Remembering: Sir William Pearce Howland

The Village of Waterdown has been home to many noted residents, since its founding in 1830, but possibly the most illustrious and least known is Sir William Pearce Howland, the only American-born Father of Confederation who spent many years of his life (from c.1857 until his death in 1907) residing in a house that still stands on Mill Street South.

Howland was born at Paulings, New York State on May 29, 1811, the second son of Jonathan Howland of Duchess County and Lydia Pearce. His father’s family traced their ancestry and arrival in America to one, John Howland, an English Quaker, who came on the ‘Mayflower’, landing at Plymouth on December 22, 1620.

Howland’s “Waterdown Flouring Mill” was a model of the day’s technology until it was destroyed by fire in 1910.

In 1830, at the age of 19 William Howland moved to Upper Canada, settling in the village of Cooksville, Toronto Township, where he took a job as a clerk in a general store and post office. Within a decade, he was able to purchase the Lambton Flour Mills in York County and shortly after, established a wholesale grocery business in Toronto with his brother Peleg.

In 1857, Howland provided mortgage money for Waterdown resident and mill owner, Lockman Cummer, and a year later, possibly to settle the mortgage, Cummer sold him a parcel of land in Smokey Hollow that contained a small gristmill. Over the next couple of years, the building was converted to a four-storey stone structure with a large grain warehouse attached. In total, these upgrades were said to have cost $13,000. Howland’s ‘Waterdown Flouring Mills,’ also known as the ‘Torrid Zone Mills,’ contained the most advanced machinery available and patented drying facilities, which prevented the flour from spoiling. By 1867, the mill was regarded as one of the largest in Ontario, exporting flour to the West Indies, Mexico, Brazil and the Maritimes.

For all his achievements commercially, Howland is, however, remembered for his political prowess. After becoming a naturalized Canadian citizen in 1841, he became interested in politics and in the General Election of 1857, he was elected as a Reformer to represent West York in the Legislative Assembly of Canada. When the Reform Party came to power in 1862, Howland was appointed Minister of Finance. During this one year, he was selected to discuss construction of the transcontinental railway and was a founding member of a committee formed to acquire the Northwest Territory for Canada, for the McDonald-Cartier government.

In 1865 and again in 1866, he was appointed a commissioner to visit Washington to discuss trade interests between the two countries, and in 1866-1867, was one of the Canadian delegates sent to Westminster, London to complete the terms of the British North America Act – as one of the members whose signature is on this historic document, William Pearce Howland became a ‘Father of Confederation.’

When the first Dominion Government of Canada was formed in 1867, Howland was appointed a member of the Privy Council and the Minister of Inland Revenue, but his time in government was short-lived. He retired from politics a year later and was appointed the Lieutenant-Governor of the Province of Ontario, a position he held until November 1873.

During his years in politics and those following his retirement, Sir William Howland, who was knighted for his adherence to the cause of Confederation, spent summers with his family in Waterdown, away from the heat of Toronto.

The Howland home (above) on Mill Street South still stands today.

Sir William Pearce Howland, C.B., K.C.M.G. died in 1907 at the age of 96 years.

The magnificent Howland’s Flouring Mill in Smokey Hollow came to be owned by Archie and Alex Robertson by the early 1900s and was destroyed by fire on February 13, 1910.

Sylvia Wray is the former archivist with the Flamborough Archives. She can be reached through the Archives at

This article was originally published in the Flamborough Review, 8 February 2008.


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