Book Review: Surveying the Great Divide

In January 1913, land surveyor and founding president of the Alpine Club of Canada (ACC), Arthur Oliver Wheeler, penned an urgent letter to mountain guide, Conrad Kain, who was away exploring the Southern Alps in New Zealand. Wheeler urged Kain to return to Canada in May, offering him work guiding ACC camps at Lake O’Hara and Robson Pass—where Kain would successfully lead the first ascent of Mount Robson—and assisting Wheeler with the boundary survey of the Great Divide.

In 1912, economic development was making it imperative to map British Columbia’s border with Alberta and accordingly an agreement was struck between the two provinces and Canada to survey one of the country’s longest interprovincial boundaries. The work would be done in two stages: the Great Divide along the Rocky Mountains from the U.S. border to its intersection with the 120th meridian, and then north along that meridian to the border with the Northwest Territories (NWT). Key elements of the first part of the survey along the Divide were accomplished over five years from 1913 to 1917, one of the few domestic inter-governmental projects to receive continued funding during the First World War.

A.O. Wheeler joined the topographical surveys branch under Canada’s new Surveyor General, Édouard-Gaston Deville in 1885, where he trained in photo-topographical surveying techniques that Deville was starting to use to map the Canadian Rockies. In 1901, Deville assigned Wheeler to survey in the Selkirk Range in British Columbia, nurturing Wheeler’s growing interest in mountaineering that lead to his co-founding the ACC with Winnipeg journalist Elizabeth Parker in 1906.

In 1910 Wheeler was told by Deville that he could no longer attend ACC summer camps because they were interfering with his phototopographical field work, prompting Wheeler to quit and enter private practice. Within two years, however, he was hired as BC’s commissioner in charge of topographic and phototopographical surveying for the boundary survey, being the first choice of both Deville and BC’s Surveyor General, G. H. Dawson. Part of Wheeler’s agreement in undertaking this work was that another surveyor, A. J. Campbell would be hired as his assistant to be in charge while Wheeler was away attending ACC camps. Alberta’s role was to survey and mark the economically important mountain passes, led by Richard William Cautley.

Deville, a former French naval surveyor, was one of the world’s leading experts on phototopographical surveying, and is today recognized as the ‘father of photogrammetry in Canada.’ Photography was to be a key part of the new boundary survey, a bi-product of which was a series of panoramic pictures from precisely-known survey positions. This priceless photographic archive is now the basis of the University of Victoria’s Mountain Legacy Project (MLP).

Jay Sherwood has previously written several excellent books on early 20th Century surveying in British Columbia. Notable among these are the photo journals of legendary surveyor, Frank Swannell. Surveying the Great Divide follows this tradition with a large-format, lavishly illustrated soft-cover book about the first detailed mapping of the Canadian Rockies, including participants’ journal excerpts along with the author’s narrative. Among historic photographs showing the surveyors at work and spectacular mountain scenery, there is a selection of comparative side-by-side images taken by Wheeler and the MLP, 100 years apart. In one instance, at the intersection of the BC, Alberta and US borders, there is a series of four photographs spanning more than 150 years, beginning with one taken by the British Royal Engineers during the surveying of the 49th parallel west of the Rockies (page 82-83) at the birth of Canada as a nation.

Conrad Kain was employed by the boundary survey in the 1913-14 seasons to teach Wheeler’s other assistants how to climb mountains, and to help with guiding, hunting, cooking and other field tasks. Kain’s success in the first endeavour is evident in two 1917 photographs of one man standing on another’s shoulders on the vertical rock of Mount Fitzwilliam in the Yellowhead Pass.

As with Sherwood’s other photo-journal histories, the reader is left in awe of the hardships and dangers inherent in the primitive travel, and the meticulous work of these pioneering survey crews. The work was tough and dangerous, sometimes requiring two or three climbs to complete the work at a single survey station. They would spend three or four hours, sometimes amidst storms and severe electrical activity, making measurements, taking photographs, and building a cairn or monument so that the survey station would be visible from, and be able to tie to other sites. Many of these cairns and monuments survive today, although some are obscured by advancing vegetation and treelines.

1917 appears to have been a productive wrap-up year for the Cautley-Wheeler team, entailing a horse-packing trip along the route of the future Icefields Parkway, surveying mainly in the Howse and Yellowhead Pass areas, with many fine adventures and photographs taken along the way. In his government report, Wheeler speculates with foresight on the possibility of a tourist road connecting Lake Louise and Jasper.

The book ends with a chapter on the geographic naming of features along the Great Divide, which was largely the purview of Wheeler. Sherwood notes that this is …generally considered to be a negative aspect of the project in that most of the names do not reflect the natural and human history of the Canadian Rockies, and he goes on to quote naturalist/author R. M. Patterson: The Rockies must sadly be the worst-named range in the world. In Wheeler’s defense, he had to come up with a lot of names in short order and was likely following the mores of the time. He was also inevitably influenced in his choice of names by the Great War that coincided with the survey.

From 1918 to 1924 Wheeler continued with his survey of the Great Divide, while Cautley worked on the 120th meridian through the Peace River country which was undergoing considerable agricultural settlement on both sides of the border.

Surveying the Great Divide puts a spotlight on the mapping of Canada’s Rocky Mountains, adding a unique insight into the ACC’s founding president, A.O. Wheeler. Published in 2017, it was a timely tribute to Canada’s 150th birthday, and is a worthy and inexpensive addition to any mountain library.




Surveying the Great Divide: The Alberta/BC Boundary Survey, 1913-1917 by Jay Sherwood; Caitlin Press, Halfmoon Bay, BC, 2017; ISBN 978-1-987915-52-5; softcover, 176 pages, illustrations, maps, portraits, 26 cm; $29.95.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *