Not So Humble Roots

11 04 2011

Growing up on a farm south of Winnipeg, I dreamt of British Columbia.

Totem poles and snow-capped mountains symbolized the west coast

province. I fell in love sight unseen with the west beyond the west.

In these opening lines of her best-selling history of British Columbia, The West Beyond the West, Jean Barman, nicely summed up the romantic sentiment that has inspired so many Canadians to “Go West!”

Boasting the mighty Gatineau Hills, the Outaouais region of west Quebec where I grew up was only marginally more mountain-like than Barman’s Manitoba farm. By the time I was in junior high, still a few years away from even seeing a mountain firsthand, I already knew that I would one day call “The West” home.

Overlooking the Ottawa Valley from the Gatineau Hills in winter.

The dominant orientation of nearly four centuries of North American history has been westward. While the lure of cheap land and abundant resources (enabled by the tragic effects of colonial encounter) propelled the continent’s initial resettlement, in later years, the call of the mountains helped sustain this westward migration.

North America’s first mountaineers (in the modern, European sense) came from eastern Canada and New England along newly-built railroads, seeking adventure in the famed Canadian Rockies. Even the Alpine Club of Canada was founded in Winnipeg of all places. Surely, every western Canadian town has strong eastern ties, dating back centuries and continuing up to the present. It is a recurring joke here in Whistler to wonder out loud if there are any people left in Ontario (or Australia, for that matter), for they all seem to have moved here.

Many of my friends here in Whistler went to the same high school as me, and I have childhood friends spread throughout western mountain towns. Recently, I uncovered two much older links between my childhood home and the Mountain West.

"Mouth of the Homathko River" by Frederick Whymper, 1864. The painting depicts the terminus of Waddingtons Road, also known as Waddington Harbour, where the Homathko flows into Bute Inlet. Source: British Columbia Archives.

I’ve been studying Alfred Waddington for a few years now. The British-born, Victoria-based entrepreneur was the brains, money, and enthusiasm behind an audacious plan to build a wagon road from British Columbia’s Bute Inlet to the booming Cariboo goldfields in the early 1860s. Despite having to pass through the incredibly rugged central Coast Mountains, by April 1864 the project was progressing well and the work crew optimistically hoped to complete the road that summer.

But it was not meant to be. Following a dispute over pay and maltreatment, a party of local Tsilhqot’in men attacked and killed fourteen of Waddington’s work crew. In response the colonial authorities organized a massive manhunt through the central British Columbia wilderness which ended with the hanging of six Tsilhqot’in men. This series of events, now known as the Chilcotin War, was one of the most tramautic and controversial episodes in British Columbia history.

(Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History, an innovative tool for teaching high-school-level Canadian History, has a great account of the Chilcotin War here. Chapters 2 and 3 from Frederick Whymper’s 1868 Travel and Adventure in Alaska, provide a fascinating contemporary account of Waddington’s road project, the Coast Mountain landscape, and the Chilcotin War. Older brother of the famed alpinist Edward Whymper, Frederick visited Bute Inlet in 1864, en route to Alaska, leaving  just weeks before the Chilcotin War.)

The Chilcotin War put an immediate halt to Waddington’s road-building enterprise, and although his route was nearly selected as the final leg of the first trans-Canada railway, only a handful of people of European descent visited the region over the next half century. The central Coast Mountains became deepest, darkest British Columbia.

When Don and Phyllis Munday “discovered” a massive peak somewhere in the middle of this foreboding wilderness in 1925, they called it, appropriately, “Mystery Mountain.” And while this title remained widely used for decades, the provincial government preferred to honour the valiant, if unsuccessful, exploits of one of the province’s most energetic pioneers by officially naming British Columbia’s highest peak “Mount Waddington.”

The remains of Waddingtons trail through the Homathko Canyon. Photograph taken by Charles Horetzky, a member of the 1872 Canadian Pacific Railway exploratory survey, led by Sir Sandforn Fleming. Source: British Columbia Archives.

I’ve been fascinated by this story for some time, but only while reading an out-of-print biography of Waddington a few months ago did I learn of the man’s final years. Waddington spent much time in Ottawa promoting his national railway scheme, and it was here, in February 1872, that he succumbed to smallpox. As was common for prominent Ottawans at the time, he was buried at St. James Cemetery, across the Ottawa River in Hull, Quebec.

I have passed by this cemetery hundreds, if not thousands, of times, though I have never been in. It lies on the main route between my childhood home and downtown Ottawa, and is only a few hundred metres from my junior high. Little did I know that in that unassuming field lay such a close connection to the great peak whose jagged summit astounded even Sir Edmund Hilary when he, accompanied by Phyllis Munday, toured Mt. Waddington in a helicopter in 1955.

Alfred Waddingtons gravestone, St. James cemetary, Hull, Quebec. It reads: ALFRED WADDINGTON the original promoter of the CANADA PACIFIC RAILWAY. Born at Crescent House, Brampton, London, Oct. 2nd, 1801. Died at Ottawa, Feb. 26th, 1872.

At he time of Waddington’s burial, just a few kilometres down the road (in Aylmer, my hometown), lived a teenager named James McArthur, Perhaps he was prone to dreaming of mountains, sight unseen, as well. for within a few years McArthur made the move out west to work for the Dominion Land Survey.

"The Field Hotel below Mount Stephen, British Columbia" by Edward Roper. Painted in the same year as J.J. McArthurs historic ascent of the same mountain. Courtesy

In September 1887 while mapping terrain adjacent to the recently completed CPR, the same railway that Waddington promoted but never lived to see, McArthur climbed to the summit of Mount Stephen which looms above the village of Field, British Columbia just west of the Continental Divide. This was the first non-indigenous ascent of a Canadian peak above 10,000 feet, leading Chic Scott, in his excellent history of Canadian mountaineering Pushing the Limits, to proclaim McArthur “the first Canadian mountaineer.”

McArthur would have a long, successful survey career, first in the Rockies, and later in the St. Elias Mountains, eventually being appointed Canadian Commissioner of the 1917 survey to locate the boundary between Alaska and Yukon Territory.

When I was fifteen, on my first visit to the Canadian Rockies, I can recall being surprised to read the name “Mount Aylmer” written above a massive pyramid-shaped mountain on one of those interpretive panoramic photos which one finds at roadside lookouts in our national parks. I figured the name was just a funny coincidence with as little to do with my home town as the canned tomatoes.

In fact, the peak was another of McArthur’s many first ascents, and he felt it appropriate to commemorate his eastern roots by attaching the name of the west-Quebec logging town to the highest peak near Banff.

Many historians and public figures have celebrated Canada’s western mountains (often, incorrectly, referred to collectively as the Rocky Mountains) as symbols of national identity. Certainly, the allure of our mountain landscapes resonate far beyond their immediate neighbourhood, and it is perhaps worth pondering how many life trajectories have been shaped by these unyielding peaks.




3 responses

12 04 2011
N. Slack

found this very interesting good work uncle neil

19 04 2011

good work chef! waddington is born on the same day as me! love the aylmer connects.

24 04 2011
Old U. Dale

Enjoy everything you write!
Always thoughtful and lucid.

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