“Genial George” Ham

by Bruce Cherney (part 6 of 6)

While with the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), George Henry Ham took parties of journalists — women and men — across Canada to promote the railway, as well he wined and dined dignitaries aboard special rail cars for tours of the country.

Year after year, Ham travelled over the rails and steamship lines of the CPR, throughout Canada, the U.S. and Europe, “carrying the doctrine of goodwill towards the Canadian Pacific ... with his pen and his laughter and helping to give distinguished visitors a good time. Soon his name was known from the Arctic Circle to the Gulf of Mexico and from China to the Old World and not to know George Ham was to be altogether outside the pale” (Medicine Hat News, April 24, 1926).

Ham spent 35 years working for the CPR. “I plug away at my desk, or in the trains,” he wrote in his 1921 autobiography, Reminiscences of a Raconteur, “just as cheerfully and as hopefully as I did in my younger days — crossing the continent at least twice or more times every year and sometimes visiting nearly every state in the Union, with an occasional odd trip once in an age to the Old Country, Cuba, Mexico, Bahamas Islands or Newfoundland.” 

Ham was always loyal to his roots in the newspaper business. According to an article in The Railway Age, entitled the One and Only George Ham (reprinted in the Saturday News, September 12, 1908): “Ham is a haven of refuge for distressed newspaper men and a beacon of hope for those who would like to be newspaper men. Any past, present, or prospective employee of any publication who needs a pass, a job, a loan, or a confidant for a troubled mind is sure to have his wants supplied by if he appeals to Ham, provided that gentleman can wheedle the pass out of the passenger department or borrow the money.”

Ham wasn’t a rich man and what little money he had was readily given to others he reasoned to be in greater need.

There’s a story about his encounter with a beggar outside Windsor Station at a time when the Canadian dollar was devalued by two cents across the border in the U.S., which created a lot of resentment. Streetcar conductors, even bartenders in Montreal, refused to accept American dollars or coins as an expression of their disapproval for the devaluation.

The beggar at the corner of Windsor and Osborne was an acquaintance of Ham’s.

“‘George’ crossed the street. He stood by the beggar with the cock-eye of a parrot, and benevolent grin of the only Ham.

“He saluted the beggar as he came to a standstill. And then he said: ‘Do you take American money?’” (Winnipeg Tribune, April 24, 1926).

During a celebration of his 68th birthday, C.E.E. Usher, the CPR’s passenger traffic manager, said of Ham that he was “appreciated as the man who made two laughs grow where one had grown before” (Free Press, August 25, 1915).

The August 12, 1911, Winnipeg Tribune claimed that it was doubtful “if there was a more popular citizen of Winnipeg (he lived in the city for several years) than Geo. Ham ... Born with a keen sense of humor, and with an ability to make and keep friends, it is little wonder that he holds the championship for possessing the largest aggregation of friends and acquaintances throughout the Dominion.”

E. Cora Hind, the women noted for her very accurate forecasts of the annual grain production in Western Canada for the Manitoba Free Press, said Ham was, “The kindest man I ever knew.”

Ham was hardly seen in his Windsor Station office in Montreal, but spent most of his time on trains and in hotel rooms in relentless promotion of the CPR. It would eventually take a toll on his health.

One friend towards the end of Ham’s life saw him in a smoking car and later remarked that he “looked old and lonely.”

The man with a bevy of friends died in Montreal on April 16, 1926, at age 79. He had been ill since November 24 and was confined to his bed for the last six months of his life. Ham was buried in the Whitby, Ontario, Cemetery beside the grave of his wife, Martha, who died in 1905. The Hams had two daughters and three sons.

After his passing, numerous newspapers from across Canada were generous in their praise of Ham. The heartfelt comments in the newspapers were printed in the April 22, 1926, Winnipeg Tribune.

“Wit laughs at you, humor laughs with you, if that distinction be true, George Ham was emphatically not a wit but a humorist. As he treated his friends, so he treated his country. He saw Canada strain with the gigantic task she had undertaken to make a homogenous nation out of more than half a dozen diverse and separated colonies. He envisioned the great end: it thrilled him and he threw himself into the struggle. He had strong convictions, he was a (Conservative) party man and he fought hard, but he never for a moment gave an opponent the idea that he wished him out of the way, or that he had any doubt that, together, they would work out a great destiny for Canada” (James Lawler, Ottawa Journal).

At the Canadian Pacific Railway’s (CPR) Windsor Station in Montreal on October 2, 1927, May S. Glendennan, the president of the Canadian Women’s Press Club, unveiled a plaque with the following dedication: “To the memory of Colonel (an honourary title) George Henry Ham, official of the Canadian Pacific railway, who died in Montreal April 16, 1926. This tablet is erected by the Canadian Women’s Press club in grateful recognition of his services as their founder and friend. He was a gallant gentleman and great of heart.”

Of himself, Ham said: “I spread the gospel of good cheer, despite the caprice in the universe, in order that men and women may love and enjoy life and do so abundantly. Even if it should prove in the end that death ends all, men can make themselves at home on earth by thinking evil away ... Ours is a show world but behind it all there is a beneficent Showman.”

During his lifetime, Ham came up with many sage sayings, but perhaps he should be remembered most for: “Unkindness is a worse crime than theft.”

“Genial George” was a kind man to the end.