The weather of late is perfect for a walk through Sunnidale Park. If you should stroll by the H. John Murphy Water Reservoir and Pumping Station building, and wonder about the name behind the plaque, I have a special treat for you – the story of the man, in the words of his son.
The Public Utilities Commission (PUC) of Barrie was born in 1938 after changing its name from the Water, Lights and Gas Commission.
The town was booming and would continue to do so at an even more rapid pace after the Second World War. The men and women working behind the scenes at the PUC had a lot on their plates.
Let’s let David Murphy tell us about just one of the people who literally kept the lights on in Barrie.
My father, John Murphy, was born in 1918 near the northern Ontario hamlet of Golden Valley, into a family of poor farmers and lumbermen. His ancestors were Irish potato famine refugees.
John was one of the first in his family ever to attend high school. To do so, as a young teenager in the Depression, he had to leave home and board in North Bay. He went on to attend the University of Toronto, graduating with the degree of bachelor of applied science in electrical engineering in 1940. John was registered as a professional engineer after returning from the war in 1946.
John Murphy was intimately connected with the Barrie Public Utilities Commission from 1940 until the early 1980s. He came to the PUC as its first ever graduate engineer, and became superintendent and later general manager. Over the years, he was responsible for the creation of Barrie’s modern electricity and water systems.
He came to the Barrie PUC in 1940, but volunteered for war service in 1942. In Barrie he met his future wife, the former Helen Crew, a secretary at the Barrie PUC.
Assigned to the Royal Canadian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (RCEME) regiment, John Murphy served as an officer in the RCEME, 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade, in a front-line support role. His was the first engineer support unit to follow the fighting troops into France on D-Day.
John served in France, Belgium, Holland, and Germany from 1944 to 1946, often in risky combat situations that he tended to downplay in later years. He was primarily involved in servicing weapons and combat vehicles. He handpicked his “workshop” group from other units and as a result his unit built up a reputation that led to greater responsibility – perhaps a foreshadowing of his subsequent service with the PUC in Barrie.
It is not widely known that, though just a young officer in the Canadian Army, he was responsible for several innovations in weapons systems and combat vehicles used by the Allied armies. One example was a redesign of the wiring of the amphibious Sherman M4 medium tank – known as the “Murphy system” – created at the inter-service Training and Development Centre near Portsmouth, UK. He was the most junior Allied officer to work on this project.
Our family recalls many later instances where John used some highly creative solutions for technical problems. Our personal favourite is the malfunctioning pumping station engine that was replaced with an engine from one of John’s old family cars.
Upon demobilization in 1946 he returned to the PUC. He served the PUC for 40 years, 19 of them as general manager. During his years with the PUC, he oversaw and directed the expansion of the city’s water and electrical systems as Barrie grew rapidly from a town of a few thousand.
The efficiency of the PUC during his tenure – notably in terms of low rates and the infrequency of power outages – was a major factor in the city’s ability to attract industry.
John Murphy was highly regarded by his contemporaries in Barrie’s government and administration, and by the public utilities communities in Ontario. He was revered and respected by his co-workers at the PUC – not least because it was said that he could do any employee’s job both in the electricity and water divisions. In fact, he hired the best employees and let them get on with their jobs. Those who worked under him tended to stay with the PUC for many years.
Because of his reputation, John Murphy could have advanced in position to other larger utilities, but chose to remain loyal to Barrie. He served the PUC and the people of Barrie until forced to end his service due to cancer, without having been able to enjoy any retirement. His wife Helen died in 1996. He is survived by three sons, one of whom has recently returned to reside in Barrie in retirement.
Each week, the Barrie Historical Archive provides BarrieToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past. This unique column features photos and stories from years gone by and is sure to appeal to the historian in each of us.