Dakota Datebook

Mr. Giveaway

Thursday, May 6, 2004

McLean County is named for John A. McLean, the first mayor of Bismarck. Today we’re talking about one of his sons, Harry, who was born in Bismarck in 1883 and died May 1st, 1961.

Young Harry had guts and a whole lot of moxie. He started his career as a water boy for a railway construction company building a branch out of Mandan. He was a fast learner and immediately started climbing the ladder until finally going into business for himself.

Working mostly in Canada, McLean specialized in doing things that “couldn’t be done.” In the late 1920s, for example, rich mineral reserves were discovered in northern Manitoba, but the area was reachable only by dogsled. Many men scoffed when McLean took the job of building a railroad to Flin Flon – it would have to cross vast stretches frozen ground that would thaw and become spongy in the summer – any train on such a line was sure to sink. But McLean brought in tons of ballast, which insulated the frozen ground so it never melted. The railroad was finished in record time, and more importantly, it worked.

McLean’s company also built the Montreal Aqueduct, a New York subway line, and the Quebec Tunnel. But, his most remarkable accomplishment was building the Abitibi Dam in northern Ontario. In 1932, the Bismarck Capital reported, “…it was necessary to deflect the course of the river by means of a great, concrete-lined tunnel cut through solid rock. The tunnel was constructed during the frozen winter months, men racing against time to complete the work before the river should break up…and sweep away an unfinished project. For a while it was a toss-up as to whether man or time would win, and then McLean’s men finished triumphantly…”

McLean soon became known as the “Canadian Jim Hill,” but he identified more with the man-on-the-street than with fellow millionaires. He was legendary for the extraordinary lengths he went to ensure the safety of his men. After finishing his projects, he would erect large memorials dedicated to employees who were killed or injured there. Engraved on each was a poem written by his friend, Rudyard Kipling, called “Sons of Martha,” which refers to the New Testament story of Mary and Martha. The poem claims that the Sons of Mary will always be privileged, but of poor Martha, the poem says, “because she lost her temper once, and because she was rude to the Lord her Guest, Her Sons must wait upon Mary’s Sons, world without end, reprieve, or rest.”

Canada has 9 or 10 of these rare cairns; but there’s also one in North Dakota – at Washburn, the county seat of McLean County. McLean had originally commissioned a giant bronze statue of a Pioneer Family for Washburn, but that piece instead ended up on the capitol grounds in Bismarck.

Around 1943, newspapers in Canada and the U.S. started writing about a mystery man, “Mr. Giveaway,” who was handing out hundred-dollar bills to complete strangers, especially service men. A girl at a Toronto hotel switchboard was given $1,000 that she was supposed to share with 8 bellboys. A taxi driver said the man gave him $2,000 for his new baby boy, saying, “I just want to help out the people who are working hard for a living.” The mystery man was finally discovered to be our Harry McLean when a Halifax bank cashed one of his checks. McLean said he did it “just to make people happy.”

Those crazy North Dakotans… they can really surprise you.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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