Blog Rewind: Automotive Industry: In the Words of Col. R.S. McLaughlin

This post was originally published on March 1, 2013.

By Jennifer Weymark, Archivist


I recently came across a fascinating magazine in our archival collection.  The magazine, entitled The Canadian Military Journal featured a lengthy article on Col. Sam to celebrate his 100th birthday.

What stood out in the article were quotes from Col. Sam regarding the birth of the auto industry here in Oshawa.  The development of the auto industry in Oshawa has been well documented but this is a truly unique view from the man who played such a pivotal role.

The day before I had wired William C. Durant, head of the young Buick company in Flint, Mich., to ask for help. The McLaughlin automobile, which we had started to make ourselves after I had failed to arrive at a co-operative manufacturing arrangement with Durant and other U.S. car makers, had run into trouble. Two days before, with the parts of our first car laid out ready for assembly – and the components of one hundred more in various stages of completion – our engineer had suffered a severe attack of pleurisy. In my wire I asked Durant to lend us an engineer until our own man recovered.

Durant arrived in Oshawa not with an engineer but with two of his top executives. He took up the discussion of our last meeting – when we had failed to get together on a manufacturing arrangement – Justas if we had merely paused for breath. “I’ve been thinking it over,” he said, “and I have the solution to the problem we couldn’t overcome in our figuring.” The deal he suggested was pretty close to what I had in mind in the first place, and I said : “ That will work.”  Durant nodded. “I thought it would,” he said, in that voice of his that was always so gentle – and always so much to the point.

We went into my father’s office with my brother George and Oliver Hezzelwood, who looked after our books, and in five minutes we had the contract settled. It ran just a page and a half and was a model agreement for lawyers to study. Chiefly it covered the terms under which we had 15-year rights to buy the Buick engine and some other parts. We could build and design out own bodies.

What a defining moment in Oshawa’s history.  I was left wondering what could have been if the engineer hadn’t gotten sick or if Durant had sent only an engineer.  Would the McLaughlin automobile have succeeded without the Buick engine or would it have been amongst the many car companies that came and went?

Moments such as this, from those who lived it, are what make the study of history so fascinating.

Where the Streets Get Their Names – Col. Sam Drive

By Lisa Terech, Community Engagement

Two years ago, at this time, I wrote a post about how Oshawa celebrates the Civic Holiday –  we have done so by naming the day after the prolific citizen, Col. RS McLaughlin.  Knowing that this weekend is McLaughlin Day, I thought I would keep this month’s Street Name Story simple, and share the story behind Colonel Sam Drive.

Farewell Street is the western beginning to this street which leads to the headquarters of General Motors of Canada.  East of Farewell, one can travel along Wentworth Street and eventually arrive at the productions facilities for GM.  Colonel Sam Drive was named in 1989.


The Honourable Colonel Robert Samuel McLaughlin was born on September 8, 1871 in Enniskillen Ontario. He was born to Robert McLaughlin and his wife Mary (nee Smith).  Along with Sam, as he was affectionately known, Robert and Mary were blessed with two other sons, George and John and two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth.

In 1887 Sam became an apprentice in the upholstery shop of his father’s business.  It was during this time that Sam learned all that a journeyman upholsterer needed to know to be successful such as stitching and fitting the cloth.  And so, in 1890 Sam decided to move to Watertown, New York to test his workmanship.  Sam wanted an unbiased opinion of his work and so he tried to keep the identity of his father a secret.  Sam was hired as an upholsterer with H.H. Babcock Co. but his plan to keep his father’s identity a secret did not work and within a couple of days the other employees were aware of who he was.  Sam stayed on at H.H. Babcock Co. for another two months, during which time he learned a great deal about plant management.  After leaving H.H. Babcock Co., Sam stayed in New York to work with two other companies before deciding to come back to Canada to work with his father.  In 1892 Robert formed a business partnership with two of his sons, Sam and George.

In 1897 Sam decided to break away from the carriage company to try his hand at being a politician.  He was successful at this endeavor as he became the head of Oshawa Town Council.  However, this experience allowed him to realize that he did not have the same love for politics as he did for carriages and he returned to building carriages.

In 1898, at the age of 26, Sam met his future wife Adelaide Louise Mowbray.  Within two weeks of meeting Adelaide, Sam proposed.  On February 2, 1898 they were married.  They were married for 59 years and had five daughters: Eileen, Mildred, Isabel, Hilda and Eleanor (Billie).

McLaughlin Carriage Fire, 1899; from the Oshawa Community Archives Collection
McLaughlin Carriage Fire, 1899; from the Oshawa Community Archives Collection

On December 7, 1899 the McLaughlin Carriage Company burned to the ground.  The Town of Belleville was the first of 15 cities to offer the McLaughlin’s cash and bonds to rebuild their factory in their town.  The McLaughlin’s chose to accept Oshawa’s deal to loan them $50 000 until they were able to pay the Town back.  While they were rebuilding the factory, production was moved temporarily to Gananoque. The McLaughlin Carriage Company returned to Oshawa in the summer of 1900. In 1907 the McLaughlin Carriage Company began to build automobiles; in that first year they produced 193 cars.

Postcard of Prospect Park, from the Oshawa Community Archives Collection
Postcard of Prospect Park, from the Oshawa Community Archives Collection

In 1915 Sam and Adelaide bought Prospect Park to become their family home. Sam tore down the original home and in 1917 built Parkwood, a state-of-the-art home for his family.

George and Sam McLaughlin sold the family business to General Motors in 1918.  Many factors weighed in this decision.   A personal factor that led to this decision was that Sam had five daughters and no sons to carry on the family business.  George was preparing to retire and Sam did not want to run the business without him because he considered it a partnership.  George’s two sons were not interested in the business either and therefore there was no one to pass the business on to.  After selling the Carriage Company to General Motors, Sam, at the age of 47, became President of the Canadian Division.

Sam also focused on contributing back to the City that he had called home for so many years, Oshawa.  He was always considered a philanthropist and the donations of his time and money to the City of Oshawa were considerable.  Sam donated money to aid in the creation of many things including Camp Samac, the maternity wing at the Oshawa General Hospital, the McLaughlin Band Shell in Memorial Park, the Union Cemetery War Veterans Plot and the McLaughlin Library.

In 1920, Sam and George bought the land for Lakeview Park in the name of General Motors of Canada Limited.  The land was then deeded to the Town of Oshawa for one dollar with only one restriction: that the land was to be used as a public park for the citizens of Oshawa under the control of the council and parks commission.  The firm also forwarded a cheque for $3,000 to cover initial improvements and another $6,000 for a suitable park playground.

Col Sam at home at Parkwood, from the Oshawa Community Archives Collection
Col Sam at home at Parkwood, from the Oshawa Community Archives Collection

In 1936, Sam was named Honorary Colonel due to his involvement with the Ontario Regiment.  It is from this honour that Sam earned his nickname of “Colonel Sam”.  Sam retired as President of GM in 1945 and took on the role of Chairman of the Board of Directors.

Sam’s wife of 59 years, Adelaide, died January 10, 1958 at the age of 82.  On January 6, 1972 in his 101st year, Sam passed away.¹


As previously shared, Adelaide Avenue has been named for Col Sam’s wife, and there is another street in Oshawa, McLaughlin Boulevard, which has also been named for this noteworthy citizen.


¹The preceeding was adapted from the Historical Information Sheet: Col. R.S. McLaughlin, ©Oshawa Historical Society.

Oshawa Ablaze

By Jillian Passmore, Visitor Experience Co-ordinator

The Oshawa Fire Department has a long history. As early as December 16 1866, the Oshawa Village Council noted that some insurance companies in Quebec were refusing to insure municipalities without fire protection services.

Council passed a by-law that required every owner or occupant of a building to supply “ a good substantial ladder leading from the ground to the roof and that every owner or occupant shall cause the chimneys and stovepipes thereof to be properly cleaned at least once a month”. They also passed a by-law that required every citizen to assist at the scene of a fire. Those who refused assistance would be fined $5. This is the first recorded occasion of fire prevention in Oshawa.

Oshawa’s first department, which was organized in 1856, was made up entirely of volunteers under Chief Engineer Mr. P. Thornton by order of By-law 33.

On July 20, 1868, the Oshawa Fire Department was incorporated as a full time department by By-law 142. The first full time Chief was Patrick Thornton. He was responsible for 50 men with the Fire Company and a further 15 men with the Hook and Ladder Company, plus 1 engine, some ladders and numerous hose lines.

Thankfully, the Department was growing. Within the next 100 years there would be some major fires in Oshawa’s downtown core alone.

Oshawa Fire Department, 1905; from the Oshawa Community Archives Collection
Oshawa Fire Department, 1905; from the Oshawa Community Archives Collection

On Sunday December 8, 1872, a fire originated in George Hodder’s clothing and hat store on Simcoe Street. It was the worst fire in Oshawa up until that time. Wind, wooden buildings and lack of available water were very frustrating for the firefighters at that time.

The fire began at 7pm in Oshawa’s downtown area. When the fire began to spread and seriously threaten other surrounding businesses, firemen from Whitby came to the rescue.

A man named CW Smith jumped on a horse and raced to Whitby for the Merryweather steam fire engine, which was a new acquisition at the time.  Running on one cylinder it was made by Merryweather and Sons of London England. It was frost proof and considered to be the pioneer engine of Canada.  Fire stations in Whitby and Kingston had tested it the Merryweather, but Oshawa put it to the real test during the fire of 1872.

The Gibbs block, a large building on the south side of King Street was destroyed by flames. 19 buildings were damaged or destroyed. Spray from the hoses caused ice to form on the fire fighters clothes and bodies; citizens assisted by provided dry and warm clothing to them.

The Merryweather that saved downtown Oshawa in 1872, on display at the Whitby Public Library
The Merryweather that saved downtown Oshawa in 1872, on display at the Whitby Public Library

The cause of the fire was determined to be arson. It originated in a partition between the Fitzmaurice, a druggist and veterinarian, and the Hodder store. After a trial, it was the opinion of a jury that Fitzmaurice intentionally set the building on fire.  He was sentenced to three years in jail for instigating the fire for insurance purposes.

Oshawa would go on to purchase its own Merryweather machine at a cost of $5600 in 1875.

Oshawa's Merryweather Fire Engine, c. 1900, corner of Simcoe and Richmond; Oshawa Community Archives Collection
Oshawa’s Merryweather Fire Engine, c. 1900, corner of Simcoe and Richmond; Oshawa Community Archives Collection

Nearby was the McLaughlin Carriage Works. By 1877, the McLaughlins had outgrown their facilities in Enniskillen. The need for banking facilities, more skilled labour, and a railroad for shipping led to the company’s relocation to Oshawa.

Though the competing businesses expected McLaughlin’s business to fail, it was they who folded and due to increased business, McLaughlin was once again in need of expansion.

Robert McLaughlin made a deal with the town enabled him to trade locations and move into the old Gibbs furniture factory at Richmond and Mary Streets.

There he employed 600 people. In 1893 he took on two of his sons, George and Sam, as partners.

In December 1899, McLaughlin suffered a serious setback when his entire factory was destroyed by fire. He lost carriages in production, all materials, tools and equipment.

McLaughlin Carriage Fire, 1899; from the Oshawa Community Archives Collection
McLaughlin Carriage Fire, 1899; from the Oshawa Community Archives Collection

The town offered him a $50,000 interest free loan and, while the factory was rebuilt, he set up a temporary plant in Gananoque for a year. This factory produced 3,000 vehicles and the company was able to stay in the market. Prior to selecting Gananoque as their temporary factory, fifteen communities offered to help the McLaughlin’s re-establish their factory.

Richmond Street fire company, c. 1922; from the Oshawa Community Archives Collection
Richmond Street fire company, c. 1922; from the Oshawa Community Archives Collection

To learn more about other fires that have occurred in Oshawa, feel free to make an appointment with the Archivist or book the “Fire: A Photographic Tour of Fires in Oshawa” PowerPoint presentation for your special interest group. Please contact the programming department for more options.

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