John Wood Coburn was born in the village of Harvey, York County, New Brunswick on August 30, 1859 to Andrew Wood Cockburn (Coburn) and Elizabeth Messer who were farmers. His grandfather, John Cockburn (the name was changed to Coburn in the 1870’s) and grandmother, Elizabeth Lesley and their 9 children arrived in New Brunswick from Coldstream, Roxburgh-shire County, Scotland in 1837 aboard the brig, Cornelius of Sunderland and received Land Grant Lot #8w, 100 acres in Harvey Settlement. They were amongst the first settlers to that area. His maternal grandparents, the Messers, were also part of that initial migration in 1837. A descendant of that family went on to star in the popular long running “Don Messer Jubilee” weekly television show on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in the 1950’s and ‘60’s.
After a period of education in the public schools of New Brunswick, John Coburn took up railroading which was his principal line of work for many years.
John married Eleanor “Ellen” Christina Little, daughter of David Little and Margaret Ann Herbert in York County, New Brunswick on December 13, 1882 and they moved to Winnipeg in 1884 and then to Vancouver Island with their family in 1885. Sadly, Ellen passed away in Nanaimo on November 6, 1895 at the young age of thirty four years. They had two children; Lila Maude (later to marry Dr. Anson Frost) and Dora Pauline (future wife of William T. Ewing).
An early pioneer of the E & N Railway, John first started work with the contractors, Bell, Larkin & Paterson, on the work train during the construction phase and stayed with this company until the last spike was driven. He was baggage man on the train that carried Sir John A Macdonald to the last spike ceremony at Cliffside, about 25 miles north of Victoria on August 13, 1886. He quit the contractor on completion of this run and subsequently hired on with the E&N as a brakeman until promoted as their first conductor on April 3, 1887. Holding this position, he was on the first train to “test” the new swing bridge connecting downtown Victoria with Victoria West on March 8, 1888. This bridge was replaced by the well known Johnson Street “Bascule type” drawbridge in 1924. When Robert Dunsmuir died at the age of 64 on April 11, 1889, the active pallbearers were conductors John Coburn, Alex Black and Fred Weldon along with Captains Christianson, Benrod and Hickey of the Dunsmuir steamship family.
A deeply religious man, Coburn often complained in his diary of having to work on a Sunday. He was a faithful member of the Presbyterian Church in Victoria and attended as often as possible.
In 1894, while still employed by the E&N, Coburn bought out the interest of Ewan Morrison in the Shawnigan Lake Lumber Company. In 1896 he reported that the company did over $57,000 worth of business in 1895 with a $10,000 profit. The company had sawmills at Shawnigan Lake and lumber yards at both Wellington and Victoria. Other directors in the company were William Munsie, Theophilus Elford, Andrew Haslem and Lewis Mounts.
On February 8, 1899, John married Ellen Cowie, daughter of Alexander Cowie and Sarah Hastings in Victoria (Ellen was 31 years of age). Three children were born of this marriage; Lorna (later to become Mrs Noel Collison), Wallace Andrew and Gordon Hastings.
When the new rail-ferry service was established in Ladysmith Harbour in 1900, the first car to be shipped by the new service was one filled with lumber by John Coburn and Associates from their mill at Shawnigan Lake. The load was consigned to Woodwards for their new store in Vancouver.
John Coburn left the employ of the E&N in September, 1901 to start the Ladysmith Lumber Company. Still involved with the Shawnigan Lake operation and also President of the the Ladysmith Hardware Company, his business had expanded to such an extent that he was now employing 500 men. Coburn moved his family from Victoria to Ladysmith at this time into a new house on Third Avenue which was later to become the home of Dr Turner Verchere and family.
On incorporating the Ladysmith Lumber Company in 1901, initial operations consisted of a sawmill at Fiddick’s Junction (Mile 66.1 on the E&N) and a lumberyard in Ladysmith which marketed the Fiddick mill product supplying much of the lumber for the construction boom which was going on at that time. In 1903 the Fiddick mill burnt down but was rebuilt. At the same time, Coburn opened a shingle mill on the Ladysmith Waterfront. Delbert Hankin was the manager. A second sawmill was constructed in the Cassidy area also to process logs from timber rights acquired there (in the vicinity of what is now the Cassidy Airport).
For a few years in the early 1900’s there was an E&N railway station called Coburn located at Mile 63.5 near Cassidy complete with a post office. A spur line serviced this second mill from this point.
On leaving the E&N in 1901 and moving to Ladysmith, John Coburn became closely involved with business and civic affairs. He had the distinction of being the last mayor of Wellington and the first mayor by acclamation of the newly incorporated Town of Ladysmith. Elected as mayor with Aldermen Murdock, Matheson, Haworth, Nicholson, Kenny, Beveridge, Blair and Hooker, the new council held their first meeting in the lesser hall of the opera house on June 18, 1904. By this time the population of the town was about 4000 people. Although one of the principal movers in achieving incorporation, Coburn did not want his industrial facilities on the waterfront included in the town limits, neither did Dunsmuir or the smelter owners. This seriously reduced the new towns tax base.
Coburn held the position of mayor for two years, 1904-05. In 1908 he further expanded his business enterprises by forming the New Ladysmith Lumber Company in East Wellington as well as retaining the company’s holdings in Cassidy and Ladysmith. Logs at the new operation were hauled on the company’s own railway from Mount Benson to the mill at East Wellington where the logs were sawn. The lumber was then loaded on railway cars to be transported to Brechin Point rail siding. By 1911 this new company included the old Haslam sawmill on the Millstone River and the Red Fir Lumber Company, located on the waterfront just south of the Brechin mine (The former principle in the Red Fir company was John Arbuthnot, founder of the Pacific Coast Coal Mine operations at South Wellington). John Coburn was President and Managing Director of the combined mills and also held controlling interest in five lumberyards in Saskatchewan.
With the expansion of his operations into Nanaimo and East Wellington, John Coburn became very active in Nanaimo civic affairs. He was elected as an Alderman of that city in 1916. He was also first president of the Nanaimo Board of Trade and in 1924 became president of the Associated Boards of Trade of Vancouver Island.
Coburn was a golfer and served as the first President of the Nanaimo Golf Links Limited from 1920 to 1925. The club developed a nine hole course on land leased from the Western Fuel Company in the vicinity of Jinglepot and Bowen Roads.
In 1926, Coburn sold the New Ladysmith Lumber Company to Texan, Shelby Saunders, a United States war hero, who changed the name of the company to the Nanaimo Lumber Company. The mill was relocated at Quarterway.
Also in this year, Coburn along with other Nanaimo businessmen participated in formulating a plan to establish a first class hotel on the Nanaimo waterfront. After the Board of Trade endorsed the scheme but decided to take no action, the group formed Nanaimo Community Hotel Ltd. and brought forth a plan of action including estimates of the cost for the hotel to be located on a site next to the Dominion Post Office overlooking the harbor. The new Hotel Malaspina, a seven story modern facility with 86 rooms, a banquet hall with a dance floor officially opened on July 30, 1927.
When the need arose to replace the original Franklyn Street hospital in Nanaimo, built in 1883, a new board of directors was established in 1924 which included John Coburn who served as chairman of the finance committee. The new 62 bed hospital on Machleary Street was opened by Lieutenant Governor Randolf Bruce on October 10, 1928.
On retirement in 1930, Coburn moved to Vancouver and resided at 6138 Churchill Street. He was a past president of the Vancouver Pioneers Association. He passed away on May 13, 1939 in hospital at age 79 and was interred in the family plot at Ocean View Burial Park.