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Then and Now: It’s impossible to put into a headline all the things this man did for Sudbury and the North

The incredible life of Frank Cochrane, Sudbury founding father, wealthy businessman and influential politician

The wealthy Sudbury politician who founded the Cochrane-Dunlop Hardware chain wouldn't be the first or last man to start a successful career by marrying his boss's daughter. 

A contemporary of Dr. William Howey and lumber baron William Bell, Frank Cochrane (1852-1919) is one of Northern Ontario's most accomplished politicians, serving three terms as mayor of Sudbury. He became an MPP and a provincial cabinet minister. 

An influential Conservative Party member, he eventually held a prominent cabinet post in Prime Minister Robert Borden's Conservative government.

Originally from Quebec, the ambitious, tall and handsome son of Scottish Methodist farmers got a lesson in modern merchandising working at a department store in Chicago. He returned to Canada when his uncle offered him a job at his general store in Pembroke. 

Cochrane soon found himself working at Dunlap and Chapman Hardware and engaged to Alice Dunlap. (Her maiden name is often spelled as Dunlop.)

The couple married in 1882 and moved to Mattawa where the young businessman opened a branch store while Alice cared for their two sons and a daughter.

Cochrane wasn't ready to settle down. In 1890, he headed west to Sudbury, the new boom town, to set up his own hardware and mining supply store on Elm Street. His family followed him to the frontier community a year later.

In 1894, Cochrane built the impressive three-storey Cochrane Block on the corner of Durham and Cedar streets where the Scotia Tower stands today.**

“When someone remarked that his new hardware store was too big for a small town, Cochrane replied, with positive assurance, he was afraid it was too small for the big city Sudbury was going to be," wrote historian Charles Dorian in his book "Sudbury: The First 75 Years" (1959).

Cochrane took advantage of other business opportunities in Sudbury. In 1902, he and prospector William McVittie established the Wahnapitae Power Company, which supplied power to Sudbury. The Cochrane family sold its shares to the Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario for more than $1 million in 1929.

He also speculated on mineral properties, including the Frood Extension, purchased in 1908 and sold to the Mond Nickel Company in 1910 for $200,000. 

Cochrane seemed to be involved in everything. He was the first president of Sudbury's Board of Trade (chamber of commerce), and a founder of the Sudbury Boating Club.

After serving as a councillor and then mayor of Sudbury for three one-year terms (1897, 1898, 1902), he was acclaimed MPP for East Nipissing in a byelection in 1905. 

Cochrane retired from active management in Cochrane-Dunlop when he went to Queen's Park. Incorporated in 1909, the company grew to have stores in many northern communities, as well as in Toronto, and in Quebec and Manitoba, until it went into receivership in 1987. 

The same year he entered provincial politics at the age of 53, he had an accident while boarding a moving train near Sudbury. Cochrane slipped and his right leg was severed below the knee. 

His rehabilitation took several months, but after recovering he became minister of the newly created Ministry of Lands, Forest and Mines. At the time, natural resources in Northern Ontario — Cochrane called it New Ontario — contributed about 25 per cent of the province's revenue.

In 1908, he was elected MPP for the new provincial riding of Sudbury. His influence at Queen’s Park is said to have ensured Northern Ontario had roads, railway service, access to education and settlement assistance. He was a proponent of the mining tax so that communities such as Sudbury benefited from mining company profits.

He is also credited for ensuring Sudbury was linked to Toronto by both the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Canadian Northern.

To honour his service, the province named the Town of Cochrane in his honour.

Cochrane helped the federal Conservative government win seats in Northern Ontario in 1911. Although he did not run federally that year, he was rewarded with the offer of the federal Railways and Canals portfolio. He resigned from the Ontario cabinet and was parachuted into a safe federal seat in a Nipissing byelection.

Despite his disability, an article in the July 19, 1912, issue of the "Porcupine Advance" reported Cochrane would be visiting the area to inspect the Hudson Bay Railroad. He would be travelling by canoe with only a guide. Instead of a fancy hotel, he would be sleeping in a tent and "frying his own fish."

Cochrane enjoyed the life of a wealthy man going on a Mediterranean cruise with his wife in 1914, but he suffered from health problems that led to his retirement from politics in 1917 and his death two years later at the age of 67.

Cochrane was diabetic before insulin was discovered and he suffered the debilitating effects of kidney disease. A visit to his sons serving on the Western Front in the winter of 1915–16 aggravated his health.

In 1919, his youngest son, Ogden, died from injuries in a military training accident and his grief may have hastened his own death later that year in Ottawa. 

Cochrane is buried beside his son in Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto. Alice Cochrane had moved to Ottawa in 1911 with her husband. She died there at the age of 84 in 1939. Daughter Edith died in 1954 and son Wilbur died in 1971.

Historian Matthew Bray in his excellent article on the Dictionary of Canadian Biography website says Cochrane "became the trusted confidant of a premier and a prime minister. Most remarkable of all perhaps, he was a politician and a minister who spoke so sparingly in Parliament that he earned the sobriquet Silent Frank. Canadian politics have seldom seen the like of him since."

Winston J. Geldart's 1965 book, "For Want of a Nail: The story of Cochrane-Dunlop Hardware Ltd," is something not too many people would pick up off the sale table at a used bookstore. "Silent Frank Cochrane; the North’s First Great Politician" by Scott and Astrid Young in 1972 will never be an Amazon bestseller. But both books, despite their uninviting titles, tell the fascinating story of Cochrane and his contributions to the development of  Sudbury and Northern Ontario.

Vicki Gilhula is a freelance writer. She is a former editor of Northern Life and Sudbury Living magazine, and has a special interest in local history. Then and Now is made possible by our Community Leaders Program

**An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the Cochrane-Dunlap block was located at Dundas and Cedar streets. It has been corrected to read Durham and Cedar streets.


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Vicki Gilhula

About the Author: Vicki Gilhula

Vicki Gilhula is a freelance writer.
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