Hobart william McNeill was a dynamic man who entered Canmore’s history at a pivotal time. An American lawyer and businessman, H.W. McNeill is an important figure in Canmore’s history as he took a struggling coal mine on the verge of economic collapse and turned it into a viable operation with a strong foundation that would set Canmore and its coal industry on a long-term path. McNeill and his company, the H.W. McNeill Co., also operated a coal mine west of Canmore at Anthracite, the Bow Valley’s first town.
McNeill was born in Peoria, Illinois on June 18, 1847. His mother died while he was still an infant and he was raised by his aunt in Maryland. He trained in law at the University of Michigan and was admitted to the bar in 1868. McNeill moved to Iowa where he opened a law firm in 1869 with Iowa’s ex-governor, Enoch W. Eastman.
In 1870, McNeill took on his first railway work, serving as the special agent for the Iowa Valley Construction Company, which built the Iowa Central Railroad. From there, he moved onto the St. Louis and St. Paul Railroad, eventually becoming its president. Understanding the value of coal to railroads, McNeill established the Iowa Central Coal Company with his brother Wilbur A. McNeill in 1873. They later merged their company with the Consolidated Coal Company. H.W. McNeill branched out on his in 1881 taking on a job as a assistant to the general manager of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway Company. This position proved to be a springboard, taking McNeill to the helm of power, hide tanning, fuel coal, iron works companies, along with serving as a director for a bank and an oatmill company.
He married Lizzie Phillips in Eldora on May 15, 1869. They had one daughter, Anna, born on July 12, 1873.
While in Canmore, McNeill was instrumental in seeing Canmore had a permanent detachment of the North West Mounted Police. In a letter to Archibald Stewart, one of the directors of the Canadian Anthracite Coal Co., dated Sept. 20, 1897, McNeill wrote the police were a “God send” as they kept Canmore and Anthracite trouble free. “A camp of miners, of all nationalities, is not calculated to be free from broils and disturbances in any County… By its help our camps have been orderly, life and property have been safe, and both Canmore and Anthracite are pleasant places to live in, so far as law and order are concerned, as the best policed city in the Union,” McNeill wrote. He also sponsored Canmore’s brass band, comprised of coal miners, who in turn built the Canmore Opera House.
Suffering from rheumatism, a painful disorder that affects joints, tendons and muscles, McNeill died at the age of 52 on Jan. 27, 1900 in San Jose, California. He was buried in Oskaloosa, Iowa. His death likely led to the slow decline that would eventually end mine operations by the H.W. McNeill Co. Ten years after his death, the mine owners ousted the McNeill family – Wilbur A. McNeill and his Wilbur’s son, Walter F. McNeill, who built the McNeill heritage home in 1907 – and passed management of the mine to a new company, Canmore Coal Co., headed by James B. Neale and Samuel Brinkerhoff Thorne.