The Rankin House

by Edith MacAllister

Restoration of the beautiful 147-year-old Rankin homestead in Douglastown has been going forward since the summer of 1983 under the sponsorship of the Miramichi Historical Society which has been given custody by the owner, the New Brunswick government. Funds for the restoration were obtained through grants given by the federal and provincial governments and it is planned to have the elegant old building open to visitors in the summer of 1985.

Work on the building's exterior has been completed and the grounds have been landscaped. A white picket fence has replaced the former steel mesh one and provision made for a parking area. The Historical Society plans to use the house as its headquarters, for a museum and to house the society's artifacts, papers, photographs, books, etc., now stored at The Old Manse Library. A vault has been built in the basement of the main house for storage of the society's archives. Some rooms will be furnished in period style with furniture from the O'Brien collection. Rooms will be provided to other organizations for meetings and display purposes.

The Rankin house, a two-storey Georgian style building, was erected in 1837 to replace an earlier home which burned down in March of that year. The first house had been built soon after Alexander Rankin and his cousin, James Gilmour, arrived at Miramichi in 1812 from Scotland to establish the Gilmour, Rankin & Co. firm and found the village of Gretna Green, later renamed Douglastown.

The house was occupied by Mr. Rankin until his death in 1852 and also housed the clerks who were sent from Scotland to be trained by the Gilmour, Rankin firm. After 1852 Richard Hutchison, who had been a partner since Mr. Gilmour returned to Scotland in 1842, took over management of the firm and lived in the Rankin house. When Mr. Hutchison died in September 1891 his son, Ernest, did not wish to live in the house and gave it to the village for a school. This was in 1892 and for the next 88 years it served that purpose. It was left vacant when a new elementary school was opened in Douglastown in 1980.

Alterations Made

Use as a school made a number of alterations necessary but these resulted in only minimal damage to the structure. The elegant "Greek revival" portico at the main entrance was removed and destroyed, an iron fire escape defaced the front facade, washrooms were installed beside the staircase, a central chimney was built and the 14 fireplaces were blocked off. The exterior was covered with clapboard siding and walls removed on the second level to accommodate the school classes.

A survey was made for the provincial government in 1980 by Robert Power of Fredericton, historical architect, who reported the building as sound and worthy of restoration. Three years later the work of preservation was undertaken by the Historical Society under the direction of the president, John McKay.

The portico has been duplicated and replaced, the clapboards removed and the original flush board siding caulked and painted and a new roof laid. The massive stone chimneys with their quaint chimney pots have been rebuilt. All necessary repairs have been done and new electrical wiring and plumbing installed, as well as sky-lights and windows in the original style. In the basement the kitchen, with its huge stone fireplace with cast iron oven and water tank is unchanged. A one-storey extension, which was added to the north wall to serve as caretaker's quarters, has been retained and repaired.

The house is an excellent example of colonial architecture. It has a central hall and originally had four rooms on each of the first and second floors. There are now three on the first and two large rooms on the second; here the fireplaces have been opened up. The entrance hall has its original archway with panelled embrasure, plaster trim and cornices. The staircase and railing have been repaired.

Built by Murray

The 1837 house was built by William Murray, the Miramichi's famed master builder who erected many of the area's heritage structures. His fine workmanship is evident everywhere. The house is a wood frame building on a stone foundation; its front facade faces the river, which in the early days was the chief thoroughfare for travellers.

In Mr. Rankin's time and well into the 20th century a pair of very fine handmade wrought iron gates closed the end of the driveway. These gates, made by John Norman about 1841, were removed and destined for destruction. Fortunately, the late Dr. Louise Manny managed to save the gates and they are now at the entrance to the pioneer graveyard at The Enclosure, the provincial park which Lord Beaverbrook donated to the province.

Hon. Alexander Rankin

Honourable Alexander Rankin was the most important and influential figure in Miramichi during the years of the area's greatest prosperity. Although he was five years younger than James Gilmour he was the dominant partner in Gilmour, Rankin Company which furnished a livelihood for hundreds of workmen for many years. In his 40 years in Miramichi he was a leader in all community affairs. His spacious home was a centre of hospitality and all important visitors were entertained there.

Both Rankin and Gilmour were born in Mearns, Renfrewshire, Scotland, and were members of a remarkable group of families, all related by blood or marriage, who made up the several firms associated with Pollok, Gilmour & Co. of Glasgow and Liverpool. This company was one of the greatest timber, trading and shipbuilding firms in the world. The decision to set up a business at Miramichi was made after an inspection trip by Allan Gilmour and the two young men were sent out in 1812. The workmen who came with them were set to work to clear a site from the wilderness and lots were laid off and sold to the employees at low prices. Living quarters, a mill, store, offices and warehouses were erected. It was not until 1857 that the firm began to build ships in their own yard although many Miramichi ships had been sold to the Pollok, Gilmour Co. for its fleet. From 1851 the Ferguson, Rankin & Co. firm, an off-shoot of the Douglastown business, built ships in their yard at Bathurst.

James Gilmour was interested in agriculture and raising prize cattle and was the first president of the Highland Society at Miramichi. In 1842 he returned to Scotland where he died in 1858, in his 75th year. He was said to have accumulated a princely fortune. His place as partner was filled by Richard Hutchison, a cousin from Renfrewshire, who had come to Miramichi in 1826 at the age of 16. The Douglastown firm prospered and was able to survive fires and depressions, due to integrity, hard work and sound business practices.

Rankin was a force in the community and the province, respected, even revered, for his generosity and kindness, his integrity and fair dealings. He promoted education and agriculture, served on the Board of Health, was a contributor to all good causes and a supporter of St. James Presbyterian Church in Newcastle. At the time of the Great Fire of Miramichi in October 1825 he sheltered hundreds of the destitute in his home and offices; he headed the relief committee and gave generously from his own pocket as well as goods from his warehouses. It was said of him that "his charity was unbounded."

Young men from the Renfrewshire families who made up the several companies were sent to Miramichi to be trained in the Gilmour, Rankin offices. A hard training it was--14-hour days, no comforts and small pay--but it turned out self-reliant and industrious men who founded branches of Gilmour, Rankin & Co. in their turn. The firms they established were at Quebec City, Montreal, Saint John, Bathurst, Dalhousie and Campbellton. All lasted for many years, particularly those founded by the Rankin men. The family names of these young men were Gilmour, Rankin, Ritchie, Hutchison, Ferguson and Young. While in Douglastown they made their home at the Rankin house.

Political Career

Alexander Rankin was elected to the provincial House of Assembly in 1827 and served there until his death in 1852, being chosen to represent Northumberland County in seven general elections. In 1847 he was appointed to the Legislative Council, as minister without portfolio, which post he held also until his death. As a legislator he encouraged agriculture and domestic manufactures and the education of the young. His death occurred on April 3, 1852, while on a visit with his brother, Robert, in England. He had never married.

Richard Hutchison, the surviving partner, took over the management of the firm in 1852 and moved into the Rankin house. He became sole proprietor in 1870 and the name was changed to the R. Hutchison Co. in 1880. A large lumber and sawmill business was carried on until his death in September 1891 when his son, Ernest, succeeded him. In 1907 the business and its extensive timber limits were sold to the International Paper Company. These interests took in 45 square miles of granted lumber lands and 300 square miles of crown lands under lease, a general store and a large sawmill. A subsidiary of the International Paper Company, the Miramichi Lumber Co. ran a sawmill on the former Gilmour, Rankin property for many years.

Richard Hutchison was a leader in business, political and social circles. He was stern, but just, with no patience with idlers. He was unpopular and called a "hard man" by many. He was a member of the provincial House of Assembly before 1867 and of the Smith-Anglin administration opposed to Confederation. He was elected Northumberland County's second Member of Parliament after the death of Hon. John M. Johnson in 1868, but retired after one term.

Between the year 1907 when he retired and his death in 1918, Ernest Hutchison built and equipped the Miramichi Hospital in Newcastle and gave it to the people of Northumberland County. He also gave the brick Associated Lodges Hall in Douglastown to a number of associations in the village.

The Rankin House is now to have a different part to play and the Historical Society is to be commended for the initiative taken to preserve this historic and elegant 19th-century building as a part of the cultural identity of Miramichi.

(by Edith MacAllister. Northumberland News, January 16, 1985)

Copyright © Lois F. Martin, 1985. All rights reserved.