He was born 1830, died October, 1918, was the second son of Mr. Thomas S. Cowan, a merchant of Fintona, County Tyrone, Ireland, who came to Toronto in 1839, and whither he brought his family in 1841. Within one month after the arrival of this remarkable family to Toronto, the father died of typhoid fever, leaving a widow, mother and five children, four sons, John, William, Robert, James, and a daughter Charlotte. A self educated and a self made man, Mr. W. F. Cowan’s career stands forth as a veritable inspiration to the life of every young Canadian who seeks by energy and skill to take advantage of the possibilities of the land of his adoption. With a salary of £10 per year, Halifax currency, he commenced life as a clerk in the store of Archibald Laurie & Co., corner King and Yonge Streets, Toronto, on the site now occupied by the the head office of the Dominion Bank. By steady and close application to the duties of successive employers, such as Yorkshire Smith,’ and Walter McFarlane of Market Square, he attracted the attention of Toronto’s merchant Prince, the Hon. John McDonald, by whose encouragement he with with his brother John, were induced to commence business on their own account, on the corner of Yonge and Richmond Streets, on the site now occupied by Child’s restaurant. In 1862, the firm of J. & W. F. Cowan opened branches at Prince Albert, and in the town of Oshawa. John Bailes & Sons now occupy the store of this original firm. In 1867 Mr. W. F. Cowan purchased a half interest in the Cedar Dale Works, and under the name of Whiting & Cowan, the scythes, forks, etc., of this firm gained an enviable reputation all over Canada. 1872 saw the establishment of the Ontario Malleable Iron Works ; the Steel Range Co. and the Fittings Ltd., were more recent industries. In 1873 the Ontario Loan and Savings Co. was organized, and in 1874 the Western Bank obtained its charter and opened its doors to the public of Oshawa for the first time. In 1908 it became merged with the Standard Bank of Canada, but during its career, under the direct management of the late T. H. McMillan, with Messrs. John and W. F. Cowan as presiding officials, it accomplished more for evolution of industrial Oshawa than any other single factor in the history of the town. The many industrial and financial enterprises of Oshawa with which Mr. Cowan was associated, by no means complete the circle of his interests. For forty-five years he was President of the Standard Bank of Canada, with head office in the city of Toronto. His unusual capacity for business may be seen in the growth of this institution from its establishment in 1873, with deposits of $396,129 to one of the mammoth banks of our country, with deposits of $58,000,000 in 1918. His personal and active interest in the affairs of the Standard Bank of Canada may be gathered from the fact that he scarcely ever absented himself from the weekly meetings of the Board of Directors and only once, and then from illness, in over forty years, did he fail to preside over the annual meeting of the stock-holders of that institution. Such, in brief, is a partial summary of the gigantic business affairs which were crowded into the life of the late W. F. Cowan. While we have many reasons to remember him apart from the practical side of his busy life, nevertheless, it is as a great business man that his memory will be handed down to posterity of Oshawa. In an age when every human instinct is endeavoring to scent out the path to success, naturally, the fixed principles of such a life as was laid by one of our most efficient captains, becomes a matter of common concern. From those who were most intimately acquainted with the life and labours of Mr. Cowan for a long period of time, we are inclined to say that a commanding knowledge of facts accumulated along the surest and most scientific lines was his most potent weapon of success. He had a masterful mind and a keen intellect, which meant success in any line of human endeavour. His outlook upon the business world was always pictured from a background of sky-blue principles of honor, dignity and greatness. His loyalty to the institutions with which he was associated always took a place far in advance of any personal gain to himself. In a final summary of his activities he was heard to say, that it was to him greater satisfaction to know that during a long life of business not a man associated with him in any of his enterprises was ever known to lose a dollar, than it was for him to sum up his own particular gains. Nature endowed this remarkable man with an uncommon mind and encased it in a physical frame of iron texture ; he lived eighty-eight years, but he never grew old. Thus equipped by nature, he was apparently designed by Providence to fill a large nitch in the affairs of men, and this he did in ample form. As a citizen he occupied a foremost position in the Councils of our town. From 1889 to 1894 he was Mayor of Oshawa, and his administration will be best remembered from the financial change produced by his sagacity and economic methods. His aim was to produce a town absolutely out of debt, and while he did not have time to reach his ideal, it is a remarkable fact that when he left the chair Oshawa had the smallest municipal debt of any town in Canada, something less than $35,000. It may be truly said of him that he exerted an influence over municipal affairs long after he left the chair, which was almost as potent as when he held the office of Chief Magistrate. In every important project which was up for consideration the public was always alert to know the opinion of Mr. Cowan. Many times his view ran counter to the wishes of the multitude, but in nearly every case time only served to demonstrate the correctness of his opinion in the face of strenuous opposition.
As a man of wealth he conducted himself towards every charitable institution in such a way as to merit the name of “public benefactor.” The needs of the poor, in his district, were looked after in a becoming manner, but in a most unostentatious way. Much as one might care to dwell upon the greater accomplishments of so fine a life, yet we are prone to see the nobler elements of the man in the simplicity of his conceptions, and so far as Oshawa is concerned perhaps the best tribute we can pay to the memory of Mr. Cowan as also to that of his brother John is that they were good to the poor. In politics he was a life long Conservative, a stalwart advocate of the principles of protection, a personal friend of Sir John A. McDonald, Hon. T. N. Gibbs, Sir J. P. Whitney, Sir Chas. Tupper and other cabinet ministers of the Dominion, of the period of 1878 and after. Though often prevailed upon by them and urged by local deputations to enter the public life of Canada, he steadfastly opposed all overtures of any nature which might -divert his attention from what he considered to be more important work.