19th Century, People

George and William Chaffey: from Kingston to Ontario

Statue of George Chaffey in Upland, CA. Creative Commons-licensed image from Wikipedia. (click image to go to source)

I have to say that I’m a fan of Southern California: a trip to Los Angeles that I planned and took with my brother in 2012 was probably the most enjoyable thing I’ve done in the past few years. We basically just hung around the beach getting horribly sunburned, listening to alternative LA bands from the 80s and taking public transit everywhere. (Just try telling anyone from LA you’re taking the bus, they’ll look at you like it’s a suicide mission.) There were a few mishaps but overall it was fun, and contrary to stereotype, the people were very nice.

Anyone who’s spent time looking at a map of Southern California will notice that there is a sprawling city called Ontario inland from Los Angeles. This city, as you might guess, was named after the province Ontario and was founded by George and William Benjamin Chaffey, who were born in Brockville and raised in Kingston. Personally I think it’s a little surprising that you never hear about the Chaffeys in the annals of Kingston history. Although they’re not really “Kingston history” per se, it’s fascinating that that people who had such an impact on the development of California (and Australia, and some of their present-day water problems) were from our neck of the woods.

The name Chaffey may sound familiar because of Chaffey’s Lock, a Rideau Canal lockstation at Opinicon Lake. English-born Samuel Chaffey, who was George and William Chaffey’s great-uncle, moved to this area in 1820 and established a mill which later gave the lockstation its name. Samuel’s brother Benjamin was George and William’s grandfather; his son George Sr. was their father. George Sr. was born in Ohio, but the family must have eventually settled in Brockville, as that’s where his children (or at least George Jr.) were born and his parents died.

In 1859, when George Jr. was eleven and William may have been three, four, or five (I’ve seen different birth years), the family moved to Kingston.

The Chaffeys in the 1867 directory. Weirdly, there is no corner of Sydenham and Union Streets, unless street naming was different then. (click image to go to source)

The Chaffeys, Sr. in the 1867 directory. William was George Sr.’s brother. Weirdly, there is no corner of Sydenham and Union Streets, unless street naming was different then. (click image to go to source)

George attended Kingston Grammar School, but he was apparently not a studious boy in the classroom, and instead read engineering books from the library. His father’s shipping business caught his interest, and at age thirteen he left school and was soon apprenticed to a Great Lakes marine engineer. After a brief stint working at his uncle’s bank in Toronto, he returned to Kingston in the 1870s as a partner in his father’s shipyard, where he designed and built steamer ships. George also married and had three children during this period between Toronto and Kingston.

Meanwhile in 1878, George Chaffey Sr. had moved to Riverside, California to join the Santa Ana River irrigation settlement. His son William, also a shipyard employee, accompanied him. By 1881, George Jr. decided he too wanted in on the action. The City of Ontario website says it simply:

It was in the first week of August, 1881 when George Chaffey, a Canadian engineer, viewed the wastes known as the Cucamonga Desert and decided that this patch of land, if properly watered, could become productive and profitable.

Panorama of Ontario circa 1890, after the Chaffeys had moved on. Public domain image. (click image to go to source)

George and William bought this land and the water rights for $60,000 and planned two “model colonies,” complete with prohibition and the proper social institutions, called Etiwanda and Ontario. (Another, Upland, was originally the northern part of Ontario.) The land was ready to be sold by November 1882, with miles of cement pipes laid by the Chaffeys to bring water to the new desert settlements. In addition to his ground-breaking (pun alert) irrigation plan for the cities, George Chaffey also became president of the Los Angeles Electric Company, which gave the city its first electric streetlights.

News of these irrigation colonies spread to Victoria, Australia, which had been stricken with drought in recent years. After an Australian government minister and two journalists visited the Chaffey settlements in California, George decided he had an opportunity to recreate his success in another country. In 1886 he cabled William to sell their interests back in California, and the two set to work. However, the Chaffeys’ Australian settlements, Mildura and Renmark, were fraught with more troubles than their American counterparts, and by late 1894 they were forced to liquidate their company amid much scandal and investigation. On the bright side, the two towns eventually became successful with some government help.

William Benjamin Chaffey. Australian Dictionary of Biography. (click image to go to source)

George Chaffey. Australian Dictionary of Biography. (click image to go to source)

(Sorry about the weird formatting in this section.) George moved back to the United States in 1897 and continued to irrigate the southeastern California desert, renaming it the Imperial Valley. He also became involved in a banking venture with his son Andrew, and was “limited only by his excesses” until he died in 1932 in Ontario, California. William stayed in Mildura, where he established an orchard and winery and was active in local politics. “The Boss,” as he was sometimes known, was appointed CMG in 1924 and died in 1926.

Whew. No wonder there are schools and bridges named after the Chaffeys and statues in their honour; I didn’t even include all the things they did in this post. Of course, many people know how well the idea of irrigating the desert went down, especially in California. The Chaffeys probably never imagined the huge populations that would descend on their desert oases, not to mention the havoc that diverting the Colorado River created, such as accidents like the infamous Salton Sea.

On the other hand, George Chaffey was an original Self-Made Man, who created a name for himself with not much more than determination, enthusiasm, and Kingston library books. In that sense, he is someone to be admired. It’s also true that the Chaffeys’ settlements, especially in California, have certainly been successful, although they’ve now melded into one giant suburb and Etiwanda has relinquished its identity to Rancho Cucamonga.

Anyway, if you’re ever in SoCal or Australia, it might be worth taking a look around and thinking of the Chaffeys: you never know where you’ll find Kingston history!

Sources

Biographical details on the Chaffeys were found using familysearch.org.

Rideau Canal page on Chaffey’s Lock

Shared entry for George Chaffey and William Benjamin Chaffey in the online Australian Dictionary of Biography

City of Ontario website History page

I also (gasp) used Wikipedia for details on the different communities in and around Ontario, because they really have merged into one giant city and it’s hard to tell what’s what.

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