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Alberta's Irish Legends: John Kean (1820-1892) b. Bushmills, Co. Antrim

Updated: Oct 12, 2023



John Kean (1820-1892)

b. Bushmills, Co. Antrim. d. Lethbridge

Politician, millwright, and entrepreneur

Picture source: Water-powered mill, Mill Creek Alberta, n.d., courtesy of University of Calgary Archives.

John Kean was born in Ireland and spent part of his career as an Ontario politician. His government work in developing western Canadian industry led to his moving west, where he established several businesses in what would become Alberta.


In addition to supplying a world-famous whiskey distillery, the river in his hometown of Bushmills had long been harnessed to power grist and paper mills, as well as flax mills for the thriving linen industry. Following his parents, who had immigrated to Upper Canada in 1824, Kean settled in Brantford, Ontario. His skills as a millwright were in great demand in Ontario’s profitable lumber industry, and he helped build several sawmills in the region. After he married Mary Jordan in 1830, the couple moved to Orillia. He entered politics, first as a reeve for the local township and then as a Conservative member to the Ontario Legislative Assembly, where he served from 1875 to 1879.


During his time in Ontario, he established the Kean lumber mill, which was incorporated into the Victoria Harbour Lumber Company in the early 1880s. One of the challenges faced by Canadian industries was getting raw materials to American, and later, Western Canadian markets. Not surprisingly, Kean worked on the government Standing Committee on Railways during his tenure as MPP. In 1879, the Canadian government sent him to Mill Creek in the Pincher Creek region to open a small lumber mill, the first in the area, intended to supply the Indigenous reserves and local communities. On his journey there, he would have received a practical lesson in the need for railways: museum curator Farley Wuth recounts that “the early manager” who “hailed from Ontario” (likely Kean) faced “the arduous task” of finding his way to the mill site after the rails ran out at Bismarck, North Dakota. He would have then endured the “several-day trip by boat up the Missouri River, disembarking at Fort Benton. From there an uncomfortable overland trip via bull team was made to Fort Macleod and then Pincher Creek.”


For the rest of his career, Kean would contribute to the economic growth of what would become Southwestern Alberta: he operated several sawmills in the region and worked for Northwest Coal and Navigation. By the 1890s, his sawmills were supplying thousands of mining props and railway ties. Indirectly, the skills Kean learned as a young man in Northern Ireland would help provide the coal for locomotives and the railway lines to run them on. He ended his days in Lethbridge, having substantially contributed to the industries that built the towns and grew the economy of Alberta.


Further Reading

Legislative Assembly of Ontario, “John Kean,” John Kean | Legislative Assembly of Ontario (ola.org)


Obee, Dave. Lethbridge 1891: A Settlement Becomes a Town.(eBook) Lethbridge 1891: A settlement becomes a town (eBook) – Ontario Ancestors (ogs.on.ca)


“John Kean,” Southern Alberta Pioneers and Their Descendants, Pioneer Profile (K) | Southern Alberta Pioneers and their Descendants (pioneersalberta.org)


Wuth, Farley, “Frontier Chronicles of Mountain Mill,” Shootin’ the Breeze, 17 April 2017, Shootin' the Breeze - Frontier chronicles of Mountain Mill (shootinthebreeze.ca)

 

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