T. G. MacKenzie

Getting kidnapped by Mexican rebels and being held hostage for three months might convince a person to return to the safety and calm of Nova Scotia, but not T. G. MacKenzie.

Thomas George MacKenzie was born in 1882 in River John, Pictou County. He was educated at Dalhousie University and became a mining engineer.

MacKenzie worked at the Nova Scotia Coal and Steel Company’s Wabana iron mine on Bell Island, Newfoundland, from 1906 to 1910 (https://notyourgrandfathersmining.ca/trenton-steel).

The Wabana mine supplied iron for the steel mills in Sydney and Sydney Mines and was opened and operated by Nova Scotian Robert E. Chambers (https://notyourgrandfathersmining.ca/robert-e-chambers).

Steel is mainly iron and carbon, and the carbon is derived from metallurgical coal, which contains more carbon, less ash and less moisture than thermal coal. Nova Scotia’s long history of steelmaking was based on the province’s extensive metallurgical coal deposits and iron from Nova Scotia and, later, Newfoundland.

After leaving the Wabana mine, MacKenzie served as general manager of North Atlantic Collieries Ltd. in Cape Breton in 1910-11.

His career then took him to Mexico where, from 1912 to 1929, he worked as an executive for various mining and power companies.

His time there overlapped the Mexican Revolution, which took place from 1910 to 1917 and ultimately led to the end of a 30-year dictatorship and the establishment of a constitutional republic.

Pancho Villa was one of the rebel army generals during the revolution. He became a bandit as a teenager after killing a man who was harassing one of his sisters. He fled into the mountains and lived there for years, working as a miner some of the time. In 1910 he joined Francisco Madero’s uprising against Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz and became a military leader.

T. G. MacKenzie was friends with Pancho Villa, who sometimes visited the Boquilla hydroelectric plant, which MacKenzie managed.

Pancho was assassinated in 1923, three years after ending his revolt against the government. This triggered a new rebellion with Pancho’s brother, Hipolito Villa, leading the rebel army.

To survive, the rebels often resorted to robbery and kidnapping people to hold them for ransom.

In 1924, news of a train heist by the rebels reached T. G. MacKenzie in Jimenez, 15 miles away. Concerned about rebel activity in the area, MacKenzie took his family to a mining camp at Las Adargas for safety, but Hipolito and his men caught up with them there.

While the bandits raided the mine’s supplies, Hipolito and MacKenzie talked. The two got along well enough that MacKenzie asked for safe passage to get his family out of the area. Hipolito agreed and even drafted a letter instructing rebels to let MacKenzie pass unmolested. However, he then reneged – perhaps under pressure from another rebel leader who was present – and demanded that MacKenzie get $200,000 from his company to help support the revolution.

MacKenzie refused and was taken hostage. His wife and children were allowed to go back to their home in Parral, in the state of Chihuahua.

MacKenzie was taken to the mountains and held for almost three months. It was blistering hot during the day and very cold at night. He and his captors often could not light fires for fear of being caught by Mexican soldiers. Food was in short supply. The group was constantly on the move and MacKenzie had to ride on what he later called “a shabby mount” and an uncomfortable homemade saddle.

His wife worked to get him released and even confronted Hipolito at his base. The Canadian and American governments held diplomatic talks with the Mexican government to try to get MacKenzie back.

In the end, MacKenzie saved himself by sneaking away from the bandits at dusk and making a run for it. He walked for days without eating but finally made it home, where his wife was waiting.

Instead of leaving Mexico after that harrowing experience, MacKenzie stayed for another five years. He then went to India and served as managing director of several hydro electric companies and chair of the board of the Cement Marketing Company of India. He later also worked in Brazil for several power companies.

MacKenzie eventually moved back home to Nova Scotia in 1952. He wrote two books, one about his time in Mexico and another about the MacKenzie family in River John.

T. G. MacKenzie passed away in Halifax in 1966.

Pancho Villa (just right of centre) and some of his soldiers.

T. G. MacKenzie (far right) and some of his captors.