Charles Melville Hays was President of the Grand Trunk and Grand Trunk Pacific Railway Companies (later became the Canadian National Railway). He was the architect of a second transcontinental railway line to rival Canadian Pacific, that would run from Moncton, N. B., to Prince Rupert, B. C., about 3,600 miles. He was in England for a family holiday, as well as a director's meeting where he was trying to raise funds for his grand plan.
He and his family were originally booked on another ship to return to Canada but because the third of his four daughters, Louise, was having a difficult pregnancy, they switched their tickets to the Titanic. In the Hays party was his wife Clara, his second daughter Orian and her husband Thornton Davidson, Clara's maid Anne Perreault and Vivian Payne, private secretary to Charles Hays. They were guests of White Star Line's managing director, J. Bruce Ismay.
Charles Hays private rail car (the private jet of the era) was to meet the family in New York and deliver them to Montreal, then to the gala opening of his Chateau Laurier Hotel on April 26th. French sculptor Paul Chevré, whom Hays had commissioned to create a marble bust of Sir Wilfrid Laurier for the hotel, was also in his entourage.
A fellow passenger, Colonel Archibald Gracie, reported that just before he went to bed for the night on April 14th, "I had a long chat with Charles M. Hays.... One of the last things Mr. Hays said was this: "The White Star, the Cunard, and Hamburg-American Lines are devoting their attention and ingenuity in vying with one another to attain the supremacy in luxurious ships and in making speed records. The time will come soon when this will be checked by some appalling disaster." Poor fellow, a few hours later he was dead."
When the ship hit the iceberg Charles Hays ensured that the women in his party were quickly put into life boat number 3. He told his daughter Orian: "You and mother go ahead, the rest of us will wait here until morning. Don't worry. This ship is good for eight hours, and long before then help will arrive." Orian and Clara were so sure they would see their husbands again they didn't think to kiss them goodbye. Clara, Orian and Anne Perreault survived and all of them lived into their 90s. There is a magnificent Hays family tombstone in the Mount Royal Cemetery in Montreal.
Charles Hays body was recovered by the Minia on 26 April, 1912 and easily identified by the engraved watch he was wearing, and the papers he was carrying. His coffin was brought back to Montreal in his private rail car. There were simultaneous funerals for Hays in Montreal and London on May 8th . And at precisely 11:30 a.m. people at the funerals and everyone along the lines of the Grand Trunk system (from Montreal to Chicago, from New Brunswick to the Pacific coast) stopped for five minutes to pay their respects.
Charles Hays was a transplanted American. He moved to Montreal with his family in 1895. In 1911 Sir Wilfrid Laurier, at a dinner of the Canadian Club of New York, held at the Hotel Astor, said: "Mr. Hays is beyond question the greatest railroad genius in Canada."
If you go to Prince Rupert today, everybody knows Charles Melville Hays. There is a mountain named after him, streets, a high school and even a statue in front of City Hall. He is the founder of the town. Prince Rupert was to be the terminus of his railway. His line would cut off critical shipping time to Asia. And the harbor is the deepest natural harbour in North America. He had a plan drawn up for the city that included a hotel to rival the Chateau Laurier. It took a century for his vision to start paying off. Prince Rupert is now the fastest growing container port on the continent. Hays' four daughters in 1974 bought their father's private rail car "the Canada" and donated it to Exporail: The Canadian Railway Museum in Delson/St-Constant, Quebec. The family has also donated many other photos and heirlooms to the museum including the engraved gold watch that was found on his body.
We interviewed Valerie Anewalt and Orian Greene, two of Charles and Clara Hays granddaughters, in the Hays rail car at Exporail. As children they were instructed by their mother never to ask their Grandmother or Aunt Orian about their Titanic experiences. To this day they regret that they never asked their aunt because she was a marvelous storyteller and there are so many unanswered questions.
Exporail: Canadian Railway Museum
More information about Prince Rupert history read: Prince Rupert: An Illustrated History Prince Rupert City & Regional Archives © 2010
Do you have a connection to the Titanic? Add your own story to our Google Map.