O’Brien: From Water Boy to One Million A Year



An exceptional job of research into the life of a remarkable man has produced this story. When Michael John O’Brien quit school to work at age fourteen, he was a gangling boy. Wearing a wooden neckyoke to hold the pails, he carried water among the railroad builders near his home, earning ten cents a pail. But before he was nine-teen he was subcontracting for railroad work himself, then following the railways across the nation.

Rawboned, six-feet-two, he was the kind of man who would say “Deal me in” whenever he heard of an opportunity that interested him. He went broke. He bought mine claims for $4,000 that returned him nearly $3,000,000 within a few years. When the forerunner of the Canadian National Railways was being laid across Canada, he built more of it than any other man. Few records of his financial trans-actions remain, but in 1916—before Canada had income tax—he made a net personal income, take-home pay, of $1,606,233.86.

In one of his early railway jobs he met and married Jennie Barry. Their family was raised in Renfrew, Ontario, because this was near Jennie’s home. Her husband, by then known in the financial capitals as well as on the frontier as M.J., Uncle Imjay, or just plain O’Brien, was seldom home.

But the fascinating family relationships that developed are fully explored by the/authors –including the part M.J. and his oldest son Ambrose played in founding hockey’s Montreal Canadiens. The most famous hockey team of 1910, however, was the Renfrew Millionaires: that was an O’Brien team, too. In fact, the O’Briens in 1910 owned four of the five teams that formed the, first National Hockey Association, forerunner of the National Hockey League.

O’Brien is a valuable addition to Canadiana, especially in the fields of popular financial and social history.


Additional information

Weight .525 kg
Dimensions 25.4 × 19.5 × 2.75 cm


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