Polo and paddlewheels: how the Ross brothers spent their remittance.
The Rosses were an altogether remarkable family. Great grandfather Hercules had left Scotland for Jamaica in 1761 and entered the sugar trade and built their family's fortune on the trade with the West Indies and Guiana. Hercules served as a purser in the Royal Navy during the American Revolution and, in 1779, opened his Jamaica home to a seriously ill Horatio Nelson who was suffering from yellow fever. This led to a close personal friendship between the two men that continued after Hercules' return to Scotland in 1782. In 1801, Nelson was godfather to Hercules' son, Horatio, grandfather of the two Ross brothers.
Horatio Ross became a legendary figure in the Scottish Highlands. After a stint with the 14th Light Dragoons, he retired with the rank of captain and went on to serve one term as a member of parliament before marrying Justine Macrae, daughter of the Macrae clan chief. Horatio was a phenomenal competition shooter and horseman and, in 1826, riding his prize horse, Clinker, he won a match race against Lord Kennedy's Radical. With a thousand pounds bet on the outcome, the race is generally accepted to be the first steeplechase ever held in Britain. To commemorate his victory, Horatio commissioned a large painting of the event from leading equestrian artist, John Ferneley. In 1999, that painting sold at a New York auction for more than one million dollars. In shooting, Horatio's nerve and his eye stayed sharp and he continued to win major competitions for Scotland until well past his 65th birthday.
While living at his Rossie Castle estate in the 1850s, Ross also took an interest in the new medium of photography. A founder of the Photographic Society of Scotland, he made some of the earliest known photographs of the Scottish highlands. It is for these images that Horatio Ross will be remembered. A bound volume of his hunting photographs recently brought more than $150,000 at a London sale.
Horatio died in 1886 and it may have been the proceeds from the sale of his extensive shooting estates just before his death that helped to fund his family's foray into the Canadian West.
Like so many other British investment capitalists of the period, the Ross brothers' father, also named Colin George, was drawn to the profit potential in western Canada's burgeoning cattle kingdom. In 1885, he toured the foothills ranch country around High River to size up the prospects and, liking what he saw, he sent George and a manager out a year later to establish a stock-raising operation. They could not have picked a worse time to go into the cattle business. The pedigreed stock they brought from Ontario in 1886 and turned out on the new Ace of Spades Ranch suffered terribly that first winter of 1886-87, by far the worst on record. Whether it was the inability of the eastern cattle to survive the ice and cold or the ranch's unfortunate location wasn't important; they lost almost everything. Abandoning the original Ace of Spades, young Ross moved what was left of their stock onto the property of a man named William Podger, whom he bought out around 1890.
Ross' new place was located about sixteen miles south of High River and it was on this property along the Little Bow River that he began to play a little polo.
Although there is no evidence he had played the game in his native Midlands, George soon emerged as the first great player and patron of western Canadian polo. He led his High River team to victory in the first Alberta tournament at Fort Macleod in 1892 and his profound influence on the game was felt for many years, continuing even after he left the province just before World War One.
About 1890, Horatio came out to Canada to join his brother. Stories tell that he came to Alberta by covered wagon after sailing around Cape Horn to San Francisco and built a huge house in the mountains west of Calgary which he abandoned when he took up ranching. Unfortunately, such tales, like those of his poverty-stricken childhood, were largely the product of Horatio's imagination, heavily embellished over time in the reminiscences of friends and business associates.
How long Horatio stayed with his brother at the Ace of Spades is not known but he certainly had no aspirations to become a gentleman rancher. Before the end of the decade, he had left High River for the south-eastern Alberta town of Medicine Hat where, true to his nautical name, he became involved in the building of steam-powered sternwheelers. Intended to ply the Saskatchewan River system between Lethbridge and Winnipeg, the boats proved a brief (and generally disastrous) experiment. Unlike the upper Missouri, where steamboats had been in use since the 1840s, the South Saskatchewan was ill-suited to navigation. Swinging wildly between two extremes, it seemed either in full flood or nearly bone dry.
After building several vessels and losing at least one (his Assiniboia was destroyed by ice in 1906), it was Horatio's ill-fated City of Medicine Hat that closed the steamboat era on the South Saskatchewan. Built in 1907 at a cost of $30,000, she was designed primarily as an excursion vessel and could carry over 200 passengers in quite luxurious surroundings.
In late May of 1908, the boat left Medicine Hat for a pleasure cruise and business trip to Winnipeg. By June 7th, she had arrived at Saskatoon where a flood-swollen river seemed to bar her passage under the city's bridges. After putting the few passengers ashore and removing the smokestack, Ross successfully steered his boat under the first bridge. While passing under the second, however, she caught some on telephone wires and they fouled her rudder. Out of control in the heavy current, the boat smashed into the steel span of the new Victoria Street bridge and then swept sideways against a concrete pier. Within moments, the badly crushed hull keeled over, filling the river with debris. Ross, still at the wheel, barely escaped with his life.
The wreck of the City of Medicine Hat effectively ended steamboat traffic on the upper Saskatchewan and Ross (or, more likely, his family) had to cover the entire loss. His insurance only protected the boat against fire. While he thought briefly of suing the federal government for allowing the bridge to obstruct a navigable stream, Horatio left Medicine Hat soon after and, undaunted, moved downriver to The Pas, Manitoba, where he established the Ross Navigation Company.
Meanwhile, through the last decade of the old century, George Ross had been building his mix of ranchers, cowboys, and townsmen into the strongest polo teams in Canada. His reputation for fierce discipline and a near-obsession with team play allowed High River to win regularly over clubs which might have boasted superior individual talent or better ponies. Indeed, polo seems to have been the sole centre of his life. As the High River Times reported in 1907:
George Ross is accustomed to calling his players down firmly, but not gently, and in picturesque language ... The effect of this is unanswering obedience -- in a word, discipline.
Ross' Little Bow spread never counted among the great outfits of the cattle kingdom. Unlike A.E. Cross and Herbert Samson, Ross's name never appeared among the founders or directors of the new livestock or ranchmen's organizations that were springing up across the district. His name is also absent from the early membership lists of Calgary's prestigious Ranchmen's Club.
If cattle were not particularly interesting to Ross, neither were purebred horses. While friends like Herbert Eckford and H.B. Alexander were establishing reputations for producing large numbers of top-quality working and race horses, the Ace of Spades remained, at best, a footnote in the story of High River ranching. Indeed, there is precious little mention of Ross in the local histories except for his brief tenure as the owner of a High River hotel and his militia connections.
Other than polo, Ross' only real public presence in High River was as a commander of the 15th Light Horse. Although he held the rank of captain (and then major) in this storied Alberta regiment, there is no evidence that he had any formal military training. If Ross had any serious business interest at all, it was in raising polo ponies. It was Ross who first led southern Alberta's polo players to tournaments in eastern Canada in the first decade of the new century and, according to the local press, the players were invariably accompanied by a carload of Ross ponies. The new clubs in Toronto, Kingston, and Montreal were first stocked with horses purchased from Ross and a few other local trainers.
The lack of detailed information about Ross' life in a town that takes enormous pride in its heritage also extends to his family. His wife, Letitia Clyde, makes only a few brief appearances in the pages of the High River Times at a time when the paper's coverage of social events was both extensive and detailed. Who she was, when they married, and whether they had children cannot be discovered.
Ross' profound influence on the development of polo in southern Alberta cannot be underestimated. His High River teams were the odds-on favourites at most tournaments and, by 1905, three of his young home-grown proteges were beginning to make careers of the game, eventually playing for pay in Toronto, Montreal, and Saratoga, New York. But the most telling evidence of his authority and leadership came when he left High River for Calgary in 1906. With his departure, High River's greatest seasons came to an end while the new Fish Creek club in Calgary was soon producing teams that would dominate the last years of the pre-war era.
In 1908, George forged another new connection between western Canadian polo and serious outside competition when he made his first foray into southern California. He played the winter polo season at Riverside and while there he was introduced to the wealthy polo-playing Spreckels family. George never got over this first exposure to high-goal California polo and the rich social swirl that surrounded it. On his return to Alberta, he declared that Spreckels' horses would soon be coming to race at the new High River track and made plans to take a team with him to Spreckels' club on Coronado Island for the 1909 winter season.
Over the next five years, under Ross' patronage, players from High River, Pekisko, and Calgary became a regular feature of the southern California season. Ross himself was offered and accepted the opportunity to manage the Coronado club, at a reported $10,000 per year.
The only dark moment in Ross' California high life came with the 1910 Coronado season. Among the young Alberta players who had come under his tutelage, none was better than Millarville's Justin Deane-Freeman. Since his first tournament appearance in 1899 at the age of sixteen, Deane-Freeman had quickly emerged as the finest player in Canada and, in 1909, Ross announced he was taking the young prodigy to California as a full-time playing professional. Justin's wife, their two small children and his parents, would be going with him.
In March, 1910, after only a month or two in California, Deane-Freeman was playing in a practice match with Ross and another of his proteges, High River's Harry Robertson, when the young star collided with an opposing player, fell from his horse, and died instantly of a massive head injury. He was not yet thirty years old and would certainly have grown into one of the game's premier players.
Ross came back to Alberta for the 1910 and 1911 summer seasons but they were his last. With the exception of two brief visits, he never returned to the province. Through 1913 and early 1914, he continued to host Alberta teams at Coronado and elsewhere on the West Coast tournament circuit, joining them on the field if an injury left them a man short. Even with his new position as manager of the club, he continued to play hard and there is clear proof that the years had not mellowed his fierce temperament. In February, 1913, the High River Times picked up a story which had originally appeared in the tabloid New York World under the headline "Major Ross Hits Mexican":
Major Colin Ross, millionaire Canadian poloist, was at one time the centre of interest in the game of February 4th between a picked Coronado team and three Canadian players. Of the three "Canadians", one was Juan Fuennes, a Mexican, who is a trainer and stablemaster for Walter Dupee, a millionaire.
Fuennes is a splendid horseman, although it is said that as a poloist he has won no medals. He preferred riding rings around Major Ross to chasing the little ball. On one occasion, an interval between two "chukkers", the Major, in a moment of ungentleness, struck Fuennes over the head with his mallet.
Fuennes bit the dust, but he took the Major with him. Automobiles, as emergency ambulances, were pressed into service and rushed to the scene of conflict. There were no fatalities, but the mallet was a total loss.
In June of 1914, Ross reappeared in Calgary for the official opening of the club's new Chinook Park grounds and refereed a game between his old Fish Creek club and Cochrane. He was back again in January, 1915, this time to do his part for the war effort. Appointed a major in "B" Squadron of the 12th Canadian Mounted Rifles, he took over as second-in-command of the regiment in March. His wife, Letitia, was listed on his service record as next-of-kin and her address given as the prestigious Hotel Del Coronado. She clearly didn't accompany him on his visit.
And a "visit" is what it turned out to be Ross resigned his commission in September of 1915 and returned to California. At 48 years of age and with no previous war experience, he was an unlikely candidate for overseas service and his role was probably always intended to be helping get the regiment ready to fight.
With the war's end, western Canadians again began to make their annual pilgrimage to Coronado and George Ross was there to ensure they were treated well. Players from British Columbia and Alberta (including Cochrane's Virginia Ranch), were all guests of the club during the early 1920s. Ross had built a house on Isabella Avenue in Coronado and seemed to have settled in as a permanent part of the prosperous island community.
But polo was almost finished at Coronado. By 1923, the number of matches being played had fallen dramatically and the field was used as much for horse shows and high school football games as for polo. By 1925, the polo club was gone, its grounds turned into a golf course.
Meanwhile, George's brother, Horatio, was firmly settled at The Pas, Manitoba. In addition to an appointment as a Dominion fisheries inspector, his Ross Navigation Company began a building program that would see as many as six boats plying the district's navigable lakes and rivers. Rather than opulent passenger vessels, Ross launched boats like the 87-foot sternwheeler Nipawin and the screw steamer Sam Brisbin to connect outlying lumbering and mining operations with the railhead at The Pas.
The general war-time boom, buoyed by the 1917 discovery of substantial copper deposits at Mandy, Manitoba, ensured the company's success as thousands of tons of ore were barged across Cumberland Lake and down the Saskatchewan. While Horatio did not join up during the war, he did offer his services to the British government and, supposedly, was dispatched to China to investigate the possibility of steamboat navigation on the Yangtze River. As with so much of Horatio's life away from the Canadian West, the whole truth of the story is hard to determine.
The company's prosperity continued for another eight years until the rail line from The Pas to Flin Flon was completed in 1925. The steamboats, tied to the vagaries and dangers of the short summer navigation season, could not compete with the railway's predictable year-round schedule and the boats were finished.
Horatio did not live to see the end of his enterprise. In February, 1925, he died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, said to have occurred while he was cleaning his rifle. Although the death was ruled accidental, there were always questions about what had really happened. Horatio Hamilton Ross was fifty-five years old. According to his obituary, at the time of his death he was "alone as usual" and there is no mention of any immediate family. He lies under a small headstone in the Big Eddy cemetery and his friends subscribed to a memorial stained glass window in The Pas' historic Christ Church.
About the same time, with the end of polo on Coronado Island, Colin George Ross disappeared from the historical record. Although he was sixty years old, it is hard to imagine that he severed all ties to the game which had been his overarching passion for four decades. Still, he does not seem to have moved to any other West Coast club. He didn't come back to Alberta and, although High River's local history holds that he died in California, there is no record of his passing (nor that of his wife). He might have returned to England but no evidence of his presence there can be discovered. In fact, the once-powerful Manchester merchant family itself seems to have vanished from memory.