Sunday Pictorial Vintage Inspiration: Newfoundland and Labrador


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Photograph | Drying codfish, St. Johns, NF, about 1900 | MP-0000.4.14

Drying codfish, St. John’s, NF, about 1900. McCord Museum, Montreal, Qc.

Print | The Landing and Reception of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales at St. John's Newfoundland on the 24th. July 1860 | M14589

Walker, E., 1860. “The Landing and Reception of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales at St. John’s, Newfoundland on the 24th of July, 1860. McCord Museum, Montreal, Qc.

I think I must be in the mood for something a little bit dramatic, as today’s vintage inspiration involves plenty of rock and icebergs!

I’ve always wanted to visit the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador, but have never made it there. My grandmother was born there in 1912, when Newfoundland was still an English colony (it joined Canadian Confederation in 1949). When I was a little girl she returned there once or twice to paint. I remember one particular painting of a field of lupins that I wish I had in my possession. Who knows where it ended up?

I was looking for something else yesterday when I came upon some terrific photos of ships and icebergs around Labrador, the non-island part of Newfoundland. Here are a couple of maps for the uninitiated with regard to this eastern province of Canada (see top centre left in the first map for a small piece of Labrador):

Print (photomechanical) | Geological map, Newfoundland | M987.253.73

Geological map, Newfoundland, 1885. H Belden Co, publisher. McCord Museum, Montreal, Qc.

Print | A new chart of the coast of New England, Nova Scotia, New France or Canada, with the Islands of Newfoundland, Cape Breton St. John's etc.  |M3567

Thomas Jefferys, 18th century. “A new chart of the coast of New England, Nova Scotia, New France or Canada, with the Islands of Newfoundland, Cape Breton, St. John’s, etc.” McCord Museum, Montreal

Newfoundland as a province has traditionally been a hardscrabble place, dependent on the cod fishery that was decimated by the 1990s. These days things are somewhat different, with the exploitation of offshore oil discoveries and a greatly increased fiscal capacity as a result, but the fishing and shipping history remains.

The history of the province as a colony is fascinating, having been visited by Europeans dating back to the Icelandic Vikings of the 11th century. Even at that time it had been settled by aboriginal (Dorset) peoples. With its rich fishing banks, it was subsequently visited by Portuguese, Spanish, French and English fishermen. It was claimed by Cabot (Giovanni Caboto), working for the English crown, in 1497, and then under Royal Charter under Elizabeth I, by Sir Humphrey Gilbert, in 1583. I wasn’t aware that this makes Newfoundland a contender for the title of “oldest English colony,” if Ireland and Wales and the Channel Islands are excluded.


My great grandfather in St. John’s, 1910, just before my grandmother was born. It’s a peculiar thing looking at your own genetic heritage; I never knew him, but I immediately recognize the skin and the cheekbones and even the stance, which my brother shares.

It’s difficult to imagine what it might have been like to live in St. John’s in 1910. The weather can be quite miserable, I am led to understand, and from the Census I have located a small wooden house in which they lived, near Signal Hill, which can’t have been particularly comfortable or warm. I wonder if my grandmother was born at home or in a hospital.


Walker, John Henry. St. John’s the capital of Newfoundland, 19th century. McCord Museum, Montreal.

Photograph | H.D. Reid's automobile at Cabot Tower, Signal Hill, St. John's, NL, 1908 | II-170799
Notman, William McFarlane. H. D. Reid’s automobile at Cabot Tower, Signal Hill, St. John’s, NL, 1908. McCord Museum, Montreal, Qc.

Photograph | St. John's from Signal Hill, NF, 1908 | VIEW-4522.A

Notman, William McFarlane. St. John’s from Signal Hill, NL, 1908. McCord Museum, Montreal, Qc.

Photograph | The

The “Narrows,” entrance to St. John’s, NL, 1920. McCord Museum, Montreal, Qc.

Photograph, glass lantern slide | The Narrows, Saint John's, NF, about 1900 | MP-0000.25.387

The Narrows, St. John’s, NL, about 1900. McCord Museum, Montreal, Qc.

Photograph | Sealing steamer

Sealing steamer “Neptune” in harbour, St. John’s, NL, 1927. McCord Museum, Montreal, Qc.

The Labrador coast photos that I could find are even more dramatic.

Photograph | Ship's rigging and ice covered water, Labrador Coast, NL, 1921(?) | MP-0000.597.303

Mack, Captain George, E., “Ship’s rigging and ice covered water,” Labrador Coast, NL, probably 1921. McCord Museum, Montreal, Qc.

Photograph | Iceberg, Labrador Coast, NF, 1921(?) | MP-0000.597.309

Mack, Captain George, E., Iceberg, Labrador Coast, NL, probably 1921. McCord Museum, Montreal, Qc.

Print | Fishing Schooners, Labrador Coast, NF, about 1910 | MP-0000.640.13

Fishing schooners, Labrador Coast, NL, about 1910. McCord Museum, Montreal, Qc.

Photograph | Cape Charles, Labrador, NL, 1908 | VIEW-4542

Notman, William McFarlane, 1908. Cape Charles, Labrador, NL, 1908. McCord Museum, Montreal, Qc.

Photograph | Pack ice off Labrador, NL, 1919 | MP-1984.126.167

Pack ice off Labrador, NL, 1919. McCord Museum, Montreal, Qc.

Photograph | Cinematograph operators on the ice off Labrador, NL, 1919 | MP-1984.126.166

Cinematograph operators on the ice off Labrador, NL, 1919. McCord Museum, Montreal, Qc.

Before the 1940s and 50s, very few Europeans actually settled in Labrador and so the population remained largely aboriginal.

Incidentally, Labrador is named for the Portuguese explorer Lavrador, who mapped the coast with another explorer (de Barcelos) around 1500. Economic development and settlement in the second half of the twentieth century resulted from development of iron ore mining in the region. Desmond Morton notes in A Short History of Canada (1983) that “Since the Wisconsin deposits that had sustained American heavy industry were close to depletion, Labrador’s became the only alternative.”

Photograph | Two Inuit women, one splitting wood for kindling, Port Burwell, Labrador, NF, 1919 | MP-0000.597.526

Two Inuit women, one splitting wood for kindling, Port Burwell, Labrador, NF, 1919. McCord Museum, Montreal, Qc.

Sunday Vintage Inspiration: Georgian Bay


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pictures-r-956 PLoughboy off lonely island Georgian Bay Armstrong William 1912 TPL

Armstrong, William, 1912. Ploughboy off Lonely Island, Georgian Bay. Toronto Public Library

Following last week’s Great Lakes inspiration (Lake Superior), I thought I’d continue the theme, also because Georgian Bay is equal to Lake Superior in my memory and esteem. Georgian Bay is the large body of water that joins Lake Huron, sometimes referred to as the sixth Great Lake, and completely within Canadian territory. On its own it resembles an inland sea, despite not being anywhere near as large as Lake Superior, at 190 km in length and 80 km in width, with a maximum depth of 165 m.

HJ Browne Georgian Bay and vicinity

Browne, H.J., The Georgian Bay & Vicinity, Province of Ontario, Canada, Pub: James Bath and Sons, Toronto. Found via Project Gutenberg, Hamilton, James Cleland, 1893

At the time of European contact, the eastern, northern and western shorelines of the bay were occupied by the Anishinaabeg peoples, with the Huron peoples to the south. The bay is sheltered to the west by the Bruce Peninsula, separating it from Lake Huron, and Manitoulin Island to the north.

Print | Champlain on Georgian Bay | M993.154.314

Kelly, John David, 1895-1900. Champlain on Georgian Bay. Notman Archives, McCord Museum, Montreal, Qc.

The French explorer Samuel de Champlain reached the south-eastern shoreline of the Bay in 1615, following visits by the French interpreter to the Algonquian First Nations, Étienne Brûlé, and possibly one other. Brûlé travelled to the area with an Ottawan Algonquian people, who overwintered with the Huron at the south end of Georgian Bay. Jesuit missionaries followed, with Jean de Brébeuf and Jérôme Lalemant establishing a mission at what is today Midland.

As a school girl I visited the historic site of the Huronia mission known as Ste. Marie among the Hurons, which is still operated by the provincial government as a historic site. The story of its burning and the martyrdom of the various Jesuit priests made a huge impression on me as a child. Brébeuf and several others were tortured and killed in raids by the Iroquois, a rival nation to the Huron, at another mission, in 1649, although he is buried at Midland. He was canonized as a Saint by the Catholic Church in 1930, for his stoicism during his torture.

During the European missions to Huronia some Huron were converted to Christianity, but many more died of the diseases the Europeans carried with them, such as smallpox, as they lacked natural immunity. Following intensification of the Huron-Iroquois strife, a Huron group resettled at Lorette, Quebec around 1650.

Photograph | Huron-Wendat group from Wendake (Lorette) at Spencerwood, Quebec City, QC, 1880 | MP-0000.223

Huron-Wendat group from Wendake (Lorette) at Spencerwood, Quebec City, QC, 1880. Notman photo archives, McCord Museum, Montreal, Qc.

Photograph | Huron-Wendat group, Wendake (Lorette), QC, about 1875 | M12833

Parks, James, George. Huron-Wendat group, Wendake (Lorette), Qc, about 1875. Notman photo archives, McCord Museum, Montreal, Qc.

Following the English conquest of New France in 1760 and the establishment and growth of burgeoning English settlements in what is now Ontario, the first Lieutenant Governor of what was then known as Upper Canada, John Graves Simcoe, developed Penetanguishene on the southern end of the bay as a naval base in the late 18th century. In fact, one battle of the War of 1812 with the Americans was fought on Georgian Bay waters, near Wasaga Beach on the southern end of the bay.

Georgian Bay was technically named Georgian Bay in 1822 after King George IV, by Henry Wolsey Bayfield (Royal Navy), who mapped it comprehensively, although I prefer perhaps to think of it as it was described by Samuel Champlain: “la mer douce” (the calm sea, or the freshwater sea).

pictures-r-850 sketch of penetanguishine barracks Gilmour Mary Hallen 1855 TPL

Gilmour, Mary Hallen, Sketch of Penetanguishene barracks, 1855. Photo source: Toronto Public Library

pictures-r-481 Georgian bay near meaford TPL White, George Harlow 1874

White, George Harlow, 1874. Georgian bay near Meaford. Photo source: Toronto Public Library.

The Niagara Escarpment,  which is essentially a rugged limestone ridge, runs up the Bruce Peninsula on the western side of the bay to Tobermory. The Georgian Bay shoreline just south of Tobermory is a lovely area for camping, with surprising features such as grottos that resemble those found in warmer areas of the world.

pcr-1617Flower pots near Tobermory Bruce Peninsula Ont 1910 TPL

Flower Pots near Tobermory, Ontario, 1910. Valentine and Sons Publishing Co. Photo Source: Toronto Public Library

The eastern shoreline of Georgian Bay is still noted for its cottaging, although its shipping function is also noted. Parry Sound, which I mentioned in a recent post, is the deepest freshwater port in the world. There still are a few resorts of the type in the following photo in the region to the east of Georgian Bay, Muskoka, although their heyday was generally in the first half of the twentieth century, when city dwellers were able to reach these holiday locations by train from Toronto.

pcr-2108 The Belvidere Parry Sound Canada 1910 Valentine and Sons pub co TPL

The Belvedere, Parry Sound, 1910. Valentine and Sons Publishing Co. Photo Source: Toronto Public Library

“Belvidere” on the photo above is a typo. Belvedere is derived from Latin. In Italian (and likewise in French) belvedere or belvédère signifies a beautiful view (vedere is the Italian verb “to see”).) The hotel was torn down in 1961 but a park exists in its place.

Leisure travel was also possible by Great Lakes steamer, from Georgian Bay, across Lake Huron to the beginning of Lake Superior:
Photograph, glass lantern slide | Great Lakes steamer

Great Lakes Steamer “Assiniboia”, Canadian Pacific Line, ON, about 1923. Notman photo archives, Montreal, Qc. In two days one could travel from Parry Sound through the North Channel to Sault Ste. Marie.

It’s the wild places that inspire, as well as the lands to the north. Manitoulin Island is the very large island at the top end of Georgian Bay, separated from the north shore by the North Channel shipping route. It is traditional territory of the Anishinaabe and its inhabitants remain at least in part aboriginal to this day. Those who know something of their mythology will recognize the name’s origin from Gitchi Manitou, the Great Spirit. The island is reachable by ferry from the Bruce Peninisula.

Downloadable from Project Gutenberg Canada (one of my favourite projects in the whole world, making books in the public domain available for free) is this interesting work by James Cleland Hamilton, dating to 1893. The title, “The Georgian Bay. An account of its position, inhabitants, mineral interests, fish, timber and other resources” (Papers read before the Canadian Institute) is typical of papers of scientific inquiry of the time. The work contains some wonderful illustrations by Anna Brownell Jameson as well.

Most fascinating to me is the table of First Nations populations included in the document, derived from the Census. My understanding is that Ontario still has the greatest diversity of First Nations of any province in Canada and they are more geographically dispersed, though I can’t immediately find a reference to support this assertion.

ONTARIO. 1867 1891
Chippewas and Munceys of the Thames 588 637
Moravians of the Thames 254 309
Chippewas, Pottawatomies and Ottawas of Walpole Island 748 852
Wyandots of Anderdon 71 98
Chippewas of Snake Island 130 127
Chippewas of Rama 265 226
Chippewas of Christian Island 186 357
Missisaugas of Rice, Mud, and Scugog Lakes 282 283
Mohawks of the Bay of Quinté 664 1,120
Missisaugas of Alnwick 212 243
Ojibways of Sandy Island 174
Chippewas of Saugeen 280 579
Chippewas of Cape Croker 352 396
Christian Island Band on Manitoulin Island 71
Six Nations of Grand River 2,779 3,474
Missisaugas of the Credit 204 253
Chippewas of Lake Superior 1,263 2,051
Chippewas of Lake Huron 1,748 3,177
Manitoulin Island Indians 1,498 1,915
Golden Lake Indians 164 367
Chippewas of Sarnia 479
Pottawatomies of Sarnia 34
Oneidas of the Thames 726

Summarizing their voyage of scientific inquiry, Hamilton writes this elegiac passage:

However interesting such themes may be, it is on other topics that our memories will most kindly dwell as we recall the happy days and nights spent on the “White Squall.” We will remember the majesty of forests and granite shores. We will hear the scream of gulls and see the flash of great fish struggling in the nets. We will see in fancy the jolly fishermen steering merrily among the rocks. We will hear their songs and stories, as each sat, with brown, weather-beaten, friendly face, on a pile of nets or on a box in our camp. There still rises to our ears the gay laugh of the Indian boys about the wigwams. We will not forget the beauty displayed in winding, glassy coves among the islands, in flowers and verdure in sunny nooks, the Aurora* dancing each clear night in the north, the kindly courtesy of our little company, the chaff of the camp fires and the songs we sung, of which the following is one, composed ‘mong the Isles of the Georgian Bay


Some sing old Ocean’s praise
Where wild winds the billows raise,
And the whale and the porpoise play,
Some vaunt famed Biscay’s Bay;
And the fair for the South wind sigh.
But give to me that shore,
Where the North star shines most clear,
And our devious course we steer
‘Mong the Isles of the Georgian Bay.
Oh give to me, etc.
Of the Genöese Captain**, in quest
Of new lands in the far sunny West,
Of De. Champlain, with fleur-de-lis spread;
Of the brave Arctic hero***, who sped
O’er these waters, pray tell us great Pines,
Ye whose heads the clouds piercing, arise;
Ye too, surely remember the cries
Of the Mohawk and Huron at strife
‘Mong the Isles of the Georgian Bay.
Oh give to me, etc.
At eve, with sun-set beams,
La Cloche’s gray rock gleams,
With bright spirits from Algic skies,
See, the swift Aurora flies.
O’er the pines the pale moon smiles.
All enwrapped in the beauty of night,
We look on, by the camp-fire’s light;
Great Manito seeming near,
‘Mong the Isles of the Georgian Bay.
Oh give to me, etc.


*refers to the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights

** refers to Columbus

***refers to Franklin

le lac supérieur; Thunder Bay, a brief pictorial tour


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pictures-r-865 Landing at Sault Ste Marie red river expedition Armstrong William 1913

Armstrong, William, 1913. Landing at Sault Ste. Marie on the Red River Expedition. Photo source: Toronto Public Library

pictures-r-1285 Armstrong william 1882 Otter Head watercolour touches of gouache over pencil TPL

Armstrong, William, 1882, Otter Head. Photo source: Toronto Public Library

pictures-r-1151 Johnson William Arthur 1873 Jesuit mission immaculate conception Thunder Bay on the Karninistiqua River McKays mountain in the distance

Johnson, William Arthur, 1873, Jesuit mission Immaculate Conception on the Kaministiqua River. Photo source: Toronto Public Library.

I have a great love of the north shore of Lake Superior, the lake originally known as gichigami by the Ojibwe, or le lac supérieur by the French (“the upper lake”). It’s generally known as the largest freshwater lake in the world, by surface area, and third largest by volume; it presents as a great inland sea. The shoreline is awe-inspiring in its rugged beauty and the frigid waters terrifying during a storm. I have memories of pastel sunsets reflected perfectly on the still, frigid waters, imposing granite cliffs, and most of all an intense sense of smallness and aloneness in a powerful natural space.

912-71v134 Vaugondy Robert de Didier 1753 Lake Superior map TPL

Vaugondy Robert de Didier, 1753. Map including a scrunched version of Lake Superior in the northwest quandrant. Photo source: Toronto Public Library

During the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, fur trading posts were established on the northernmost shore of the lake, at the start of great canoe routes into western Canada. One of these posts was founded at the entrance of the Kaministiqua River to Lake Superior and today forms a part of the modern city of Thunder Bay. Originally established as a French trading post in the late 17th century, and later abandoned by the French around the time of the English conquest of New France (1760), an English post on the site was established by the North West Company in 1803, as a midway trans-shipping point between their outlying posts and Montreal. This post, later named Fort William, lost its importance when the North West Company merged with the Hudson’s Bay Company in the 1820s, with major trade shifting to Hudson’s Bay to the north, although it remained a trading post.

pictures-r-943 Fleming John arnot 1857 pencil touches of watercolour scraping out, on graduated light blue tinted paper TPL Fort William from Lake Superior

Fleming, John Arnot, 1857. Fort William from Lake Superior. Pencil with touches of water colour scraping out, on graduated light blue tinted paper. Photo source: Toronto Public Library.

pictures-r-2530 Fleming John Arnot 1857 ship Colingwood on rock near Michipoicoten Island watercolour TPL

Fleming, John Arnot, 1857. The Collingwood on a rock near Michipoicoten Island. Photo source: Toronto Public Library

Wrecked ships under water are still being discovered in the lake.

pictures-r-1406 Frances Hopkins 1873 TPL engraved by Charles MOttram Canoes in a fog lake superior 1869 watercolour and oil painting in Glenbow collection

Engraving by Charles Mottram, 1873, after an oil painting by Frances Hopkins, 1869 (now in the Glenbow collection, Calgary). Canoes disappearing into mist on Lake Superior. Photo source: Toronto Public Library

Frances Hopkins, an English painter, was married to a Hudson’s Bay Company official. She accompanied him on several canoe trips and became a well-known painter of canoe scenes depicting the final period of the fur trade. She lived in Canada following her marriage in 1858, mostly in Montreal, and returned to England permanently in 1870 where she died in 1919. She showed frequently in England, including with the Royal Academy in London from 1869.

Despite the decline of the fur trade, Fort William’s growth was reinvigorated in 1870s when it was selected to be the eastern terminus of the Canadian Pacific Railway line to Winnipeg to the west. It was incorporated in 1907 and amalgamated with the adjacent town of Port Arthur in 1970. Port Arthur had been founded in the 1870s as a depot of the Department of Public Works of the newly confederated Canada, which had the aim of developing land transportation to a developing Western Canada. Port Arthur’s growth was stimulated by a silver mining boom in the 1880s and later on as a transshipment grain handling port for the Canadian Northern Railway line to and from Winnipeg.

pictures-r-1407 Johnson William Arthur 1873 Thuder Cape or Sleeping Giant

Johnson, William Arthur, 1873. Thunder Cape, with the Sleeping Giant visible in the background. Photo source: Toronto Public Library

pictures-r-927White George Harlow 1876 entrance to Thunder Bay

White, George Harlow, 1876. Entrance to Thunder Bay. Photo source: Toronto Public Library

na-2856-2 Temporary bridge over Pic River Lake Superior Ont 1884

Temporary bridge over Pic River, Lake Superior, 1884. Glenbow Archives, Calgary, AB

souv_pic-r-295 The CPR hotel Fort WilliamThe Kaministiquia Hotel JL Meikle pub photo by Evans

The Kaministiqua or Canadian Pacific Railway Hotel, Fort William, 1900. Photo credit: Evans. Publisher: JL Meikle. Photo source: Toronto Public Library.

Northern hotel Port arthur 1900 JL Meikle pub TPL

Northern Hotel, Port Arthur, 1900, “Overlooking one of the most magnificent scenes in the world, the glorious Thunder Bay, which has been compared to the Bay of Naples.” Photo: Evans. Publisher: JL. Meikle. Photo source: Toronto Public Library.

souv_pic-r-289the twin towns of port arthur and Fort william 1900 JL Meikle pub TPL

Panoramic view of Port Arthur, 1900, “showing Northern Hotel at Thunder Bay on the right.” Photo: Evans. Publisher: JL. Meikle. Photo source: Toronto Public Library.


Ten years later, Rockwell Kent and I would discuss the glamour of a north shore, how everything opens and clears there, sky, various winds, water; how light lingers long after it should in summer, as if trying to announce something vital that has been overlooked or refused.

~ Jane Urquhart, The Underpainter

pictures-r-1184 Robillard Albert 1871-1934 1900 watercolour canoeing on Lake Superior TPL

Albert Robillard, 1900. Canoeing on Lake Superior (?). Photo source: Toronto Public Library



Forest fires


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a039810-v6 fire Duncan Lake ONt 1908

Forest fire. Duncan Lake, Ontario, 1908. Library and Archives Canada

I’m almost reluctant to write about forest fires, particularly given the terrible human toll that often coincides with them in this day and age. Hearing about some serious fires taking place in B.C. at the moment, however, I was thinking a little bit about forest fires over the weekend. Forest fires are part of the natural ecology and development of a forest, providing for greater diversity, for example by ensuring varying ages of trees. This can make a forest more resistant to disease and pests. That said, I heard on the radio that of the current fires in B.C. about 60 per cent have been labeled as caused by humans.

In thinking about human-caused fires, my mind turned first to the First Nations who sometimes used controlled burns in order to improve the environment for some food sources. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, railways became a significant source of human-initiated fires. I located an interesting article on the issue in Ontario, in this edition of the journal of the Ontario Forest History Society, by M. Grunstra and D. Martell (p.5), including some informative graphs (p. 7-8). There were many causes for the coincidence of fires and railroads, both during their construction as crews initiated burns in the areas in which they were building, and subsequently with the operation of the railways and the conjunction of dry brush and hot ash, errant sparks, etc.

Here are a couple of photos of forest fires related to railway building in B.C., to give you an idea, retrieved from the Glenbow Museum archives, Calgary, AB.

na-3658-70 Forest fire near Moose Lake BC 1912-13 at mile25 of Grand Trunk construction

Forest fire near Moose Lake, B.C., 1912-13, near mile 25 of Grand Trunk Railway Construction. Glenbow Archives, Calgary, AB

na-3658-73 Fire along Tote Road BC 19081909 possibly during construction of Grand Trunk Railway firefighters centre corduroy laid

Fire along Tote Road, B.C., 1908-09, possibly during Grand Trunk construction. Firefighters at centre, corduroy laid. Glenbow Archives, Calgary, AB.

It’s almost unfathomable to think of fighting forest fires with so little equipment, particularly considering the resources and methods available today. Of course, the pattern of settlement of the lands nearby was greatly different in the early twentieth century.


Monday Vintage Inspiration: Blowin’ ‘er in; Parry Hoot

IMG_9015 (1024x683)

An island in Georgian Bay, Ontario, near Parry Sound, Ontario

I came across the above photo in my personal archives this week, which speaks to me of summers long gone. My family had a cottage on an island very near to this one for many years, which unfortunately my parents sold a number of years back.

Last night I was reading a description by George Eliot of the importance of our childhood landscapes to our sense of beauty. I know that it is true for me that there are no more beautiful places to me in the whole world than these places in Ontario that I come back to. I visit Italy three times a year and I have lived in Australia, the US and Asia. Those are beautiful places, too, but there will never be a place that holds the same resonance for me as those little islands in the middle of the grand inland waterways of the Great Lakes.

One of the stories I remember about our little cottage was that the floorboards were recycled from the old-time dance hall in Parry Sound, otherwise known as Parry Hoot. This got me thinking about lumbering, of course, as in the 1870s the virgin forests east of Georgian Bay were opened for auction and began to compete with the Ottawa valley.

Print (photomechanical) | District of Parry Sound, Ontario | M987.253.63

District of Parry Sound, Ontario, with Georgian Bay on the left-hand side, 1881. H. Beldon and Co. Notman photographic archives, McCord Museum, Montreal, Qc.

The rough and tumble lifestyle of the lumberjack, who would often spend six months in camps or shanties in the woods throughout the winter, emerging in springtime and eventually heading back to their farms and families to farm during the winter months, can be easily imagined. Perhaps also readily imaginable is what happened after the men left the camps, which is to say a presumably rip-roaring good time, at least for a few days.

A few years ago I was searching for some information on rural prices around 1900 and I happened to come across this anecdote in Donald MacKay’s book, The Lumberjacks, which is a well-written account of the lifestyle of these classic figures in Canadian history.

Mr. Mackay recites the story of M. B. Fortin, a lumberjack in the Ottawa valley area, who got into some trouble during 72 hours in Ottawa following six months in the lumber camps in 1890. His wife, when he finally returned home to L’Ange Gardien, Quebec, was astonished to find that he had only $54.13 remaining of the $150.13 that he had earned in winter wages. Mme. Fortin wrote to his company to find out where the remainder of his wages had gone, with the outcome of the company’s research indicating the following list of expenses, among the more predictable ones of whisky and tobacco for the man himself and his friends (totalling at least $30.00), room and board, fancy new clothes, and, eventually, a train ticket home:

- Ear rings ($1.75)

- A breakfast plate of oysters ($1.50)

- Hair cut and shampoo ($1.50)

- Hair dyed, black ($2.00)

- Hair dyed brown, when black did not suit ($2.00)

- Sightseeing with a horse and buggy ($7.00)

- To organ grinder for damage in knocking over organ ($2.00)

I feel somewhat badly taking advantage of the frailties of Monsieur Fortin for the sake of a bit of a laugh, because I am quite certain that had I spent six months in a shanty in the bush I would also have needed to “blow ‘er in.” Quite badly, in fact.

Do pick up a copy of Donald MacKay’s well-told account of the lumberjack, if you’re interested in this sort of thing.

Photograph | Lumbermen's shanty, Muskoka District, ON, 1873 | I-80963

Lumbermen’s shanty, Muskoka District, ON, 1873. Notman photographic archives, McCord Museum, Montreal, Qc.


Photograph, glass lantern slide | Bay near Rose Point, Parry Sound, ON, about 1900 | MP-0000.25.776

Bay near Rose Point, Parry Sound, ON, about 1900. Notman photographic archives, McCord Museum, Montreal, Qc.

Sunday Vintage Inspiration: “Oh ye dealers in wild lands…”


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Photograph, glass lantern slide | Niagara River, falls in distance, Niagara Falls, ON, about 1875 | MP-0000.25.752

Niagara River, falls in distance, Niagara Falls, ON, about 1875. J. Lévy et Cie. Notman Archives, McCord Museum, Montreal, Qc.

Please permit me the vintage photo of Niagara Falls, which is my current obsession, in spite of the fact that this post is neither about Niagara Falls, nor 1875. You might remember that I posted an excerpt from Jane Urquhart’s The Whirlpool in honour of Canada Day, the main protagonist of which is an undertaker’s widow in Niagara Falls, Ontario in 1889. I also lived in the City of Niagara Falls for exactly one school year, in 1982, so there’s a piercing nostalgia related to the place that encroaches on my thoughts when I think about 19th century settlement in Ontario. One of my clearest memories of living in Niagara Falls, apart from many visits to the Lundy’s Lane wax museum on account of our neighbour’s husband being the owner, was the tangible presence of 19th century history in the environs. At the time the Niagara Falls Museum was full of Victorian oddities, which it might still be, among them the barrels and contraptions that various daredevils had used to attempt the trajectory over and beyond the falls, and at least two Egyptian mummies.

Photograph, glass lantern slide | Whirlpool on the Niagara River near Niagara Falls, ON, about 1895 | MP-0000.25.762

Whirlpool on the Niagara River near Niagara Falls, ON, about 1895. Notman Archives, Montreal, Qc

Now that I’m through that digression, I’ll tell you what I actually intend to write about in this post. After my foray into my bookshelves to pull out some literature for Canada Day, I started reading snippets of Susanna Moodie’s Roughing it in the Bush, once subtitled “Forest Life in Canada.” I’ll confess that I’ve never read it in its entirety, which I think I should remedy with great speed. It’s an interesting rumination on the life of an educated immigrant from Britain in the wilds of Ontario in the mid-1800s.

As a little bit of background, I’ll give you a short synopsis of the biography at the front of my c. 1970 McClelland and Stewart Ltd. version:

Susanna Strickland, later Mrs. Moodie, was born in 1803, the daughter of Thomas Strickland, who was then resident in Suffolk, England. Susanna had four sisters and a brother, who all became writers, among the most famous of whom was Catherine Parr (later Mrs. Traill), who emigrated to Canada and became a well-known writer. (Note that Catherine Parr Traill was also referenced in my last post, through the section I cited from Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners.) The older brother, called Samuel, also emigrated to Canada and wrote a book about his adventures.

After Mr. Strickland lost all of his money and died in 1818, Susanna and Catherine married officers from Orkney, and subsequently emigrated as married persons to Canada. The Moodies emigrated from Britain in 1832, first occupying land near Port Hope and Cobourg (just east of Toronto), later moving further east to an area north of Peterborough, near the house of the older brother and the Traills. Roughing it in the Bush describes the backwoods of these two places.

Photograph | Rural road, Peterborough(?), ON(?), about 1900 | MP-0000.2360.101

Rural road, Peterborough, ON, about 1900. McCord Museum, Montreal, Qc.

Susanna Moodie begins her account here:

In most instances, emigration is a matter of necessity, not of choice; and this is more especially true of the emigration of persons of respectable connections, or of any station or position in the world. Few educated persons, accustomed to the refinements and luxuries of European society, ever willingly relinquish those advantages, and place themselves beyond the protective influence of the wise and revered institutions of their native land, without the pressure of some urgent cause. Emigration may, indeed, generally be regarded as an act of severe duty, performed at the expense of personal enjoyment, and accompanied by the sacrifice of those local attachments which stamp the scenes amid which our childhood grew, in imperishable characters upon the heart. Nor is it until adversity has pressed sorely upon the proud and wounded spirit of the well-educated sons and daughters of old but impoverished families, that they gird up the loins of the mind, and arm themselves with fortitude to meet and dare the heart-breaking conflict…

The choice of country to which they devote their talents and energies depends less upon their pecuniary means than upon the fancy of the emigrant or the popularity of a name. From the year 1826 to 1829, Australia and the Swan River were all the rage. No other portions of the habitable globe were deemed worthy of notice. These were the El Dorados and lands of Goshen to which all respectable emigrants eagerly flocked. Disappointment, as a matter of course, naturally followed their high-raised expectations. Many of the most sanguine of these adventurers returned to their native shores in a worse condition than when they left them. In 1830, the great tide of emigration flowed westward. Canada became the great landmark for the rich in hope and poor in purse. Public newspapers and private letters teemed with the unheard-of advantages to be derived from a settlement in this highly favoured region.

Its salubrious climate, its fertile soil, commercial advantages, great water privileges, its proximity to the mother country, and last, not least, its almost total exemption from taxation – that bugbear which keeps honest John Bull in a state of constant ferment – were the theme of every tongue, and lauded beyond praise. The general interest, once incited, was kept alive by pamphlets, published by interested parties, which prominently set forth all the good to be derived from a settlement in the Backwoods of Canada; while they carefully concealed the toil and the hardship to be endured in order to secure these advantages…

Oh, ye dealers in wild lands – ye speculators in the folly and credulity of your fellow-men – what a mass of misery, and of misrepresentation productive of that misery, have ye not to answer for! You had your acres to sell, and what to you were the worn-down frames and broken hearts of the infatuated purchasers? The public believed the plausible statements you made with such earnestness, and men of all grades rushed to hear your hired orators declaim upon the blessings to be obtained by the clearers of the wilderness.

~ Susanna Moodie, Roughing it in the Bush

What has really caught my attention though are these passages, much later in the book, describing the inhabitants. I’m assuming that these were written or edited for the post-Confederation 1871 edited reprints of the book in Toronto and Montreal, with the original volumes of the work having been published in London in 1852:

Forty years has made as great a difference in the state of society in Canada as it has in its commercial and political importance. When we came to the Canadas, society was composed of elements which did not always amalgamate in the best possible manner.

The Canadian women, while they retain the bloom and freshness of youth, are exceedingly pretty; but these charms soon fade, owing, perhaps, to the fierce extremes of their climate, or the withering effect of the dry metallic air of stoves, and their going too early into company and being exposed, while yet children, to the noxious influence of late hours, and the sudden change from heated rooms to the cold, biting, bitter winter blast.

Though small in stature, they are generally well and symmetrically formed, and possess a graceful, easy carriage. The early age at which they marry and are introduced into society, takes from them all awkwardness and restraint.

They have excellent practical abilities, which, with a little mental culture, would render them intellectual and charming companions. At present, too many of these truly lovely girls remind one of choice flowers half-buried in weeds…

To the benevolent philanthropist, whose heart has bled over the misery and pauperism of the lower classes in Great Britain, the almost entire absence of mendacity from Canada would be highly gratifying. Canada has few, if any, native beggars; her objects of charity are generally imported from the mother country, and these are never suffered to want food or clothing. The Canadians are a truly charitable people; no person in distress is driven with harsh and cruel language from their doors; they not only generously relieve the wants of suffering strangers cast upon their bounty, but they nurse them in sickness, and use every means in their power to procure them employment. The number of orphan children yearly adopted by wealthy Canadians, and treated in every respect as their own, is almost incredible..

It is a glorious country for the labouring classes, for while blessed with health, they are always certain of employment, and certain also to derive from it ample means of support for their families…

What an ideal vision…dating to the 1870s. It bears noting that Susanna Moodie had a novelist’s flair and extensive experience as a literary columnist.

I will report back after I have reread the early chapters on bush life.  If you are at all interested, I recommend acquiring a vintage or second hand copy of the book, or perhaps a public library copy that has been much-read and loved, but that’s my personal taste.




Cool country


Painting | Niagara from Goat Island | M360

Niagara from Goat Island, James Pattison Cockburn, 1831. Watercolour and graphite on paper. McCord Museum, Montreal, Qc.

I was thinking about how I want to celebrate Canada Day, the day of our nation’s birth, and the best answer that came to me was with literature. I do not need to dig very deeply into my bookshelves to find delicious, exquisite literature. These snippets happen to be by women authors, although this is not intentional.


It was true about my father. But he was usually away, taking a cure, resting in a sanatorium, traveling. Before I was born he had been a Member of Parliament. He suffered a great defeat in 1911, the year Laurier went out. Much later, when I learned about Reciprocity, I discovered that his defeat had been only a corner of a national calamity (if indeed you were inclined to see it as a calamity), but when I was a child I always believed that my father had been personally, tauntingly, shamefully rejected. My mother likened the event to the Crucifixion. He had come out on the balcony of the Queen’s Hotel, to speak, to concede his defeat, and was prevented, jeered down, by Tories carrying brooms on fire. I had no idea, hearing this, that such were the scenes politicians sometimes have to face. My mother dated his downfall to this time. Though she did not specify what form the downfall took. Alcoholic was not a word spoken in our house; I don’t believe it was spoken much anywhere, at that time. Drunk was the word used, but that was in the town.

My mother would no longer shop in this town, except for groceries, which she had Robina order by phone. She would not speak to various ladies, wives of taunters and Tories.

I will never darken their door.

That was what she would say about a church, a store, somebody’s house.

“He was too fine for them.”

She had nobody but Robina to say these things to. But Robina was satisfactory, in a way. She was a person with her own list of people not to be spoken to, stores not to be entered.

They’re all ignorant around here. It’s them ought to be swept out with a broom.”

And she would start telling about some injustice done to her brothers Jimmy and Duval, accused of stealing when they were only trying to see how a flashlight worked.

~Alice Munro, Executioners (Something I’ve been Meaning to Tell You)


Catherine Parr Traill, one could be quite certain, would not have been found of an early morning sitting over a fourth cup of coffee, mulling, approaching the day in a gingerly fashion, trying to size it up. No. No such sloth for Catherine P.T.

Scene at the Traill Homestead, circa 1840

C.P.T. out of bed, fully awake, bare feet on the sliver-hazardous floorboards – no, take that one again. Feet on the homemade hooked rug. Breakfast cooked for the multitude. Out to feed the chickens, stopping briefly on the way back to pull fourteen armloads of weeds out of the vegetable garden and perhaps prune the odd apple tree in passing. The children’s education hour, the umpteen little mites lisping enthusiastically over this enlightenment. Cleaning the house, baking two hundred loaves of delicious bread, preserving half a ton of plums, pears, cherries, etcetera. All before lunch.

Catherine Parr Traill, where are you now that we need you? Speak, oh lady of blessed memory…

Morag leaped over to the bookshelves which lined the two walls of the seldom-used livingroom. Found the pertinent text.

In cases of emergency, it is folly to fold one’s hands and sit down to bewail in abject terror. It is better to be up and doing.

(The Canadian Settler’s Guide, 1855)

~Margaret Laurence, The Diviners


People the wide world over like to think of Canada as a land of ice and snow. That’s the image they prefer to hang on to, even when they know better.

But the fact is, Ottawa in the month of July can be hot as Hades – which is why the Fletts’ supper table is set tonight on the screened porch. There will be jellied veal loaf, sliced tomatoes, and a potato salad and, for desert, sugared raspberries in little glass bowls.

You should know that the raspberries are from the Fletts’ own garden, picked only an hour ago by the children of the family. One of these three children, Warren, seven years old, got raspberry stains all over the front of his cotton shirt, and he has just been sent upstairs by his mother to change into something clean. “Lickety- split,” she tells him, “your father’ll be home in half a wink.”

The memory of our “lady-slippers” discussion has, of course, led me into wondering whether you perhaps viewed our marriage in a similar way, as a trap from which there was no easy exit. Between us we have almost never mentioned the word love. I have sometimes wondered whether it was the disparity of our ages that made the word seem foolish, or else something stiff and shy in our natures that forbade its utterance. This I regret. I would like to think that our children will use the word extravagantly, and moreover that they will be open to its forces…

Do you remember that day last October when I experienced my first terrible headache? I found you in the kitchen wearing one of those new and dreadful plastic aprons. You put your arms around me at once and reached up to smooth my temples. I loved you terribly at that moment. The crackling of your apron against my body seemed like an operatic response to the longings which even then I felt. It was like something whispering at us to hurry, to stop wasting time, and I would like to have danced with you through the back door, out into the garden, down the street, over the line of the horizon. Oh my dear. I thought we would have more time.

~Carol Shields, The Stone Diaries


The trail’s winding now through high ground where there are boulders coming up out of the earth, carried and dropped by glaciers, moss on them and ferns, it’s a damp climate. I keep my eyes on the ground, names reappearing, wintergreen, wild mint, Indian cucumber; at one time I could list every plant here that could be used or eaten, I memorized survival manuals, How to Stay Alive in the Bush, Animal Tracks and Signs, The Woods in Winter, at the age when the ones in the city were reading True Romance magazines: it wasn’t till then I realized it was in fact possible to lose your way. Maxims float up: always carry matches and you will not starve, in a snow-storm dig a hole, avoid unclassified mushrooms, your hands and feet are the most important, if they freeze you’re finished. Worthless knowledge; the pulp magazines with their cautionary tales, maidens who give in and get punished…, fractured spines, dead mothers or men stolen by their best friends would have been more practical.

~Margaret Atwood, Surfacing


In his hand he held a small bronze paperweight fashioned in the shape of a cow. “This,” he cried, “is Laura Secord’s cow!”

Patrick, thoroughly convinced now that he had lost the thread of the conversation, merely stared stupidly at the object in the other man’s hand.

“Imagine it,” McDougal continued, “the young, slim woman alone, walking through the enemy-infested, beast-ridden woods, and she has the presence of mind to bring a cow along to fool the enemy sentries. Twelve miles over a rough terrain…” McDougal began to walk the bronze cow over the mountains and valleys of his paperwork. “And then…” he paused and wedged the cow between two portfolios…”and then she arrives at her destination only to find her path blocked by a company of Indians…reinforcements, working for our side, but how was she to know? Indians in the moonlight…awesome! They let her pass, however. They escorted her, in fact, to Fitzgibbon, whereupon she gave him the message and we surprised them before they could surprise us. “SURPRISE!!!” he shouted at Patrick, who jumped nervously in his chair.

Silence filled the room as the two men pondered the dead woman’s heroic deed. Patrick looked across the cemetery on the hill. “What happened to the cow?” he asked, for want of anything better to say.

~Jane Urquhart, The Whirlpool


Sunday Vintage Inspiration: Dominion Day, July 1



na-1325-1 Decoarated wagon for Dominion Day celebration Bassano AB 1914

Decorated wagon for Dominion Day celebration, Bassano AB, 1914.  Glenbow Archives, Calgary, AB

Towards the Last Spike*

It was the same world then as now –  the same,
Except for little differences of speed
And power, and means to treat myopia
To show an axe-blade infinitely sharp
Splitting things infinitely small, or else
Provide the telescopic sight to roam
Through curved dominions never found in fables.

~ E.J. Pratt

*The “last spike” refers to the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway crossing Canada, with the last spike laid near Revelstoke, B.C. in 1885.

na-2211-20 Dominion Day celebration Grande Prairie AB July 1917

Dominion Day Celebration, Grande Prairie, AB, 1917. Glenbow Archives, Calgary, AB

Prior to the repatriation of the Canadian constitution from England, the day now known as “Canada Day” was referred to as Dominion Day, reflecting broad loyalties to the British Empire while celebrating Canadian Confederation.

na-5096-1 Dominion Day celebrations Woodbine Park Prince Albert Sask 1891

Dominion Day, Woodbine Park, Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, 1891. Glenbow Archives, Calgary, AB

dominion day horse parade 1904

Dominion Day horse parade, Toronto, 1904. City of Toronto Archives.

There are many other realities of Canada that are not reflected in the photos above, but don’t think I’ve forgotten them: aboriginal; multi-cultural, non-European. These realities if anything will play an increasingly important role in the Canada that is to come. I look forward with excitement to seeing this flowering.

na-2640-3 First Nations person on Dominion Day parade Calgary AB 1908

First Nations person on parade, Dominion Day, Calgary, 1908. Glenbow Archives, Calgary, AB


A patriarch dies; “I don’t buy green bananas”


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IMG_3335 (1024x683)

Excerpt from my grandfather’s was memoir, about being shot in a Lancaster flying over Germany in 1944

My grandfather died on Thursday night. He had been saying for years that he didn’t “buy green bananas” because he was at the end of his days. This time he was right. He died at a ripe old age and the end was relatively quick, which is I think what we all wish.

I was the oldest grandchild, but being a girl I didn’t get a lot of his attention. His attention was focused on the boys, with whom he felt more comfortable. For most of my childhood I remember him sending me away when my grandmother sent me out to help him in the garden, or when I wanted to go fishing. Nevertheless, although I didn’t succeed in spending time with him as a kid, I was the only grandchild who followed in his footsteps in my choice of profession and I know he also appreciated the research that I did into elements of our family history that he hadn’t captured in his writings.

When I was returning home from the funeral on the bus yesterday, I buried my nose in a copy of the memoir that he wrote about his participation in the second world war as a rear or tail gunner in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). I read the document that he wrote when he wrote it 20 years ago and for years I had been asking my mother to send me another copy. I finally got one and it is a fascinating read. What I’ve excerpted for you above is the part about his final mission on two tours of ops as a tail gunner, first in Wellington aircraft and later in the Lancaster. This was a very dangerous position to be in in these aircraft and my grandfather was definitely fortunate to return to Canada after the war alive. Only about a third of those in similar positions did, if that.

In a lot of ways, just by virtue of my grandfather’s nature and as a result of his beliefs about the proper roles of women, the closest I ever got to knowing my grandfather more intimately was through his writings. I’m incredibly grateful that he wrote at least four documents about his life: his wartime memories, the history of his parents and grandparents and the family farm he left to go to war; the post-war years and the early years with my grandmother (a recent project and a new discovery by me, to much gratitude); and a transcription of the letters he sent home during the war and their replies. I am an observer, so I always had my perceptions and understanding of him, which I think were mostly correct, but it’s particularly special as you can imagine to have a glimpse into his life through his own words.

Each time I think about the long life he had, the many things he did and the family that grew out of his life I am amazed. In many places in his war memoir he notes that the “ball bounced luckily in another way.” Any small turning of events and his life would have been different or would have ended. In fact, only two of his original crew survived the war and he saw many casualties along the way. Of course, my mother would never have existed and then neither would I have. Even the way that he met my grandmother was by chance, as meetings always are, as my grandmother’s cousin had returned from the war at the same time as my grandfather and my grandfather’s sister was at that time studying to be a nurse in Toronto. My grandfather’s sister knew my grandmother slightly and had been invited to the welcome home party for my grandmother’s cousin. My grandmother casually suggested that she invite her brother who had recently returned from the war. So a Canadian farm boy who had signed up underage to fight in a war he knew nothing about both returned home and married a lovely lady from an educated family in the city who then helped and encouraged him to get an education and build a life and family that he was very proud of.

Any subtle turning and life would be different. I often think this.



Sunday (Monday) Vintage Inspiration: Geological Survey of Canada


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logan-156094 Baltzly Benjamin F 1835-83 Geological Survey of Canada party Canoe River BC October 1871 surveyihg william notman TPL Alfred Selwyn at centre with john Hammond and Benjamin Baltzly

Geological Survey of Canada Party, Canoe River, BC. October 1871. Alfred Selwyn at centre with John Hammond and Benjamin Baltzly. Source: Toronto Public Library. Logan – 156094. William Notman collection.

Note: The reference for the factual material in this post is a paper by Christy Vodden (1992), located here:

I always knew that the Geological Survey of Canada was an interesting organization, but on Saturday my curiosity was piqued anew. I’ve done a little bit of preliminary research, which unearthed the aforementioned comprehensive article, but I’d like to add to this later.

On Saturday I was walking back home from Little Italy in Ottawa, taking a detour from streets lined with Ferrari-crazed fans there for the parade of Ferraris for La Settimana Italiana, and soccer-crazed fans awaiting the Italy-England match, when I took a route I’ve never taken before, along Booth Street. Suddenly I was confronted with buildings easily dating to the 1920s or in fact ten to twenty years earlier, clustered with a series of modern buildings clearly dating to the 1950s. I’d seen this cluster before in passing from the vantage point of a main thoroughfare, but never paid much attention. This time I looked at the various signage to realize that the buildings are a cluster of the Department of Natural Resources. There are interesting stonework signs on the fronts of some of the older buildings, with labels such as “ore dressing laboratory,” which naturally piqued my curiosity.

I must admit that I’ve always been a little bit intrigued with geology in particular. If I hadn’t already had a torturously and long rank-order list of competing interests, I probably would have studied it at university. In fact, I did take a geography class in first year of university. Alas, it was not to be. I will live vicariously through the histories of great geological explorers, as told by others! To follow is a skeletal history of geological surveying in Canada.

The Geological Survey of Canada is in fact one of Canada’s oldest government institutions. It was established in 1842, just after the formation of a unified Canada West and Canada East and the implementation of “responsible government” or a kind of self-government under the crown. This is an intriguing fact, given that “the Province of Canada” at the time didn’t consist of the territory that now comprises the second-largest country in the world, but rather only part of Ontario and southern Quebec. I’m not sure how you’d scale that, but possibly less than an eighth of our current non-offshore territory and a long way away from the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific North-west, etc.

In spite of the rather limited geography of Canada at the time when viewed from a modern perspective, there were individuals with a much bigger vision. The 1841 Legislature of the Province of Canada voted a sum of money to be used for a survey of the then-Canada, with the idea being that for it to succeed as an industrial entity it would need to survey and exploit its mineral wealth. At the time, the expectation was that the survey would stimulate the mining industry and generate provincial revenues. Obviously, with the Confederation of four provinces in 1867 and the subsequent expansion of Canada from coast to coast to coast with the entry of BC to Confederation in 1871 and various other provinces thereafter, the grand project of the organization by then known as the Geological Survey of Canada became much grander.

William Logan, born in Montreal and educated in Scotland, with a keen interest in geology, petitioned for the job to lead the Survey in 1842. Although not trained in geology, he had cut his teeth working in the copper smelting industry in England. His bid for the job was supported by prominent English scientists and he was appointed director of the Survey in April of 1842. He laid the groundwork for the first survey in the fall of 1842 in Kingston, the then-seat of the provincial Legislature. The following year he moved the offices of the GSC to Montreal. An assistant, Alexander Murray was also appointed. (Note: Canada’s highest mountain peak, Mt. Logan, is named after William Logan.)

In the first two field seasons, despite wide-ranging studies through Upper and Lower Canada, ranging from the Atlantic Coast to Lake Huron, Logan was able to report that there were no likely coal deposits. The rock formations that they explored were older than the earliest-known coal-bearing formations. Interestingly, one of the discoveries he made was the southern part of the Pre-Cambrian Shield that we’ve come to know as the Great Canadian Shield, full of nifty crystalline rock formations.

What’s interesting about the early years of the GSC is that although there was evidence of benefit from surveying, the mandate and funding for the organization wasn’t secure. Logan in fact spent some of his own money to complete the initial two survey years, after which the mandate was renewed for a period. In fact, it wasn’t until 1877, ten years after Confederation, that Parliament granted the GSC permanent status and promise of continued funding.

In the 1850s, Logan was able to expand his staff, as the organization took root, hiring a paleontologist, a chemist and a draftsman for the preparation of maps. Canada provided an exhibition of minerals that was well-received at the London World Fair in 1851 and again at the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1855. In 1856, Logan received approval to run a small museum open to the public out of the headquarters of the GSC in Montreal. (I can’t quite wrap my head around how interesting it must have been to visit such a museum and to interact with some of these characters at that time.)

Engraving | River with a small sailboat, Geological Survey of Canada | M991X.5.707

John Henry Walker, River with a small sailboat (1850-1885), Geological Survey of Canada, engraving. McCord Museum, Montreal

The history just gets more and more interesting as we continue. Logan himself was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1856. In 1863 the GSC published the first major compendium of all acquired knowledge on the geology of Canada and in 1869 Logan’s geological map of Canada followed. Logan, almost 70, gave up the directorship of the organization in 1869. He was succeeded by Alfred R.C. Selwyn, a Brit who had previously led the Geological Survey of Victoria in Australia. This brings us back to the beginning of the story, as recounted by me, or at least to the photo at the top of this post.

Alfred Selwyn was an avid mountaineer from time spent in Switzerland as a student, which came in handy as the work of the survey quickly expanded to the west with the addition of BC to Confederation in 1871. It’s amazing to think of the motley crew in the photo above as accomplishing great feats of trekking, but it’s absolutely true. As rail links between the east and BC were proposed as a condition of BC’s joining of Confederation, the survey set about exploring the mineral wealth of the proposed routes. By 1878 the GSC had moved from Montreal to Ottawa, to a location close to Parliament (i.e. not the location that I saw yesterday, which probably dated to about 1909, although Selwyn directed the organization largely from the field). This began a series of great expeditions to both the west and the north and Selwyn was gradually able to expand his field staff from six groups in 1871 to fourteen as of 1890.

It turns out that I have a titillating hobby that I have never told you about this point. It’s to examine Reports of the Auditor General to the Parliament of Canada for the period up to about 1900. I kid you not! If you scroll to page 131 of the report for 1890-91, which is gloriously available electronically through the University of Toronto’s archival portal (although I kind of miss the library stacks), you will see that Alfred Selwyn’s salary for the 12 months ending June 30 was $4,000. You’ll note that his surveyors were earning about $3 a day. Draftsmen earned even less. The Auditor General’s reports are useful for all sorts of things. I will return to this subject another time.


Among the scientists to join the Survey over the period (in 1875), was George Dawson, after whom Dawson City, Yukon is named. He was already exploring the Klondike nearly ten years before the gold rush in 1896 and prospectors used his maps to make their trails. Dawson succeeded to director of the GSC in 1895.

Geological survey of  canada party near wolf hills, SASK nov 5 1879 Dawson Glenbow

Geological Survey of Canada party, near Wolf Hills, Saskatchewan, 1877. Photo taken by George Dawson. Glenbow Archives, Calgary, AB

Christy Vodden reports that Dawson and his assistant R.G. McConnell explored an area of about 164,000 square kilometers in northern British Columbia and the headwaters of the Yukon River, on foot and by boat, in the 1887 field season. The area had been previously unknown other than accounts of a few First Nations persons and prospectors. Vodden further reports that Dawson had been a sickly child and was a small man with a hunched back and weak lungs, which makes this journey even more astounding.

Something that piqued my interest in reading about Dawson is that he was also keenly interested in the languages and cultures of the First Nations people he encountered. He apparently reported on the Haida Indians of northern coastal BC and took photographs of them(something for future research on my part). He also published papers about various other First Nations: the Yukon Peoples, the Kwakiutl and the Shuswap.

Photograph, glass lantern slide | Front Street, Dawson, YT, 1899 | MP-0000.103.23

Front Street, Dawson, Yukon Territory, 1899. Notman Photo Archive, McCord Museum, Montreal. Photographer: Hegg?

I love this photo, possibly because almost all of the backs of the people are turned, adding to the air of mystery and the feeling of rhythm therein. Note the uniform length of coat and the straw hats on some. There seems to be a lone woman under a parasol, on the far right.

Alas, I’ll have to leave this fascinating story to continue another time.


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