HENRY BARTHOLOMEW SLAVEN, capitalist, who has won fame and fortune by his wonderful enterprise and work in connection with the great Panama Canal, was born near Picton, Ontario, Oct. 19, 1853. He is a son of Patrick Slaven, a farmer and stock raiser, and his early education was gained in the common schools.
Leaving the farm when he was thirteen years of age, he secured a position as druggist's assistant, and after his day's work, spent the evenings in study at the local school. He was a graduate of the Ontario College of Pharmacy at the age of seventeen, and in order to take a further course in medicine, he went to Philadelphia and attended a university there for nearly two years, but was too young to graduate.
He then accepted a position in a large wholesale and retail drug house in the Quaker City, which gave him his first experience in mercantile life. Returning to Canada in 1873, he took the management of a large wholesale drug concern there, remaining with it for a period of three years. Early in 1876, the young man joined a party of engineers, who were making a trip to the British Northwest. The journey was made by way of the great lakes to what is now Port Arthur, and thence to Winnipeg, Manitoba. As this was an entirely unexplored country, inhabited only by Indians, the dangers and hardships of the undertaking were great, but Mr. Slaven and his party of twenty-five men arrived safely at their destination. Making a short stay in Winnipeg, he traveled further west through Manitoba and the British Northwest, returning again to Winnipeg and journeying thence to St. Paul. From the last named place he went to San Francisco, where he arrived in the fall of 1876.
In San Francisco, he established a large drug and manufacturing business, which proved to be a successful venture. The business grew with amazing rapidity and in time became the most widely known concern of its kind on the Pacific coast.
In 1878, Mr. Slaven became interested in public works, with his brother, M. A. Slaven, who was a successful contractor in California and the far West. It was about this period that Ferdinand De Lesseps paid a visit to San Francisco in the interests of the Panama Canal. The fame of the Slaven Brothers, as successful contractors, having reached his notice, he determined to seek their aid in carrying out the vast and difficult work he had in hand. The acceptance of this proposition practically shaped Mr. Slaven's future life. The brothers assumed entire control of the American Pacific coast business, besides contracting for the buildings and other preliminary work on the Isthmus, which involved millions of dollars.
Mr. Slaven went to Panama in 1880, to initiate the work, taking a large force of men and sent supplies and materials sufficient to fill two steamers. Work was at once begun on the line of the canal. The undertaking was attended with great hardships and suffering on the part of the men, who were afflicted with malaria, of which many died, while others sickened and returned to their homes in the States. Their places being filled with native labor, the great work prospered.
In the year 1882, the firm of Slaven Brothers closed a contract for the actual construction of the Atlantic division of the Panama Canal from Colon or Aspinwall to Bohio Soldado, a distance of sixteen miles, as well as for the difficult and seemingly impossible task of changing the course of the great Chagres River for a similar distance. The magnitude and importance of this contract rendered it necessary for the contractors to remove their headquarters to New York City.
In September of the same year, they organized The American Contracting & Dredging Co., and associated with them the late Eugene Kelly. The officers of the company were H. B. Slaven, president; Eugene Kelly, treasurer; M. A. Slaven, general manager, and Jas. J. Phelan, secretary. They began work on the construction of the plant, which was necessary to the successful carrying out of the contract, the principal piece of machinery being what is known as the Slaven dredge, the largest, most effective and most expensive dredge ever built. Eight of these mammoth machines were constructed at an average cost of $150,000 each. The plant was completed and placed on the Isthmus in a few months and the actual digging of the Panama Canal was begun by an American company. During the period of seven years, from 1882 to 1889, most of Mr. Slaven's time was spent on the isthmus, where he personally superintended the enormous enterprise.
The result of his operations constituted one of the greatest industrial and financial successes of modern times. The stock of The American Contracting & Dredging Co. became worth more than four times its face value, and shares which were at one time offered and sold for $30 were in great demand at $400 and over.
When a crisis came in the affairs of The Panama Canal Co., and it failed in 1889, Mr. Slaven had successfully completed his contract and his company had been paid about $25,000,000 and was about to be awarded a contract for finishing the entire canal. After the failure, all work having come to an end in Panama, Mr. Slaven removed his great plant to Nicaragua and became treasurer of the company there.
The Panama Canal scheme takes rank among the greatest engineering and contracting enterprises in the history of the world, and the progress of the work was watched with absorbing interest by every civilized nation. Had the other interests in connection with the project been handled as skillfully and judiciously as the part operated by Mr. Slaven and his company, the canal would have been, in the judgment of Mr. Slaven, carried to a successful completion and have resulted in revolutionizing the shipping and commercial interests of many countries.
Mr. Slaven has been heavily interested in American railroads and a director in several banking and financial institutions, but of recent years has largely withdrawn from active connection with these concerns. He is president of The Chase Granite Co. Bluehill, Maine, and is the principal owner and a director in The American Union Life Insurance Co.
Mr. Slaven, who is in the prime of life, is a man of quiet and domestic tastes. He has been an extensive traveler, both at home and abroad, and there are few parts of the world which he has not visited. He speaks several languages. His career has certainly been full of unusual interest, and the great success that has attended his labors has been the result of his untiring enterprise and remarkable ability.
America's Successful Men of Affairs: An Encyclopedia of Contemporaneous Biography. Vol. 1.
Hall, Henry, ed., The New York Tribune, New York, New York, 1895-96.
Additional information on this family.
Thanks to a descendant of one of Henry B. Slaven's brothers, here's some additional information of Henry's family:
Henry's father, Patrick Slaven, immigrated from Ireland to Picton, Ontario, Canada in the mid 1800's with his wife Eliza (Welch). Patrick and Eliza settled on a farm property in the Picton area and had a total of nine children, eight boys and a girl. Their children scattered all over the place; two of them were Henry Bartholemew Slaven and Moses Albert Slaven, who went to San Francisco. The two were early contractors in the building of the Panama Canal. Their brother William Alexander Slaven was the only one of the family to stay in the Picton area; he took over the farm and married Mary (McCaw). They had just one child, Harry Bartholemew Slaven, who continued to farm the property and married Florence (Heffernan). Harry and Florence had nine children; among their grandchildren is Scott Slaven of London, Ontario, who provided the information and several photos.