Robert Bell: Politics, Railways and Newspapers

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Robert Bell had a huge influence on the development of North Grenville in the nineteenth century. Born in Strabane, Ireland, in 1821, his family emigrated when he was very young, first settling in New York and then, in 1832, moving to Oxford-on-Rideau Township. His father, also called Robert, farmed 100 acres on lot 22, concession 6, off what is now Beach Road.

He attended local schools and then apprenticed with Francis Jones, a Provincial Land Surveyor who had been a school teacher in Oxford for many years. On 16 June 1843, Robert himself qualified as a Provincial Land Surveyor, and moved to Ottawa (then Bytown) to pursue a career in surveying. After making surveys in Nepean Township, and along the Chalk River, Robert undertook a mammoth project that proved difficult and dangerous, and almost led to his death, along with the rest of his survey team. The line ran from the Madawaska River to near Bracebridge, and took from August, 1847 to March of 1848 to complete. It is still known to this day as Bell’s Line.

Although he had a successful business in that field, he became more interested in journalism, and in 1849 he purchased the Bytown Packet, a popular local newspaper. In February 1851, the newspaper became known as the Ottawa Citizen.

Around this time, Robert became involved in railway construction projects, promoting the building of a railway from Bytown to Prescott, where it would connect with the railway at Ogdensburg, New York. Ottawa valley lumbermen would thus be provided with easier means of transport to the increasingly important American market. Robert become secretary of the provisional committee of the Bytown and Prescott Railway (later the Ottawa and Prescott Railway) in 1850, with funds raised, in part, from businessmen in the Kemptville area. It is said that Robert Bell, more than anyone else, was responsible for overseeing the completion of the line and he was president of the company for many years.

The railway reached Bedell Station (for Kemptville) from Prescott in August, 1854, bringing with it the first printing press to be established in North Grenville. The Progressionist newspaper began in 1854 and lasted until 1860. There was some dispute with the shareholders and the business community in Kemptville, and, as a result, the railway station was not built in the town itself, but outside at Bedell. With the additional wealth coming into the village because of the railway, a movement to separate from Oxford-on-Rideau Township grew up, and Kemptville officially seceded from the Township in 1857. Robert Bell had a marked, though mixed, effect on the wider community.

Robert ran for an Assembly seat for Ottawa and had a somewhat controversial career, as he supported equal educational rights for Catholics, in spite of being a Presbyterian. He also supported the choice of Ottawa as the new capital of the Dominion of Canada in 1867. Confederation marked the turning point in Robert’s fortunes. He was defeated in an attempt to win a seat in Parliament in 1867. He had sold the Ottawa Citizen in 1865, and the Bytown and Prescott Railway Company went into receivership that same year. In 1868, his wife died, and he withdrew completely from public life, going to live with his daughter in Hull, where he died in 1873 at the early age of 52.

There was an ironic aspect to his life in North Grenville. His sister, Elizabeth, married Charles Ferguson, M.D., who, in 1874, won the Assembly seat for North Leeds and Grenville away from Robert’s former teacher, Francis Jones. Robert’s nephew, Howard, would grow up to be G. Howard Ferguson, Premier of Ontario.

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