A look at the lives of ‘The Surveyors’

Amongst the hardiest early pioneers in the Canadian west are a group who are often overlooked in the early stories of this part of the world.

That group is the surveyors. They are famously quoted as being, “The last people to see Canada first,” since they were among the very last to see the land as it appeared in its original raw state.

These men travelled into often unknown country.

They were forced, by the nature of their work, to travel in straight lines across all kinds of terrain, regardless of the obstacles in front of them.

They had to drag heavy equipment with them. They also often had to haul a season’s worth of supplies as they generally did not have the time to hunt for game to support themselves.

They worked from dawn to dusk, often for seven days a week, through bogs and muskegs, raging rivers and creeks and seemingly impenetrable forests.

At other times, they might have to work across hot dry prairie grasslands, with very little shade or drinkable water, save what they might find in the occasional alkaline slough. During the spring and fall work, they could face sudden snowstorms and bone-chilling cold snaps.

The first survey group to work in Central Alberta was a party headed by Montague Aldous. He was originally from Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.

His chief assistant was Charles Alexander Magrath, later the first mayor of Lethbridge after whom Mayor Magrath Drive is named.

Aldous and his crew ran the Fifth Meridian, the main division line west of Red Deer, all the way south to the Waterton Lakes.

He was very impressed by the land he saw near the Red Deer River. He referred to it as a ‘particularly fertile belt’ with a ‘rich black loam.’

Aldous visited Central Alberta during a relatively wet year.

He therefore found the Red Deer River to be a robust stream.

He wrote that, “I have never heard of there being any rapids or other impediments to navigation between this point and its confluence with the South Saskatchewan.

“I am of the opinion that steamers such as run up to Edmonton will, in the future, navigate at least as far up as this point.”

Unfortunately, while Montague Aldous was correct about the richness of the soil in this part of Alberta, he was wrong about the Red Deer River. In most years, there was not enough water in the stream for a steamboat to be able to use it as a transportation route.

Nevertheless, Aldous’s reports soon had an impact on the Red Deer area. Three young surveyors, George Beatty, James Beatty and William Hazelwood Kemp, liked the prospects of the district. Hence, in the late summer of 1882, they decided to establish homesteads, near the Calgary-Edmonton Trail and a short distance upstream of the Red Deer Crossing (an all-weather ford across the Red Deer River).

They erected a pole shack with a sod roof as their first home. However, they must have soon wondered if they had made the right decision.

The morning after their shack was finished in September 1882, they awoke to find more than 60 cm (24 inches) of wet snow on the ground. Despite this unpleasant turn of weather, they decided to stay and establish their farms.

The next surveyor to work in the area was Thomas Kains of St. Thomas, Ontario. In the early spring of 1883, his crew started to map out the Tenth Base Line as well as some of the township lines.

Like Aldous, he reported that the area was, “A magnificent stretch of partially wooded country, with a rich black loam soil.”

He also made note of the rudimentary farms of the Beatty’s, Kemp and a few other hardy settlers. He reported, “There is quite a settlement in this township.”

Nevertheless, Kains faced hardships which would have made him, and the others in the district, question if this really was a great potential agricultural heartland.

The weather had turned dry. The smoke from the forest fires to the west was so dense that some days the surveyors had trouble seeing their survey rods through their transits.

Worse, the heavy smoke reduced the temperatures considerably.

In mid-July, Kains and his men woke up to white frost on the ground. Moreover, there was a skim of ice in his wash basin. The land was a paradise, but the weather could challenge, “All manner of men and beast.”

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