John Young was born March 11, 1811 at Ayr, Scotland to William Young, a cooper and Janet Gibson.
He studied at Ayr Academy, and at the age of 14 became a teacher in the parish school.
In 1826, Young left Scotland for Canada and settled in Kingston where he obtained work with a local merchant named MacLeod.
By the early 1830’s he had moved to Montreal and was working at Torrance’s wholesale merchandising firm which was active in the steamboat business along the St. Lawrence between Montreal and Quebec. It was here that John learned the Canadian import and export business and formulated his views of how the St. Lawrence trade could be improved.
After several years of apprenticeship and work as a clerk, he was promoted to partner with David Torrance and the two men managed the business between 1835 and 1840. The partnership ended in 1840 and Young formed a new company, Stephens, Young and Company with a Vermonter, Harrison Stephens who had been importing rice, tobacco and other goods to Montreal since 1832. Along with this, the partners began to handle large quantities of western staples and had a good general merchandising trade.
In his position, Young travelled west to Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan buying produce and arranging for its transport, insurance and storage. On August 31, 1846 the partnership was ended by mutual consent and Stephens left the company. Young formed a new partnership with Benjamin Holmes of Montreal and their new firm had extensive trade with Chicago as a receiver of products and a supplier of imported manufactured goods.
Although known for his crusading for the Caughnawaga canal, Young was also cognizant of the potential importance of railways in improving Montreal’s competitive strength for the trade of the interior. With other Montrealers he was an early participant in the St. Lawrence and Atlantic Railroad Company which was authorized to build a line from Montreal to Portland, Maine in 1845. A director from 1847-1851, he supported Alexander Tilloch Galt in raising the capital.
Among Young’s other railroad ventures were the St. Lawrence and Ottawa Grand Junction chartered in 1850 to build a line from Lachine to Prescott and a failed attempt to convince the Canadian government to build a railroad to the Pacific through the Ottawa Valley and south of Lake Superior.
Young was among the first to see the need for a bridge at Montreal to bring a railway from the South Shore to the city’s harbour and from 1845 he urged construction of the Victoria Bridge. Not insignificant in his long support for this link were lots in Montreal’s east end which he held for speculation.
Throughout his life, Young’s favourite transportation scheme was the Caughnawaga Canal. He believed that a canal should be built from the St. Lawrence to Lake Champlain to increase Montreal’s attractiveness as an entrepot. Unfortunately for him, it never came to pass as he lacked the all important support of the Montreal Board of Trade.
Another of Young’s entrepreneurial adventures in the 1850’s was the St. Gabriel Hydraulic Company. Young acquired a lease from the government for water power at the St. Gabriel lock on the Lachine Canal. His company made immense profits by converting these water rights into the licence to use unrestricted quantities.
He was also interested in telegraphic communications and attempted unsuccessfully to launch several companies to connect Canada with various parts of the world.
In politics, Young was a free trader and in 1846 established the Free Trade Association in Montreal and advocated removal of all restrictions on Canadian trade. He opposed annexation to the United States and was one of the few Montreal merchants who did not sign the Annexation Manifesto.
In 1851 Young entered the Francis Hincks-Morin ministry as commissioner of public works and was hailed as a man of “intelligence, integrity and energy” and a credit to the administration. Young resigned from the Executive Council in 1852 but retained his seat for two more years. As minister he too special interest in measures to improve navigation on the St. Lawrence River. He left his ministry over its proposal t impose higher tolls on American than Canadian vessels using the Welland Canal and on issues of rates of duty.
As a member of the Assembly, Young supported measures to abolish seigneurial tenure and to secularize clergy reserves. He introduced and piloted a bill to establish College Sainte-Marie in Montreal.
Probably Young’s most notable achievements were with the Montreal Harbour Commission. Appointed to it in 1850, he became chairman in 1853. The commission was established to supervise wharves and improve the ship channel. Young was largely responsible for the transformation of the commission into the National Harbours Board.
In 1860 Young’s fortunes were at their peak. He was president of the Royal Canadian Insurance Company, but his interests centred on his forwarding business as well as the harbour and land speculation. With investments such as these, Young was able to retire from active business in 1860. During his last years he dabbled in politics, maintained his strong interest in the Harbour Commission, and spent more time with his family and on his other passion, curling.
In 1860 he served as Montreal Chairman for the royal visit of the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VIII. His estate, Rosemount at 16 Severn Avenue was famous for the orchards which he maintained meticulously and which supplied saplings for the grounds of McGill University. He enlarged the house by adding another higher three-storey house on the west side.
In 1861 he moved back to Scotland with his wife, Amelia Jane Tilley and their thirteen children. They stayed for two years to ensure the good education of the children and then returned to Canada. On the return voyage, they were shipwrecked off Newfoundland and Young acted as a witness against the Allan Line.
He remained active on the Montreal Board of Trade and was President in 1855, 1860,1870 and 1871; he was the first President of the Dominion Board of Trade in 1871.
Young’s fortunes soured in 1872 and he sold Rosemount, the family ‘s estate and from then on they moved regularly. He accepted a number of patronage positions and his last public service was in 1877 as Canadian commissioner to the international exhibition in Sydney, Australia.
Afflicted by sunstroke while returning, John Young died of heart problems in Montreal on April 12, 1878. The merchants of Montreal buried him with respect and provided a lavish headstone for his grave.
His statue by Philippe Hebert stands near the Montreal waterfront today, honouring him as “the father of the Montreal Harbour”.