Mr McMillan had been a Mason for more than 60 years and was said to be the oldest Shriner in the United States. He was one of the six life members of Osman Shrine Temple of St Paul.

Survivors are four sons, Arthur of St Paul, David of Minneapolis, Robert of Havre, Mont, and Stewart of Long Prairie, Minn, and two daughters, Mrs G W Baker of St Paul, and Miss Margaret McMillan of Willmar, Minn.

Masonic funeral rites will be conducted at 2 P M Saturday in Listoe and Wold funeral chapel, 150 West Fourth Street. Six grandsons of Mr McMillan will be pallbearers. They are Robert, Stewart, Lester and Kenneth McMillan and Stewart and William Baker."

William John was 82 at death, not 88, and born at Montreal not Toronto. Also, when William John first immigrated to Minnesota he was stationed out of Breckenridge, until he moved the family to St Paul. Someone apparently wanted to remember him as the oldest Shriner? So, I don't know about the connection to Edison, but it seems possible.

While James J Hill was born and lived at Eramosa, Wellington County, Ontario he probably left about 1855, before my Great Grandfather was at Wellington County. Hill's brother and I think sister stayed in Ontario, and I think his brother was a teacher and stayed in Wellington County.

Hill and Great Grandpa did have a discussion about Wellington County from a book:
The Life of James J. Hill, By Joseph Gilpin Pyle, Volume I,1917
"To this time belongs the interesting recollection of Mr. W. J. McMillan, who was at the time of Mr. Hill's death a conductor on the Great Northern Railway, grown old in the service, the head of the Veteran Employees' Association, and one of Mr. Hill's most devoted men. Mr. McMillan said that he first met Mr. Hill when he was taking a party of guests over the road. The latter addressed him with that unfailing friendliness that he always showed to his men, especially when they had been long with him, and asked him if he had not been a railroad conductor before and where he had worked. "Yes," said Mr. McMillan, "on the Great Western of Canada." " Then," said Mr. Hill, " you must have been in Guelph." Then he asked him if he remembered a little grocery store near the track, and said that was where he earned his first money.

After four weeks' work his Scotch employer, on Saturday night, put his hand on his shoulder and said, "James, ye hae done right weel. If ye keep on, ye'll mak' your way in the world." Then he handed him an envelope. The boy hastened home to give the four dollars it contained, his pay for his first month of hard work, to his mother. "I never felt so rich," he said, "I never expect to feel so rich again in my life, as when I looked at those four dollars and when I handed them over to my mother."

Here's a story handed down in our family about a meeting Great Grandpa had with Mrs Hill about railway veteran's widows (the curator at the James J Hill Mansion at St Paul told me he could verify the $10,000 was given to Great Grandpa for the widows):

From: Grenville and Annie McMillan Baker Family with notes on William John McMillan and Anderson "Annie" Todd by Annie Laurie Baker 1991

"Grandpa made the tower in his bedroom his office for conducting the business of the Association. Many widows came to see him seeking financial help. I recall when I was visiting there at age eleven he got all dressed up in his morning suit, with tails, took his high hat and gold headed cane and boarded the street car and went off to have lunch with Mrs James J Hill. His purpose was to request a grant from her to help the widows. He was a dramatic story teller, and I remember his account of the visit that night at dinner. He said "She looked at me with tears in her eyes and said" "Willie, I can't have our people in want." She gave him $10,000 which he parcelled out in $15 amounts."

(The quote I gave you about James Hill's first work, with the quote they showed: Joseph Gilpin Pyle, 1917 and in the footnote: Joseph Gilpin Pyle "The Life of James J Hill (Garden City, New York, Doubleday Page & Company, 1917), Volume 1.