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Celebrating Sam Hill and the Peace Arch

A portion of the crowd gathered near the VIP stage, at the foot of the Peace Arch, for the opening ceremony, September 6th, 1921. - Photo courtesy of White Rock Museum & Archives
A portion of the crowd gathered near the VIP stage, at the foot of the Peace Arch, for the opening ceremony, September 6th, 1921.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of White Rock Museum & Archives

The Peace Arch celebrated its 90th birthday this month.

The 67-foot high structure that straddles the international border at Blaine was dedicated September 6, 1921, amid fanfare – although not as much as recorded in some accounts.

The date was chosen, “because it was the anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower from Plymouth, of the birth of Lafayette, and of the first battle of the Marne.”

Although invited, neither King Albert of Belgium nor U.S. President Warren Harding could attend; the French war hero, Marshal Foch, did not arrive until the following year, and Queen Marie of Rumania made her progress across the United States to view it in 1926.

Erecting a monument to peace is admirable at any time, but why in 1921, and by whom?

The seed had been planted when a temporary arch was erected in 1915 to commemorate 100 years of peace between Canada and the United States, after the War of 1812. (It might seem ironic that this event took place while “the war to end all wars” was raging in Europe.)

Although he gave credit for the idea of the monument to A.E. Todd, a former mayor of Victoria, Sam Hill is the man most closely associated with the vision and achievement of the Peace Arch as we know it.

In 1899, Sam had become the first president of the Washington State Good Roads Association, promoting his dream of providing a coastal highway from Mexico to Alaska.

Naturally, he was disappointed that initially the B.C. government decided not to build a Canadian highway down to the peace portal but, as his biographer, J. E. Tuhy, explains, by 1929, “Sam could announce that Canada and Washington State had agreed that the main international highway would pass close by the portal.”

Sam Hill was born in North Carolina in 1857 to parents with strong Quaker roots. After the family moved to Minneapolis in 1865, Sam graduated from Haverford college, briefly studied at Harvard, and was admitted to the bar in 1880.

Six years later he was hired by railroad baron J .J. Hill, as a law clerk for the Great Northern Railway. Within the next decade, he had risen to the position of president or director of a dozen component railroads of the Great Northern.

Sam became an inveterate globetrotter, and delighted in friendships with the famous that travel afforded him. He wasn’t above embellishing the illustriousness of his ancestry, and would not necessarily deny that he was the origin of the saying ‘What the Sam Hill!’… but he wasn’t.

In 1888, Sam married J.J. Hill’s oldest daughter, Mary, in St. Paul, and they had two children, Mary and James. He resigned his railroad posts in 1900 to move to Seattle, but the decision did not suit his wife who soon returned to the east with the children.

Although he visited them occasionally, they never again lived as a family.

There was no chance of a divorce since Mary Hill was a devout Catholic. This hurdle did not prevent Sam from entering into liaisons, fathering three other children. To legitimize one, he persuaded his cousin to marry the child’s mother. Each of the women was given a trust fund to raise her child.

On the Canadian side of the border, not far from the Peace Arch, another of Sam’s enterprises still thrives. It was begun under the company name of Ye Olde English Restaurants, Ltd. in 1923 to entertain his American friends during prohibition.

The complex included a golf course opened in 1928, now known as Peace Portal.

During his last decade, Sam’s fortunes steadily declined. His marriage had failed, his daughter institutionalized with mental problems, and his son estranged.

Still, he held on to ‘some ineffable wish for self-realization and immortality.’

He died after a short illness in 1931, and his ashes placed in the crypt at Maryhill, the ‘castle’ he had built on the banks of the Columbia River. A marker contains the epitaph that he had prepared for the occasion, “Samuel Hill: amid nature’s great unrest, he sought rest.”

Biographer Tuhy wrote: “If Sam Hill had never existed, it would not have been necessary to invent him: in fact, it would have been next to impossible… he was his own complicated invention which eventually exploded.”

A document in the holdings of the White Rock archives, handwritten by Sam Hill in 1929, states, “I would not have the United States and Canada bound by other ties than friendship. Let each learn from the other, but let not any right or fancied right be settled except by peaceful arbitration, and may the dawn of the next one hundred years find each nation seeking its neighbour’s good as well as its own.”

An advocate of such noble precepts deserves to be remembered even if he wasn’t the most famous Sam Hill ever born.

The Peninsula’s best-known mother-and-son historians, Lorraine and Hugh Ellenwood, are dedicated to preserving history through the White Rock Museum & Archives. Call 604-541-2222, or email whiterockarchives@telus.net

 

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