Benjamin Robert Stevenson was born in St. Andrews 10 April 1835, the son of Robert Stevenson and Christina Green Milliken. His paternal grandfather, also Robert Stevenson, had emigrated from Lohwinnoch, Renfrewshire, Scotland and was joined later by Benjamin's grandmother, Janet Crawford with their five sons and one daughter. Two more sons were born in St. Andrews. The Stevensons were a closely knit family and during his lifetime Benjamin kept in close touch with his uncles and aunt.
Benjamin's mother, Christina, was the daughter of Benjamin Milliken who was connected with a prominent Loyalist family of St. George. His branch of the Milliken family settled in Eastport and Christina met Robert Stevenson when her father came to St. Andrews to operate a tannery. Robert had been a shoemaker until the death of Christina's father provided him with the opportunity of taking over the tannery. Thus he became more prosperous than his brothers and was able to give his two sons a good eduction.
Robert Stevenson became a prominent and much respected man in St. Andrews. He was a Charlotte County magistrate and several times Chairman of the Board of Sessions, a school trustee and a member of the Municipal Council. He was President of the Charlotte County Agricultural Society for twenty-seven years. He was also an elder of Greenock Presbyterian Church.
Benjamin, the elder son, was a good student at the Charlotte County Grammar School and attended King's College in Fredericton. He graduated in 1854, a few years before it became the University of New Brunswick. His brother, John Fletcher Stevenson studied medicine, possibly in Boston, and became a physician in St. Andrews. There were no other children.
On his return from Fredericton, Benjamin Stevenson studied law with James w. Chandler, a barrister in St. Andrews. He qualified as an attorney in 1858 and was called to the bar of New Brunswick in 1859. He immediately set up a law office in St. Andrews and became involved in many local activities. In association with another lawyer, G. D. Street, who was his partner at one stage in his career, he founded the St. Andrews Mechanics Institute which appears not to have been very successful. He chose not to join his father's church and became a member of the Church of England although their relatives were Methodists. Many of young Stevenson's close friends were Masons and he became a devoted member of St. Mark's Lodge and remained so throughout his life. He had friends in all walks of life and it was said that he had a reputation for being kind and generous, although he sometimes appeared cold and unfriendly. He also joined the Militia and rose rapidly to the rank of lieutenant. At the time of the Fenian raids he was promoted captain and was on active service for three months commanding a unit known as the "Gordon Rifles". He eventually became a major.
Stevenson found it necessary to deal in insurance to supplement his income. However, he advanced in his profession and, in 1863, he was appointed Registrar of Probate for Charlotte County. He also suffered misfortune. His mother died in the same year and his brother two years later. Young Dr. Stevenson had gone to the United States to take part in the Civil War as medical officer with a black battalion. He was discharged in Florida in the fall of 1865 and died of dysentery on the way home. His brother's estate was one of many wound up by Stevenson in the course of his practice and he also looked after property left behind by people who had left St. Andrews owing to the depressed economy.
Benjamin Stevenson made his first attempt to enter political life in the provincial election of 1865, which was looked on as a test of the willingness of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia to enter a union with the two Canadas. He was a strong supporter of Confederation and, having announced his candidature, he was surprised at the strength of the opposition. His father and some of his friends urged him to withdraw, but he declined.
Stevenson's membership in All Saints Church and his service in the militia had brought him in contact with two young Englishmen, James and John Bolton, whose father, John Bolton, had come from Alnwick, Northumberland, and settled near St. Andrews as a gentleman farmer. They and their sister Katherine became his close friends and their advice was an important factor in his decision to contest the election. His poor showing at the polls was mitigated by the fact that he shared his defeat with veteran politicians.
Pressure from Britain resulted in the dissolution of the legislature and another election in May 1866. It took place when things were beginning to settle down after the Fenian invasion which had disrupted life on the St. Croix and among the islands. There was much indignation that the United States had permitted its territory to be used as a base for attack on its friendly neighbours in New Brunswick and this greatly enhanced the perceived value of the British connection. Nevertheless the supporters of Confederation in Charlotte County were taking no chances. A "Ticket" was formed to ensure that there were only four pro Confederation candidates, two Liberals and two Conservatives, two of them from the north and two from the south of the County. Stevenson, a Conservative, was not one of them, withholding in favour of Francis Hibbard of St. George.
The following June, two of the newly elected members, James G. Stevens of St. Stephen and James W. Chandler of St. Andrews, were made County Court Judges and a bye-election was called for October. This must have encouraged Stevenson to believe that his political future was assured and on 1 August 1867, he and Kate Bolton were married. The election followed soon after and Stevenson was elected, taking his seat in the Legislature the following February. In the same year, his brother-in-law, John Bolton, who had had no political experience, took advantage of the lack of interest in federal politics, became a candidate and was elected to the first House of Commons. The following year he sent back accounts of his experiences in Ottawa and Stevenson himself went to see the new capital, travelling by way of the United States to visit his younger uncles who had gone to live in Wisconsin. Bolton's political career was brief as he died in July 1872.
In opening the session of 1870, the Lieutenant-Governor spoke of the need for settlers as new sections of the Province were opened up by railway construction. At the close, an Act was passed to incorporate the New Brunswick Railroad Company with the object of extending the line originally begun by the St. Andrews and Quebec Railway and extended by the New Brunswick and Canada Railway. This section was to run from Woodstock to Edmundston in the northwestern part of the Province.
At that time strongly held political opinions cut across party lines and some members were not committed to either party, which made governments very unstable. An attempt by the Conservatives to seize power, made during Stevenson's first session, was unsuccessful. He was re-elected in June 1870 and when the House met in February 1871, George E. King, a Liberal, was called upon to form a government. King was the author and chief proponent of a bill to reform the New Brunswick school system and knowing that Stevenson, although a Conservative, was in favour of a system that would make education freely available to all, he offered him the post of attorney-general, which he accepted. Unknown to Stevenson, some of his Conservative colleagues, who were against the School Bill, had met and decided how the offices would be allocated if King failed to form a government. According to this plan, Mr. Gough was to be premier and Hibbard attorney-general but Stevenson was not included. King did fail but the Lieutenant-Governor called on E. L. Hatheway, a supporter of the School Bill, who offered Stevenson the post of surveyor-general which he accepted. Hibbard was furious and there was a great to-do in St. Andrews. Stevenson was called home to explain himself, which he did most convincingly. The Common Schools Act, which became law in 1872, set up a system of public, non-sectarian schools and was one of the most important and far-reaching actions of the New Brunswick Legislature.
One of Stevenson's first acts as a minister was in connection with the attempt to develop St. Andrews as a summer resort. The St. Andrews Hotel Act incorporated a company to build a large new hotel, and a second act empowered the Justices of Charlotte County to borrow $5,000 to get it started. Unfortunately the company ran out of money and the hotel was not completed.
Of the greatest importance was the Free Grants Act which Stevenson piloted through the Legislature in 1871. This provided free grants of land to new settlers under clearly defined conditions. Implementation of this act occupied a large part of Stevenson's time during his term as surveyor-general which ended in 1878. He had to deal with agents overseas, shipping companies and hundreds of immigrants, many of them in poor circumstances, and one suspects that he occasionally dipped into his own pocket to assist the sick, starving and homeless. He had a warm heart and found it difficult to resist appeals for help. The settlements formed at that time include Kintore, Kincardine and New Denmark. His records provide a vivid description of the difficulties experienced by immigrants making homes on previously uninhabited land.
The great cost involved in this project led to charges of extravagance and an investigation was held in 1877. It showed that the Surveyor-General's department had been conducted in an honest and able manner and had in fact provided revenue for the government. Mr. Stevenson was said to have administered its affairs with credit to himself and benefit to the province. His work involved a great deal of correspondence and frequent visits to the new settlements.
Naturally Stevenson was concerned with the railroads leading to the new settlements. He became a shareholder and a director of the New Brunswick and Canada Railroad and assisted in getting railroad legislation through the House. In 1886, the managers of the Company decided that there was insufficient traffic to warrant a daily train service to St. Andrews and a furore erupted. This was quelled when Stevenson persuaded the Company to complete the hotel, still standing unfinished, and to provide a daily train service during the summer months. He took personal charge of the work, engaging and paying the contractors, and ordering the furnishings himself. When it finally opened in 1881 it was the first hotel in the Province to operate in the summer only.
During the periods between sessions of the Legislature, Stevenson was active in his business and in many local projects, especially in St. Andrews. He took shares in vessels, and built Stevenson Hall, now the Masonic Hall which was rented for meetings and entertainments and included offices for himself and others. This building remained in the possession of the family until 1929 when it was sold to St. Mark's Lodge. Stevenson had a law office in St. George as well as in St. Andrews and had many friends there. It was probably through Thomas Barry that he became interested in the Bay of Fundy Red Granite Company, established in 1873 and largely financed by some men in New York. He and other friends took stock in the enterprise and he later became President of the Company. He is said to have lost very heavily when it failed.
When Stevenson was re-elected in 1878, he was disappointed that he was given no department, especially as the new premier, John James Fraser, was a close friend. Fraser had difficulty in putting together a government and may have found it easier to offend a friend than an enemy. When the House met in 1879, Stevenson was elected Speaker and continued in this office until 1882.
Stevenson's interest in railways continued until the end of his life. As legal counsel for the New Brunswick and Canada Railroad Company, he handled important litigation and, later, with Sir Leonard Tilley, he organized the building of another railway, the Grand Southern. This line proved to be unprofitable and it is believed that he suffered heavy financial losses.
When the House was dissolved in 1882, it was rumoured that Stevenson was leaving provincial politics and, on 8 June, he was chosen unanimously as the Conservative Candidate for Charlotte in the forthcoming election for the House of Commons. His "forceful" acceptance speech was reported in the newspaper but there was little publicity thereafter. Seemingly, there was much greater interest in the provincial campaign that was going on at the same time. Stevenson had been very optimistic as it was believed that the federal Liberals had very little chance. It was ironic, therefore, that he was defeated by A. H. Gillmor who, as an opponent of Confederation, had defeated him in 1866.
Stevenson then retired from politics and devoted himself to his law practice and to local and railway affairs. He became Judge of Probate, a school trustee and President of the Charlotte County Agricultural Association. He was a warden of All Saints Church, managed the church funds, and was its representative at meetings of the Church Diocesan Society. He also served as Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of New Brunswick. He continued to take an active interest in St. Andrews as a summer resort and the operation of the Argyll Hotel. He and Sir Leonard Tilley were the local representatives in 1888 when the St. Andrews Land Company was formed in association with Robert S. Gardiner and other men from Boston. He was also involved with the Chamcook Water Company. By this time he had become a man of note in the County and, when the St. Croix Cotton Mill was formed in Milltown in 1889, he was invited to lay the corner stone.
Throughout his career, Benjamin Stevenson had been plagued by ill health and he died suddenly in St. Andrews on 16 January 1890 at the age of fifty-four.