Three men who unlocked the west

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Without surveying... it would have been chaos...

From Rocks and Minerals in Canada, March/ April 1980

By Don. W. Thomson

The early western Canadian land surveys over the five decades, 1870 to 1920, were important in the orderly occupation of more than 200 million acres across Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and parts of British Columbia. The word “orderly” is important. The Canadian West could have been settled without any surveying –but the result would have been chaos on a large scale.

The carful, systematic measurements of Dominion land surveyors, including provision of town sites, prepared the prairies for settlement. Detailed reports from the field gave would-be settlers information on climate, soil types, drainage, mineral resources and timbre cover. These surveys also stimulated the mapping of that large and potentially productive region.

The rectangular pattern of town sites, sections and quarter-sections covered the largest block of land ever surveyed, so far as is known, under a single, integrated system. (A larger total acreage was surveyed in the U.S., but under several different systems.) So reliable were these basic land surveys that disputes and litigation over property boundaries in the vast part of Canada have remained at a minimum. The system was and is one readily understood by the average person, and it provided settlers with clear, uncontroversial titles to their properties.

During the preparatory period following Confederation three men of outstanding abilities were, in turn, Surveyor General of Canada. They were leaders and administrators who helped to shape the direction and progress of the nation: Lt. –Colonel John Stoughton Dennis, Lindsay A. Russell and Edouard Gaston Daniel Deville.

In anticipation of the annexation of Rupert’s Land by Canada, Prime Minister Macdonald and his government in 1869 initiated a road and water communication link between the head of the Great Lakes and the Red River. By the early summer of 1871 the road portion of what came to be known as the Dawson Route was opened officially. Transport across the entire distance of the Route was made possible by small vessels operating on intervening watercourses.

photo portrait of man (Dennis)

The first surveyors to disturb Louis Riel and his compatriots were those designed to expedite completion of the Dawson Route, the means by which the flow of new settlers and of troops into the West could be kept within the boundaries of Canada rather than passing through the United States. Dennis, who in 1869 had supervised the performance of the first land surveys in what is now Manitoba, had tried in vain to warn Ottawa of the increasingly sensitive nature of his task. Westerners were distrustful of this advance guard of a new order, of the establishment of settlements threatening the freedom of their nomad existence. Ordered to proceed with his work, Dennis tried to keep his surveyors’ actions as unobtrusive as possible. Nevertheless active resistance from Riel and his followers soon developed. Prime Minister Macdonald at the time was impelled to describe Dennis as “a very decent fellow and a good surveyor but... exceedingly fussy.” This judgement did not prevent the Ottawa government from adopting some highly important recommendations made by Dennis as a result of his study of the pattern of surveys best suited to prairie conditions. He inaugurated the Canadian version of the rectangular system.

photo portrait of a man (Lindsay Russell)

One of the assistants in charge of construction of the Dawson Route was A. J. Russell, father of Lindsay A. Russell, a young land surveyor destined to become the second Surveyor General of Canada. In July 1871 Lindsay Russell was named Assistant to Surveyor General Dennis. From then until Colonel Dennis left office, Lindsay Russell was in full charge of survey work in the West. In 1874 a Special Survey was conducted under Russell’s supervision in order to check the accuracy of the positioning of meridians and base lines across the prairies. This was a mammoth project and lasted for six seasons. The competence of Lindsay Russell in directing the enterprise ensured his promotion to the post of Surveyor General of Canada in 1878. His term of office lasted six years. In contrast his successor, Edouard Deville, was to establish a remarkable record for long service, with nearly 40 years in the position.

portrait photo of man (Dr. Deville)

Born in France, Deville was educated there and became a captain in the French Navy. At one stage, his service took him to the South Pacific as hydrographic officer. Following his retirement from the Navy he came to Canada in 1878, entered the federal public service. He married Josephine, daughter of the Hon. G. Ouimet, then premier of Quebec, and in 1880 moved to Ottawa. As a Dominion land surveyor Deville worked with field parties on the prairies for several seasons. His success as party chief soon marked him for promotion and in 1885 he became Surveyor General of Canada.

Under Deville’s direction most of Canada’s prairie lands were measured out and mapped. His administrative tasks were attended by some unusual difficulties.

He later recalled, “One of the first things I did when I joined the public service was to urge the substitution of iron survey posts for wooden posts in the marking of section corners. On the prairies the posts at first were made mostly of poplar. These were of no use whatever as the numbers marked on them disappeared in a few years. Sir John A. Macdonald did not believe in any permanent surveying. He had a notion of his own and would not listen about iron posts at all... I pointed out the convenience of iron posts in comparison and Sir John finally said to go ahead and use them but the surveyors would have to pay for them! We got the iron posts anyway and I don’t think the surveyors paid for them!”

Next, the rugged mountainous terrain of Alberta and British Columbia was tackled. Surveying the Rockies called for much different work procedures from those applicable on the relatively level plains. To meet this new challenge Deville instituted the use of the ground camera placed in position on high peaks. In effect, this device was the forerunner of the airborne survey camera.

In 1889 Deville first attracted attention outside Canada with his book entitled “Photographic Surveying”. Copies of this volume are collector’s items now and valued highly for their historic significance. Dr. Deville first applied the principles of perspective to the gridding of high oblique aerial photographs. This invention made possible accurate surveys of the Earth’s surface by the use of airborne camera, a system further refined by R. B. McKay of Ottawa into the world-renowned Canadian Grid Method.

Practical improvements in photgrammetry made during the course of two world wars resulted in greater maturity of the process. Since the 1940s most mapping has been accomplished by aerial photography, especially in Canada’s North. In addition to his trail breaking work in this field Dr. Deville in1911, established in Ottawa the first Canadian laboratory for the calibration of cameras employed for surveying purposes. This task, in time, became an important function of the National Research Council of Canada.

photo of four men sitting on cockpit of plane with surveying camera mounted to it

Dr. Deville has become known in Canada and abroad as the father of photogrammetric surveying. In recognition of his career of brilliant and constructive achievements Mount Deville in the Canadian Rockies has been named for him and a Historic Site Monument to his memory is located at the entrance to Yoho National Park near Field, B.C. At the dedication of that monument the following appropriate lines were read:

So when a great man dies,

For years beyond out ken,

The light he left behind him sheds

Upon the paths of men.