Excerpt: Biographical dictionary of well-known British Columbians : with a historical sketch

This section is from the year 1890, authored by J.B. Kerr and published by Kerr and Begg. It is no longer held under copyright.

McMicking, Robert Burns, (Victoria), the subject of this sketch, first saw the light of day July 7th, 1843, on the right bank of the majestic, and somewhat turbulent Niagara, and almost under the shadow of the nation's monument, erected upon the battle ground of Queenston Heights, to commemorate the heroic valor of General Brock, who fell so nobly defending his country in the ever memorable struggle of 1812. Mr. McMicking was born on the farm forming the north-eastern corner of Welland county, Ontario, in the township of Stamford, where his father, Wm. McMicking, J. P., born 1805, lived and died, and upon which his grandfather, McMicking, located while yet a young man, on arriving from Scotland about the year 1780, while that picturesque, and now productive Eden of our Dominion, as yet the haunts of red men resting in primeval silence, echoed the footfalls of impending Saxon civilization. So that he may be recognized as a Canadian par excellence, ingrained, and to the manor born, and to his credit be it recorded, that through all the changing scenes peculiar to rollicking, roving western life, where national sentiment is oftimes deemed dull drudgery in the early days of our history, when to be loyal was to become the object often of strife and ridicule, his fealty to the land that gave him birth was ever firm and unshaken.

Mr. McMicking belongs to one of the largest, as well as one of the oldest, families of the Dominion, being one of twelve children six boys and a like number of girls all of whom married. The eldest brother, the late lamented Thomas McMicking, of New Westminster, who was drowned in the Fraser river in 1866 (and who will be referred to later on) having, in company with R. B. McMicking, emigrated to British Columbia overland via Selkirk (now Winnipeg), Edmonton and Fraser river pass in the summer of 1862.

At the age of thirteen, on the death of his father, Mr. McMicking engaged in the study of electricity a science then quite as much in its youth as the student himself, so far as being of practical value to mankind for it will be within the recollection of many that the introduction of telegraphy the only important manner in which this wonderful and still unknown force was employed, was practically concurrent with the founding of the Morse system, established about the year 1844, and in the sense therefore of being useful, telegraphy may be said to have been born then. Shortly after this date he was engaged in the operating department of the Queenston office of the Montreal Telegraph Co., the respected and now almost venerable H. P. Dwight, superintendent. Here under the exhilarating and moulding influences of charming scenic environment, clear skies, and loving kin companionship, our subject passed his early boyhood days. And here it was that the British Pacific gold fever, which took such firm hold of eastern Canada, found him in the autumn of 1861.

Dwellers in the ancient, and abnormally quiet village of Queenston caught the epidemic, and in company with 23 others from that neighborhood Mr. McMicking set out on the 23rd of April, 1862, overland, through the British Northwest, for the gold fields of Cariboo, and it is doubtless owing in great measure to the westward movement over our fertile plains and the explorations of this band of weary pioneers that our vast and valuable interoceanic possessions came speedily into prominence, destined, in our own day to accomplish so much in the development of our young and vigorous nation. An affectionate farewell with regrets, God-speed and good wishes being over for the enterprise was regarded as hazardous, and the result somewhat uncertain the party moved forward, intent upon reaching Selkirk (now Winnipeg) settlement, and from there mark out a course across the prairies. Every preparation had been made and every precaution taken by the party for accomplishing the entire journey alone. It became evident, however, before Selkirk was reached that the inhabitants of other sections of Ontario and Quebec had been led to interest themselves in the Pacific Eldorado, and in consequence small parties were frequently met en route, having their faces set westerly, and their steps turned toward the setting sun.

Rendezvousing at Selkirk, preparatory to crossing the great plains, the augmented party numbered one hundred and fifty souls, all intent on a common errand, being impelled westward by a desire primarily to share in the golden harvest of Cariboo. The subject of this sketch was a hero, to the extent of being the most juvenile member of the roving band. Fort Edmonton next became the objective point, and before undertaking the journey through this comparatively unknown region, it was deemed prudent in the interests of good government within, and for mutual protection against all forms and conditions of uncatalogued adversaries from without, that the whole party be organized under a captain and executive board, composed of one member from each original party. The country to be traversed was as yet almost wholly inhabited by the various tribes of native red men, of whose friendship the weary wanderers had no reason to be assured, whose hostility they somewhat feared; but whose passiveness they came to admire.

Thomas McMicking at once a favorite wherever known was unanimously chosen captain, and under him the large party accomplished a most remarkable march Pacific coast-ward, passing through many charming, and even enchanting scenes; surmounting innumerable difficulties with meagre appliances, and with all averaging a daily march of twenty-five miles. The first day of the week was religiously observed as a day of rest, and the marvelous results, in a physical sense at least, were a further evidence, if, indeed, evidence be wanting, of the depth of wisdom displayed by the great Creator in so forcibly enjoining upon his creatures the necessity of one day's rest in seven ; and as they pursued their journey, which ran into months of travel, they were enabled to realize afresh something of the meaning of the command " Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy" by the absence of sickness from their ranks, not one, we are informed, having as much as an ordinary headache during the entire journey.

Under the guidance of Andre Cardinal, a Hudson bay freeman of St. Alberts, and native of Jasper House, the party left Edmonton, July 29, 1862, for the headwaters of the Fraser river via Leather Pass, arriving at Fete Jeune-Cache, on the Fraser, August 27th, a distance of 459 miles from Edmonton; thence down the Fraser by raft to the mouth of Quesnelle river, a further distance of 520 miles, which was reached on the llth September, completing an exciting and perilous trip by land and water, through the rugged Rockies. The route travelled from Fort Garry to TeteJeune-Cache was about the same as was subsequently, eighteen years later, selected by the McKenzie administration for the great national highway, and the same that the Grand Trunk and Northern Pacific now contemplate adopting to link the immense and productive plains of the great British Northwest and Peace river districts with the tide waters of the Pacific at Victoria via Bute Inlet. The scenery contiguous to this route cannot be surpassed, while the marvelous fertility of the soil far exceeds that along any of the more southern lines. At Quesnelle mouth the party disbanded, and after a brief experience in the famous Cariboo mines, with flour, bacon, sugar, etc., at a dollar a pound, Mr. McMicking turned his steps toward the coast, and domiciled at New Westminster during the winter of '62-3.

In the early summer of '63 he entered the employ of W. J. now Sheriff Armstrong, the then leading grocer of that ancient colonial capital. Remaining there until November, '65, Mr. McMicking again entered the telegraph service on the lines of the Collins Overland Telegraph Company, then constructing a line northward through British Columbia with the object of reaching Europe via Behring straits. It will be remembered that this scheme was brought into existence through the failure of the first Atlantic cable laid in 1858, and Mr. McMicking joined in celebrating the event, while working in the Queenston office under the impression, as had been reported, that the cable was intact and working. Upwards of three million dollars had been spent in prosecuting the work in British Columbia in 1864-5-6, and the construction party numbering 250 men had reached a point 300 miles north of Quesnelle mouth, upon the successful completion of the second Atlantic cable, June 26th, 1866. At this date Mr. McMicking was in charge of the Quesnelle mouth office and in communication with the working party north, while the line south to Victoria was open and transmitting commercial business. He was therefore the medium through which the information, fatal to the overland telegraph enterprise, reached the working party at Fort Stager, on Skeena river. The work at once ceased, and after the lapse of a few months the whole line, with material and supplies, north of Quesnelle was abandoned.

During the following August, Mr. McMicking was called to mourn the loss of his brother Thomas (previously referred to as captain of the overland party of 1862), who was drowned in the Fraser river, seven miles below New Westminster, while attempting to rescue his son, who had fallen into the treacherous waters, but unfortunately without avail, and father and son sank together in the cold and merciless deep. At the time of his death Thomas Mc- Micking was deputy-sheriff at New Westminster. A graduate of Knox college, Toronto, a ready speaker and writer, a genial com- panion and withal a man of sterling character ; he was destined had he been spared to act an important and foremost part in the up- building of the social and political fabric of the country of his adoption and we may well be pardoned for turning aside here to record our regrets concerning the loss of a life, while yet in the bloom and strength of manhood, and which must have proved so valuable an acquisition in moulding aright the destinies of our young Province. Contemplating this calamity we recall the almost uni- versally yet seldom heeded truism: "There is a Divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will."

This sad circumstance brought Mr. McMicking to New Westminster, and subsequently, after the lapse of a few weeks, to the charge of the Yale telegraph office, where he labored uneventfully until the summer of 1869, atwhich time he married Maggie B., daughter of David Leighton of Germouth, Scotland, and niece of Thomas R. Buie, J. P., of Lytton, B. C., where she had been for some time residing, the ceremony being performed at Lytton, June 28th, by the Rev. J. B. Good of the Episcopal Church.

In the following year Mr. McMicking was transferred to Victoria where he assumed charge of the Western Union. Telegraph office, and Barnard's British Columbia Express, May 1st, 1870. On the Provincial Government by covenant with the Western Union Telegraph Co., assuming charge of the telegraph lines, and cables of the Province in 1871, Mr. McMicking was appointed to the superintendency, with headquarters at Yale, B. C., whither he proceeded in December of the same year. The six submarine cables, connecting Vancouver's island with the mainland in Washington territory, forming part of the telegraphic system, were also under Mr. McMicking's care and supervision, and in the treatment of them, of times with scant appliances (being naturally an adept in mechanics, and having acquired a full and complete practical knowledge of every detail in telegraphy from personal application in every office from the lowest to the highest in the gift of the proprietary) he displayed a large amount of tact, judgment and skill, as might reasonably have been expected in one so thoroughly tutored; and consequently he very soon came to be recognized as exceedingly expert in the management of submarine telegraph cable work, as well as in all other branches of electrical business and a reliable practical authority ; so much so indeed that the late Dr. T. T. Minor, of Seattle, president of the Puget Sound telegraph line, which embraces a number of submarine cables, engaged him to overhaul, test and place both the land line and cables of that company in thorough working order at a daily cost for personal services of fifty dollars ($50), the president afterward remarking that considering the distance traversed, the enormous amount of work got out of the steamer and land parties, and the more than satisfactory results obtained in the possession of a good working line, where for some years the company had been battling with a very poor one, the money had been judiciously expended, and the company had large value.

With the ingenuity of a Yankee he caim within half a mile of being born one he possesses the faculty of always managing to accomplish work with the means at hand, suiting the appliances to the work, without exhibiting any desire to create impressions upon an unsuspecting public through the introduction of a variety of electrical devices, bearing highsounding names, little understood and of doubtful utility, except perhaps to create ostentatious display. On one occasion when working in Rosario channel, San Juan Archipelago, upon a damaged cable which required testing, he discovered that the porous cells of the electropoion battery, then much used, had been left behind at Victoria. To have returned for them would have cost at least $150.00 besides losing much valuable time. On the other hand a battery was essential to the detection of cable faults. What was then to be done ? The missing cells were of special composition and size, suited to the filtration of fluids and occupation of a position inside the zinc pole, and having within a cavity sufficiently large to receive the carbon and a small quantity of electropoion fluid. Was it reasonable to suppose that anything to make shift, would likely be discovered in a moderate time, on so desolate a coast ? To most persons the difficulty would have appeared as simply insurmountable, and perhaps without a thought of overcoming the difficulty, the order would have been given to hasten to Victoria, and if necessary send on to New York should the cups not be obtainable nearer, and let the work lie over until they were received, as they could not be done without. Not so, however, with Mr. McMicking, it is in just such emergency that his ingenious mind seems to take on renewed impulse. Thoughts crowd in upon the mind in rapid succession, and the determination to overcome takes firm hold. On this occasion, while the vessel was crossing the channel, he retired to the after part of the ship for a moment's quiet, wherein to think out a release, and it was not long in coming. Upon the deck lay a bamboo pole which some of the party had picked out of the water and cast there. When his eyes fell upon it he saw there the essentials of the absent porous cups, and obtaining a saw the work of cutting off suitable lengths was soon accomplished. Over the lower end of each a course canvas was tied the carbon and fluid inserted and by the time the steamer reached the place for active operations, he had as good an electropoion battery for practical use of eight elements as could have been obtained anywhere, and one of which a few years previous a Siemens or an Edison might have been proud.

A number of similar expedients, similar as ex- hibiting a characteristic determination to be self-reliant, and " work out " could be chronicled among events transpiring during the nine years of his superintendency of the cable system, but we refrain for the present, though the familiar lines of the poet are ringing in our ears :
What use for the rope if it he not flung
Till the swimmer's grasp to the rock has clung?
What help in a comrade's bugle blast
When the peril of Alpine heights is past?
What need that the spurring pasen roll
When the runner is safe within the goal ?
What worth is eulogy's blandest breath
When whispered in ears that are hushed in death?
No ! no ! If you have but a word of cheer,
Speak it, while I am alive to hear.

In 1873 Mr. McMicking was commissioned by the government as a justice of the peace for the Province, which commission he has since held with credit to himself and the administration of justice in the land. During the two years following the issuance of this commission, and while residing in Yale he performed the duties of police magistrate with marked ability. His high sense of man's equality before the law irrespective of social station, his independence of character, regard for the right and love of peace at once gave him a place in the hearts and confidence of the people, and it is safe to say that fully as many of the pending serious difficulties arising between the people by whom he was surrounded were averted, and kept out of court by his timely counsel, as were allowed to enter in, during his administration. He was enabled to discriminate between written law and justice, and to interpret law as found on our statute books as aiming at desiring justice, rather than the mere fulfilment of the feeble decrees of fallible men. About the same time he was also commissioned a coroner for Yale district, and acted in that capacity during his residence in the district.

He was commissioned as well to receive affidavits in matters pending in the Supreme court. From 1875 to 1880 he continued in the government telegraph service with headquarters at Victoria. In 1878 he received the two first telephones imported into British Columbia. These he placed in circuit, on a short line leading out to his residence a mile distant. The capabilities of the instruments as a means of transmitting intelligence soon became apparent, and Mr. McMicking's mature electrical experience enabled him to realize something of the vast possibilities in this new field of electrical development, and consequently in 1880 on quitting the telegraph service he busied himself with the formation of what has since been known as the "Victoria and Esquimalt Telephone company," which he has continued to be manager. This company has enjoyed uniform prosperity under his management, while giving to the citizens of the capital an excellent service. The subscribers of the company now number 345, being, we understand, the largest number in proportion to population, of any city on the continent.

Always eager to advance the interests of his much-loved profession, and with an enterprising disposition Mr. McMicking sought and obtained from the corporation, a franchise in 1883 to introduce the Arc electric lights for street illumination. And three towers of 150 feet in height, having clusters of lamps at top were erected, and have since continued to do service. To these additional lights have been added from time to time.

In 1887 he managed the formation of a company for the production of the incandescent electric light for domes- tic lighting. The step proved a veritable boon to all, but especially to those having occasion to use artificial light in large quantities, b*;ing the prime factor in causing a reduction of the price of gas from $4 to $2 per thousand feet. And not alone are we to understand was it a boon to light consumers, but, paradoxical as it may appear, we are assured it proved such also to the gas company itself, for we are informed that in consequence of the largely increased consumption by reason of the great reduction in price, the profits to the gas company have actually increased.

The introduction by Mr. McMicking of the sub-divided Arc light for commercial purposes, followed in 1889, when a 50-light plant was set in motion from the Victoria electric illuminating company's station in October of that year. In 1881 he built the first electric fire alarm in British Columbia for Victoria City, which consisted of a striker to the large tower bell operated by a water motor, which in turn was controlled electrically by an ingeniously devised repeater, set at the central telephone office from which point fires telephoned in were signalled by striking upon the large bell the number of the telephone which gave the information. This primitive system was replaced by the direct acting Game well fire alarm telegraph in 1890, the work being carried out by Mr. McMicking with completeness in every detail.

All the electric bell and annunciator services in private and public houses throughout the Province, some of them large systems, have so far been supplied and set up by him. Mr. McMicking may be regarded as the father of electrical enterprise in British Columbia, and at the time of writing is recognized as the central figure in the electrical arena of the Province, where he continues to carry on a general electrical business, besides being manager of the Victoria and Esquimalt Telephone company of Victoria ; city electrician, Victoria; general western representative of the Ball Electric Light company of Canada; sole agent of the Gamewell fire alarm, etc., etc. Beyond doing faithful service upon the committees of his aspirant political friends, Mr. McMicking has taken, so far, but little active part in politics. He served one term of two years upon the school board of Victoria city school district, being elected to the position by a sweeping majority. Although his first impressions in political ethics were formed in the William Lyon McKenzie school, we believe him to be anything but a "party" man, having lived too long and thought too deeply to believe that either or any political party or faction is the source of all good or all evil, or to be found willing to sacrifice national needs to party greeds. His religious training was received under the auspices of the Presbyterian church, of which church he has long continued to be an active, and we believe consistent member, always taking a leading place in the work of the church and Sabbath school, and having been a familiar figure in the church choir for the past twenty years. At present writing Mr. McMicking is in the prime and vigor of manhood, enjoying robust health, and we predict for him with his mature and thoughtful mind and even habits, a life of further great usefulness to his kindred and the state.