February 24, 2012

The town the colonel built

My wife's grandfather was a newspaperman in Montreal who accumulated a mountain of books during his career.

Several of them came into our possession a while back, including one with the letters WGN embossed importantly on the cover.

That book, published in 1922 to mark the 75th anniversary of the "World's Greatest Newspaper," offers a glowing history of Col. Robert McCormick's fabled Chicago Tribune.

That history covers the great tide of events in America from the lead-up to the Civil War to the aftermath of the Great War, in which the colonel saw battle in France. (It would be 26 years before the WGN ran the unfortunate "Dewey Defeats Truman" headline, with which some of a certain generation would come to remember the WGN.)

This year, there's another WGN-related 75th anniversary being celebrated, in the Quebec town that Col. McCormick built. Baie Comeau, the colonel's vision of a model company town, rose in 1937 from the wilderness on the spectacularly scenic North Shore of the St. Lawrence River.

McCormick's insatiable hunger for newsprint for his growing newspaper empire compelled him to expand his Canadian timber territory and, with the ready agreement of the Quebec government of the day, set up a massive operation on the North Shore to feed a paper mill.

The bustling town, incorporated in 1937, featured all the amenities and facilities, from swimming pool to library, to provide the kind of healthy family life the colonel promoted.

McCormick was a regular visitor to Baie Comeau and had built a sumptuous manor to accommodate him and his entourage. He even arranged to have radio broadcasts from Baie Comeau on his Chicago-based station, WGN, and brought in famous performers.

The colonel was also responsible for much of the industrial expansion on Quebec's North Shore. The massive dam he built in 1951 to supply power to his paper mill begat an aluminium plant, which, in turn, sparked further hydropower development in the region. The construction of the deep-water port necessary for the industrial plants attracted the massive Cargill grain silo installation.

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