John Counter, the Man, not the Boulevard

The John Counter Boulevard project is in its final phase. As I followed the project over the past few years, I saw truck after truck deliver a massive amount of rock to serve as the foundation for the bridge over the railway tracks. Recently, my interest turned to the name, John Counter. Who was this man? What would he have thought about this major infrastructure project? 

A reading of John Counter’s accomplishments certainly points to a civic-minded individual who fought hard to attract business to Kingston. He understood that success in business does not depend solely on business acumen. Success is also supported by dependable and efficient public infrastructure. It is perhaps that understanding that prompted Counter to run two careers in parallel: prominent businessman and multi-term mayor. In the end, however, a conflict of interest brought an end to his civic career.

Counter, born in England in 1799, settled in Kingston in his early twenties when his parents immigrated to Canada. Within a few years, he had established a bakery located at the corner of Barrie and Clergy Streets. He was able to gain several major contracts to supply bread locally and soon had ample funds to invest in real estate, transportation and industrial ventures. Counter saw the potential for Kingston to become a transportation hub and started a car ferry to Cape Vincent to promote trade between Canada and the US. His own enterprises included a marine railway company, a sawmill, and an iron foundry.

Credit: Maritime History of the Great Lakes website

Counter’s business interests were coupled with his activism to promote Kingston. He was instrumental in the incorporation of Kingston as a town in 1838 and served three terms as mayor of the town. In 1846, when Kingston became a city, he was its first mayor.

Probably, the most enduring contribution relates to his efforts in the early 1840s to build a magnificent town hall. In 1841 when Kingston was named the capital of the Province of Canada (after the merging of Upper and Lower Canada), Counter thought Kingston’s municipal building should have a grandeur befitting a capital city. Aware that Kingston did not have adequate funds for such a building, he travelled to England by steamer in 1842 and returned with a loan of £20,000.

City Hall in 1919. Credit: Queen’s University Archives

By 1842, however, prominent politicians had decided that Kingston was not the best place for the new capital and had named Montreal as the capital instead. Nonetheless, work proceeded on the magnificent town hall, with more than ample space for civic meetings, Kingston’s police department, town market, rental space for tenants such as the Bank of British North America, which later became the Bank of Montreal, churches, saloons and the post office.

Bank entrance, south wing of City Hall. Credit: Queen’s University Archives

After the opening of the building in 1844, Counter was elected to the position of mayor several times. While carrying out these duties, he continued to extend his business and real estate holdings, borrowing heavily to finance them. His last term in office ended prematurely with his resignation in June 1855 when his shares in the local gas company were considered a conflict of interest. Three months later, he was unable to meet a large mortgage payment and had to file for bankruptcy. He died penniless in 1862 at the age of 63.

City Hall as seen from Confederation Park. Credit: Helen Cutts

John Counter leaves us with a fine legacy: our City Hall is now a nationally designated heritage site. If we could reach Counter today, I’m sure he would be proud of the City Hall’s designation. Undoubtedly, he would also approve of the overpass on John Counter Boulevard that will keep the traffic moving high above the 50 trains that pass along the tracks daily.

Drawing of the new overpass on John Counter Boulevard. Credit: City of Kingston

Credit for cover photo of John Counter: City of Kingston Civic Collection

Helen Cutts, KAM Visitor in Residence, Writer

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