Profile: Elias Rogers, Canada’s “King Coal” (1913)

Fame and Fortune Came to Canada’s Biggest “King Coal” When He Fought American Trust

Elias Rogers Began Life as Farm Lad in York County — Earned First Wages in a Lumber Yard — A Quaker by Faith — Once Ran for Mayor in Toronto

From the Toronto Star Weekly, September 20, 1913

EliasrogersPassing along King street, west from Yonge, you come to a narrow passage-way opening to the north, and you read on the sign board, “Manning Arcade Annex.”

Looking in, it is easy for the traveler to imagine himself in the heart of London’s financial district, except that the tiny thoroughfare is practically deserted, even at midday.

But along this arcade to the left, and up a short flight of narrow stairs, is the office of Elias Rogers, commonly known as Canada’s “coal magnate” and one of the most prominent figures in the commercial life of the Dominion.

Mr. Rogers is as modest and unassuming as his surroundings. The interviewer found him there the other morning, seated alone at an office table, and undefended by even a private secretary.

With the situation so favourable, the visitor lost no time in stating the object of his call, explaining that he did not want to complain about the p[rice of coal, or to beg a subscription to charity, but merely to secure an interview which might prove helpful and illuminating to the tens of thousands of young Canadians who are beginning their business careers.

To avoid interruption, the office door was closed and latched. When Mr. Rogers has a proposition to face, he attacks and finishes it with all possible dispatch.

Comes of Pioneer Stock

Elias Rogers belongs to a pioneer family of York County. His great-grandfather, Timothy Rogers, arrived in the country north of Toronto in the year 1800, coming from New England. He is said to have been the first white man who ever slept in what is now known as Newmarket.

This pioneer member of the family explored a considerable portion of the northern part of York County and entered into a contract with Governor Simcoe under which he agreed to bring in forty families of farmers and settle them in the country within the next five years.

He fulfilled the contract in much less time than that . In 1801 the immigrants arrived and settled upon 9,000 acres of land between Aurora and Holland Landing. The country was a mere wilderness then. The settlers were obliged to clear the land before cultivating it, and their life was not an easy one.

The great grandfather of Elias Rogers on his mother’s side was Nathaniel Pearson, a member of the Society of Friends from Pennsylvania, who brought his family, with others, to the same section of York County in 1902. They founded what is known in history as the Quaker Settlement.

Mr. Rogers himself was born on Lot 51 (?) of the First Concession of Whitchurch. His parents, like most other people of the neighbourhood, were farmers, and the son lived and worked upon the farm until he was twenty-one. He had been given the advantages of a common school education, and spent a term and a half at a New York State college, and when he became of age he determined to start out in the world for himself.

No Future on the Farm

Rogers-coal“You see,” said Mr. Rogers, in explaining his leaving home, “I couldn’t see much of a future for me on the farm, so, as I had some knowledge of lumber I accepted a place with a lumber company at Newmarket. The work was about as arduous as farm labour, and the pay was only a dollar a day. Moreover, I had to board myself. But the money I earned was my own, and I felt that I was getting a start in the world.

“It didn’t take me long to acquire a full knowledge of the business, and I was soon made inspector of lumber which was being shipped to the America market. That brought me an increase in wages. Within a year, I was taken into partnership on joint account in certain transactions.

“The following year I started business for myself. I have always been a believer in a man working for himself, rather than any one else, when he can manage to do so, and I have never regretted following that plan in my own life. But even while dealing on my own account, I continued to inspect and ship lumber for the concern I started with.

“All my efforts seemed to meet with success, and a couple of years later, during a period of depression in the lumber trade, I determined to branch out again. I had learned of the construction of the low-grade division of the Allegheny Valley Railway in Western Pennsylvania, and that the line was to pass through a country that was not only rich in timber, but in coal.

“At school I had acquired some knowledge of geology, so I went to examine the coal fields. Having satisfied myself that the coal was of excellent quality, and realizing that it was the nearest of any field to the Buffalo and Ontario markets, I took a small interest in a coal-mining property. That was the beginning of my career in the coal business.

Acquired the Mines

“As things turned out, my partners didn’t have sufficient capital to develop the property; I was obliged to put up more money, and finally acquired the mines. Before this came about, however, I had begun to import coal into Ontario, and had established a profitable wholesale business, although still maintaining my residence in Newmarket. After my mother’s death in the spring of 1876, I moved to Toronto and started a retail coal business in a comparatively small way.

“In 1877 I formed a partnership with F. C. Dintany (?), who was president of the Butler Colliery Company of Pilterow (?) Pennsylvania, which he afterwards owned. The style of the firm was Elias Rogers and Company. As Mr. Dintany owned anthracite mines, and I owned bituminous mines, we agreed to put our coal in at cost. This gave the firm the enormous advantage of not having to pay a middleman’s profit, and the business grew rapidly. This partnership was continued for more than twenty years. Shortly before the death of Mr. Dintiny, I purchased his interest and incorporated the Elias Rogers Company, Limited.”

Such is the story of the greatest fuel company in Canada as narrated by the man who built it up.

Asked to give a reason for the almost phenomenal growth of this business, Mr. Rogers was thoughtful.

Couldn’t Afford to Fall

“We couldn’t afford to fall,” he said, at last, “and I never had an idea of falling. But I suppose it was the reputation we gained in our early days that gave the business a firm foundation. We tried to win the confidence of the public by straightforward dealing, and as early as 1873 we had secured a very large proportion of the retail coal business of Toronto.”

One incident that built up the reputation of the company occurred a year after the partnership with F. C. Dintiny was formed. At that time the American railways discriminated against Toronto and Hamilton in coal rates because they were lake ports, and the anthracite railways controlled the transportation on Lake Ontario. They insisted that Toronto and Hamilton must import coal by the water route. To enforce this they place an embargo of fifty cents per ton at Suspension Bridge on all coal intended for the two cities.

Mr. Rogers considered this an intolerable situation, and with the backing of the Erie Railroad undertook to fight the American combine. He lowered the price of coal to $4.00 and for weeks his office was thronged with customers anxious to obtain the bargain rate. He not only filled new orders at $4.00 but rebated any extra money which had been paid on advance orders. It wasn’t long before the railways cried “quits” and the price of coal was permanently lowered in Toronto.

Mr. Rogers modestly does not take all the credit for the victory. “I probably couldn’t have done it without the backing of the Erie Railroad,” he said, “but I would have tried if I had had to stand alone.”

Is a Staunch Quaker

True to his ancestral training, Elias Rogers is today one of the leading members of the Society of Friends in Canada. He is a staunch believer in Quaker principles and follows them in his social and business life. Deeply religious by nature, he has said that the one incident of all others which most affected his life was the great change in his religious feeling at the age of twenty. It would be difficult to imagine a good Quaker as a failure. He might not accumulate wealth, or attain position, but his life would be successful in the truest sense.

Although in no sense a politician, Mr. Rogers, at the solicitation of W. H. Newhand, entered the City Council in 1887 as alderman representing the St. Lawrence ward. Later, upon receiving a petition headed by Sir Casimir Gzowski, and signed by several hundred leading citizens, he became a candidate for Mayor for the year 1888. There were two other candidates: E. F. Charles, editor of the Orange Sentinel, and Alderman Daniel De Foe, who was a Roman Catholic. The latter polled many votes which would ordinarily have gone to Mr. Rogers, and as a result Charles was elected by a majority of about 300. Mr. Charles proved a good Mayor and Mr. Rogers supported him for re-election.

About 1887, also, Mr. Rogers became a member of the council of the Board of Trade, of which body he was afterwards president. For many years he took an active interest in all its work, as he did in other public affairs.

Hard Work the Secret

Having been successful in practically all his undertakings, and still active in business, Mr. Rogers is today the president of five great companies, including the Crow’s Nest Pass Coal Company and its subsidiary companies in British Columbia, the National Life Assurance Company of Toronto, and the Rogers Transportation Company. He is also a director of the Imperial Bank and of the National Trust Company.

Elias Rogers would undoubtedly tell an inquiring young man that the secret of success is in hard work. Like most others of our leading men, he was trained to regular work in early life. He would say he attaches less value to cleverness than to industry, integrity, and physical endurance. His experience has shown that the other good qualities of veracity, frugality and modesty are usually associated with successful industry. He also believes that labour — systematic, effective, congenial labour — is not only a necessity, but is the source of the highest enjoyment. Even now, after a hard day in his office, he enjoys a canter of one of his horses and enjoys it far more than if he had spent the day in leisure. ♦