SLAVEN, HENRY BARTHOLOMEW, distinguished capitalist and financier, and the practical constructor of the large completed section of the Panama Canal, was born in Picton, Ontario, October 19, 1853, the son of Patrick Slaven, a successful stock raiser. He at tended the common schools up to the age of ten, and then, entering. a drug store as clerk, attended an evening school. At the age of seventeen he was graduated from the Ontario College of Pharmacy, and spent the next two years as a student at a Philadelphia medical college. He then accepted a good position in a large wholesale and retail drug establishment in Philadelphia, and later returned to Canada to assume the active management of a large wholesale drug house in the Dominion. He remained in the successful direction of this business from 1873 to 1876, and then resigned with the view of establishing himself in the far West.
His brother, M. A. Slaven, had become a successful contractor in California, and this fact was probably a determining factor in turning Mr. Slaven’s eyes toward the section where his great enterprises were to have their origin. In 1876 he accompanied a party of engineers through the then unexplored country, by way of the Great Lakes, to the present Port Arthur, thence to Winnipeg, Manitoba, and thence westward through Manitoba and the British Northwest. The tour was successfully accomplished, notwithstanding the presence of hostile Indians. At its conclusion Mr. Slaven proceeded to St. Paul, Minnesota, and thence to San Francisco. In the latter city he established a drug and manufacturing business, and such was his mastery of this line of business, and his general executive and financing abilities, that in a short time he developed his enterprise into the largest establishment of the kind on the Pacific coast. He also be came interested with his brother in contracting enterprises, and it was a signal tribute to this firm that in 1878 the Slaven Brothers should be selected by De Lesseps and contracted with to assume the control and execution of all the Pacific coast operations in connection with his gigantic enterprise, as well as to do all the preliminary work, including the erection of the buildings at the Isthmus of Panama.
In 1880 Mr. Slaven went to the Isthmus in person to inaugurate the work, taking with him two steamers, loaded with men, provisions, and the materials of construction. Finding the men largely incapacitated by malaria, he inaugurated the policy of employing native labor, and was thus enabled to successfully execute his contracts. In 1882 the brothers closed a contract for the actual construction of the Atlantic division of the canal, a section sixteen miles long, from Aspin wall to Bohio Soldado. Their contract involved the ambitious project of changing the course of the Chagres River for the same distance. To organize this construction enterprise the brothers removed their headquarters to New York City, and in September, 1882, they secured the incorporation of the American Contracting and Dredging Company. Of this corporation Mr. Slaven was President, the late Eugene Kelly Treasurer, M. A. Slaven General Manager, and James J. Plielan Secretary. The shares of the company rose from $30 to over $400; and well they might, for upon the completion of the contract for the construction of the Atlantic division of the canal, in 1889, Mr. Slaven’s company was paid $25,000,000 by the De Lesseps Company.
The work of construction, in progress from the fall of 1882 to 1889, was an interesting performance among enterprises of the kind. For its execution eight gigantic dredges were devised, the largest in the world, and costing $150,000 each.. This model was known as the” Slaven dredge.” During the period of construction, Mr. Slaven was at the Isthmus most of the time, personally superintending the work. In 1889 the American Contracting and Dredging Company was about to be awarded a further contract for the completion of the canal, when the collapse of De Lesseps’s French company occurred. “Had the other interests in connection with the project been handled as skillfully and judiciously as the part operated by Mr. Slaven,” re marks the writer of an article in the well-known work published by the New York Tribune, “the canal would have been carried to a successful completion and have resulted in revolutionizing the ship ping and commercial interests of many countries.”
Mr. Slaven is, personally, a cultivated gentleman, widely traveled, and master of several languages. He is at the present time extensively interested in American railroads. He is a director of a number of financial and banking institutions, is President of the Chase Granite Company, of Bluehill, Maine, and for a number of years a director and the principal owner of the American Union Life Insurance Company.
Leslie's History of the Greater New York: Biographical: Volume DeLuxe
by Daniel Van Pelt. Arkell Publishing Co., New York.1898.