Book Review: Surveying the 120th Meridian and the Great Divide: The Alberta-BC Boundary Survey, 1918-1924

Book Review: Surveying the 120th Meridian and the Great Divide: The Alberta-BC Boundary Survey, 1918-1924

Book Review: Surveying the 120th Meridian and the Great Divide: The Alberta-BC Boundary Survey, 1918-1924

Author: Jay Sherwood
Published by Caitlin Press, Halfmoon Bay, BC, 2019

Surveying the Great Divide: The Alberta/BC Boundary Survey, 1913-1917’ by Jay Sherwood (reviewed in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of Cloudburst), details the first five years of the survey of Canada’s longest interprovincial boundary. This second volume covers the period 1918 to 1924 and relates the completion of the Great Divide Survey and much of the 120th Meridian Survey. In it, the founding president of the Alpine Club of Canada (ACC), Arthur Oliver Wheeler continues to lead the BC crew responsible for surveying along the mountains of the Great Divide using a combination of triangulation and phototopographic surveying. R.W. Cautley continues to lead the Alberta crew responsible for surveying the economically important mountain passes through the Rockies. The Alberta and BC teams worked closely during the 1913-1917 phase as their surveys often intersect. By 1917 they have completed the survey from the U.S. border north to Howse Pass and have jumped ahead to survey the Yellowhead Pass.

In this second phase, the BC and Alberta crews continue to work together to survey six more mountain passes, namely: Fortress, Athabasca, Whirlpool, Tonquin, Miette and Robson. Otherwise, their work diverges as Wheeler continues the Great Divide Survey and Cautley focusses on the 120th Meridian. Field seasons are short, typically three months between July and September, and both men’s work takes on new dimensions:

Cautley is now surveying a geographically fixed straight line through an entirely different landscape. To facilitate this work, the Dominion Observatory first establishes an accurate longitude near the BC community of Pouce Coupe using the telegraph line to give a precise time signal. From there, Cautley accurately measures some 8.3 kilometres east to pinpoint the 120th Meridian, and then south towards the intersection with the Great Divide and north through the agricultural land of the Peace. His work is complicated by the need to cut long sightlines through forest, and by the relative lack of gravel in the lowlands with which to construct monuments.

Wheeler has fewer surveyed mountain passes to tie into north of the Jasper area, and so Canada’s Surveyor General, Édouard-Gaston Deville arranges for H. F. Lambart of the Dominion Geodetic Survey to assist him for the last three years of the survey by establishing a triangulation network and series of survey stations between the Yellowhead Pass and the 120th Meridian to which Wheeler can connect. Wheeler’s task is to locate the Continental Divide, and thus the general location of the interprovincial boundary, and then to survey it. To accomplish this, he uses both triangulation and photography, a side benefit of which is a large number of precisely located and dated historic photographs. These are now being used to track vegetation and glacial change over 100 years by UVIC’s Mountain Legacy Project. The survey work is arduous and often dangerous, carrying a 45 pound (20 kg) instrument kit across glaciers and to the top of many mountains, sometimes in the midst of extreme electrical hazard.

The book opens by re-introducing the boundary survey’s main protagonists: Deville, representing the Dominion Land Survey, Cautley representing Alberta, Wheeler representing British Columbia, and A. J. Campbell, BC assistant in charge while Wheeler is away attending ACC summer camps. Next is a review of the respective surveying methods, followed by chapters detailing each of the survey seasons from 1918 to 1924. The book ends with chapters on the 1950s completion of the 120th Meridian Survey and geographical naming issues.

The 1918 season is especially hard for both Wheeler and Cautley as money and experienced men are in short supply in the last year of the war. As well, the weather is unusually wet, limiting surveying and making stream and river crossings difficult. Spanish flu shuts down Cautley’s season early, and Wheeler has to deal with increasingly hard-to-access terrain as he works north from Howse Pass along a “very erratic” watershed. In the first month of Wheeler’s season, he slips on an ice slope and slides a considerable distance to fall into a crevasse. His crew has a narrow escape from falling ice, braves electrical storms at high survey stations, and Wheeler has a close encounter with a grizzly bear that “ran like blazes.” Then, while Wheeler is away at the ACC camp in Paradise Valley, one of the crew who is inexperienced in mountain climbing loses a precious book of field notes into a glacial stream, requiring many of the earlier survey stations to be reoccupied.

The 1919 season is better staffed with Conrad Kain and A. S. Thomson rejoining Wheeler’s crew, but it also has challenges with the death of a packhorse, a concussion suffered by Thomson, and a serious knee injury experienced by Campbell. Both the 1918 and 1919 surveys are affected by wildfire smoke. Thomson has an unusual experience while surveying on the edge of a steep wall near Mount Columbia. A Golden eagle tries to knock him off the cliff during a windstorm, a hunting technique that has been observed being employed successfully against wildlife. Despite these setbacks, many now familiar features of the Rockies are climbed and surveyed around the Columbia Icefields. On Fortress Lake, they build a raft in order to transport gear, a vessel they grandly name The Fortress Queen. I was interested to read of their stay at Camp Parker above Nigel Creek, as it was almost exactly 100 years later that I was there for the first time last July.

Wheeler continues as boundary commissioner for British Columbia for the remaining years of the survey, but from 1920 onwards he starts to devolve responsibility for much of the actual surveying to Campbell. Wheeler has reached the age of 60 and is finding mountain climbing harder; however, he continues to contribute a fair amount of field work each year. As well, he turns his attention to developing a commercial walking tour between Banff and Mount Assiniboine. To that end, he leases land from the BC government for a seasonal camp at Mount Assiniboine and petitions for the establishment of a provincial park to protect the area (achieved in 1922). One significant addition to the crew that year is Wheeler’s son, Oliver, who is seeking surveying and climbing experience in the Rockies to bolster his forthcoming survey work for the British government in India and for a subsequent bid for Everest.

The Boundary Survey progresses slowly northwards through Jasper National Park towards the 120th Meridian. At Lambart’s instigation, 1921 sees the start of the first aerial flights over the Northern Rockies and both he and Wheeler are quick to see the benefits. Although it would be a while before aircraft would be regularly employed for aerial photogrammetry, their reconnaissance flights over the 1922 survey areas save them considerable time that would otherwise have been lost on the ground. Later that season, while surveying down the Smoky River to Bess Pass, Wheeler is able to tie into his ACC-sponsored 1911survey around Mount Robson that was instrumental in the establishment of Mount Robson Provincial Park in 1913. I enjoyed their accounts of the country north of Robson to Bess and Jackpine Passes and on to Mounts Sir Alexander and Ida and the Narroway River, as I have researched and backpacked through many of those areas.

1924 is the 12th and final year of the survey, except for the northernmost section of the 120th Meridian that would not be needed until 1950 for oil and gas development. New technology in the form of radio telegraphy now makes it possible to determine the precise longitude at any location using telegraphic time signals.

Official approval is required from the BC, Alberta and Federal governments to conclude the survey, and as part of that process a ceremony is held at Robson Pass. This was coincident with the 1924 ACC summer camp that saw the first female ascents of Mount Robson by BC’s Phyllis Munday and American, Annette Buck. There is a fine photograph in the book of Wheeler and Cautley standing next to their commemorative monument at Robson Pass, near where the ACC fittingly proposes to build a new mountain hut a century later.

The book ends with a plea to continue the Mountain Legacy Project, as much of the area north of the Kicking Horse Pass has yet to be re-photographed. This could be hugely beneficial today with the rapid glacial and watershed changes that are taking place, as well as providing an invaluable research legacy for the next century.

Both books in the series are well-researched and worthwhile reads, and are essential elements of anyone’s Canadian mountain library. Lavishly illustrated with historic photographs and maps, each is a large-format, soft-covered book in the tradition of Sherwood’s earlier photo-journal works about 20th Century BC surveyors. They are great value at under $30 each and provide a unique look at the surveying of Canada’s Rockies and the young Alpine Club.


Surveying the 120th Meridian and the Great Divide: The Alberta-BC Boundary Survey, 1918-1924’ by Jay Sherwood; Caitlin Press, Halfmoon Bay, BC, 2019; ISBN 978-1-773860-09-1; softcover, 192 pages, illustrations, maps, portraits, 26 cm; $29.95.


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