Everyone knew him as Jimmy. Tall, slim and well-dressed with a walrus mustache, James Alexander Orr, publisher of Sudbury Journal, cut a striking figure as he walked along the dusty downtown streets at the turn of the 20th century. He knew all the merchants and enjoyed visiting for a little news and perhaps to sell an advertisement or two.
The old-school newspaperman was a founding father who used his influence as owner of the weekly newspaper to help build the community destined to be an important economic force in the country.
Orr was an early advocate for Northern Ontario to become its own province and editorialized the provincial government failed to recognize the resource wealth it was taking out of "New Ontario."
The first edition of Sudbury Journal was published March 5, 1891. It is often referred to as Sudbury's first newspaper, but historian Charles Dorian in Sudbury The First 75 years (1960), states there was an earlier newspaper published by J.J. Barton and known as The Star. Established in 1890, it quickly went out of business.
Sudbury News, a competitor, began operation in 1894, but ceased publication after a fire five years later. Sudbury Mining News was published from 1905 to 1922. The Northern Daily Star, later The Sudbury Star, would not begin publishing until 1909.
Sudbury Journal’s masthead proudly announced it was "devoted to the mining interests and development of the Nipissing and Algoma districts."
In his first edition, Orr editorialized, "We recognize the fact at the outset that Sudbury is unique and there is no place like it in the world … It may be predictable with reasonable certainty that Sudbury as the centre of the greatest nickel district in the world has a splendid future."
Born in 1848 in Milton, Ont., to immigrants from County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, Orr was proud of his membership in the Grand Orange Lodge of British America, a Protestant fraternal organization.
Orr learned his craft at several newspapers including the Daily British Whig (later the Kingston Whig-Standard). He and his brother John founded North Hastings Review in 1877 and later a newspaper in Trenton.
In the early years, Orr wrote news, sold advertising and subscriptions, and printed the paper on a hand-press powered by a gasoline engine.
The Journal had a policy of not accepting advertising from chain retailers that competed with local merchants and did not contribute directly to the community's economy. Orr editorialized it was wrong to shop from the Eaton's mail order catalogue.
Orr married Sabra Maria Tait in 1873 and they had two children. Their son died when he was just two. Their daughter was named Florence Patricia, following the Irish tradition of naming the first daughter after the mother's mother.
Florence Patricia married James Dickson in 1905 and they had seven children: James, Stuart, Robert, Donald, Douglas, Florence Elaine and Patricia.
Granddaughter Florence Elaine (Dickson) James, an educator, was interviewed in May 1982 by Gary Peck for Memories and Music on radio station CIGM.* You can listen to that interview here.
James said she believed her grandmother never lived in Sudbury. She was ailing by the 1890s and may have remained with her family in Meaford. She died in 1899.
Her own mother came to Sudbury in 1896 and lived with her grandfather at the American Hotel on Durham Street, where the Coulson Nightclub is today. Orr lived at the hotel for more than 30 years.
"Grandfather said very little about himself," she said. "He apparently had a good voice because I've read in Old Timer Tales, that in 1891 he sang a duet at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church."
She was aware of her grandfather's reputation for being outspoken.
"Really I believe unless a newspaper editor does speak out, they're not going to achieve any effect," she told interviewer.
In the Aug. 17, 1899 edition, Orr, who normally supported the town's main employer and was a founding member of the Sudbury Board of Trade, attacked Canadian Copper for its lack of action to reduce atmospheric emissions.
“Not one dollar has ever been expended by the Company in an effort to abate the nuisance of these sulphur fumes. Not one dollar has ever been expended to relieve the suffering of women and children.”
The local populace, he said, were “wholly dependent upon this Company,” and anyone “who raises a voice or hand against the imperious will of this corporation is certain to be severely boycotted."**
Orr was a chair of the board of education and served seven one-year terms as a town councillor. A contemporary of Frank Cochrane, Orr, a Liberal, ran three times unsuccessfully against Cochrane, a Conservative, for mayor.
As a publisher and councillor, he supported the idea Sudbury needed a public library. But other councillors and many citizens thought a library was a luxury the town could not afford.
Thanks to a persistent women's group, an association library where members paid a fee was established in 1912. By 1917, the library's collection of 800 books had moved to the second floor of the post office building and it was free to all citizens.
Orr was an establishment man and a Freemason of high standing for 60 years. The first meeting of the Sudbury Lodge of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) was held at the Journal offices on Elm Street in June 1891.
In his spare time, Orr started a chess club, helped to establish a hunt club, and was a skilled curler.
He is considered the father of curling in Sudbury. He promoted the sport in his newspaper and inspired the creation of the Sudbury Curling Club.
A group of businessmen including Orr built Martin's Rink on Durham Street, an outdoor ice surface for curling, hockey and skating.
When Orr retired at age 70, his associate, William J. Cressey, who had become a partner, bought Sudbury Journal. Shortly afterward, Cressey closed the newspaper, but continued the printing business.
The Cressey family owned Journal Printing until 1965. The Haring family owned it until 2014 when it was sold to Cosimo Micelotta, a former Sudbury Star employee.
Speaking on CIGM's Memories and Music in 1982, the late publisher of the Palmerston Observer, Art Carr, who worked at Journal Printing after Orr retired in 1918, remembered the distinguished old gent dropped by almost daily to visit.
"Mr. Orr impressed me very much. He was a tall man, immaculately dressed, derby hat, the dark blue overcoat with the velvet collar. His cane more as a swagger stick, black with a silver head on it, and spats, pearl-grey spats over immaculately shined shoes.
“Yes, he looked the part of an erudite editor of a newspaper, and you would almost see him just blistering someone or other in an editorial and winding up with a quotation in Latin that no one understood other than it gave him tremendous stature among the learned folk."
Orr died on Nov. 18, 1931, at the age of 83 and is buried in Parklawn Cemetery.
The city archives has copies of Sudbury Journal from 1891 to 1918.
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. She is currently writing a book on the history of the Sudbury Theatre Centre with Judi Straughan. Then and Now is made possible by our Community Leaders Program.
* The City of Greater Sudbury Archives has digitalized transcripts of more than 300 episodes of CIGM Memories and Music which aired from 1974 to 1982.
** Smelter Fumes, Local Interests, and Political Contestation in Sudbury, Ontario, during the 1910s by Don Munton and Owen Temby.
Sudbury Rail Town to Regional Capital, edited by C.M. Wallace and Ashley Thomson, Dundurn Press, 1993
Sudbury 1883 - 2008, The Story of Our Times, Laurentian Publishing, 2008