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Review

Return to Northern British Columbia: A Photojournal of Frank Swannell, 1929-39

By Jay Sherwood

November 4, 2013

Review By Ben Bradley

This is the third and final instalment in Jay Sherwood’s series about the work of provincial land surveyor Frank Swannell. It describes Swannell’s activities during the 1930s, including several seasons spent in areas of northern British Columbia that he had visited before World War One – hence the “return” of the title. Like the two previous books, it focuses on Swannell’s work in the field. Each chapter is organized around a summer’s fieldwork and draws heavily on Swannell’s diaries, maps, and photographs, as well as those made by his compatriots. The chapters are illustrated with many superbly reproduced photographs.

In spite of its title, Return to Northern British Columbia is not as focused on a particular region of BC as the previous books were. The narrative jumps around the province, just like Swannell did, for surveyors took employment wherever they could get it during the Depression. After working in the Peace River country from 1929 to 1931, Swannell was unable to find work in 1932 or 1933, and hence there are no chapters covering those years. In 1934 he signed on with the Bedaux Expedition, and his participation lent the fanciful outing a veneer of scientific legitimacy. He then worked on the headwaters of the Skeena, in the Big Bend country, and on central Vancouver Island, before heading back to northern BC for one last season in 1939.

Swannell’s peregrinations show the different kinds of work that surveyors undertook during the 1930s, and the different kinds of conditions they encountered. Several chapters emphasize the dramatic changes that air travel brought to the practice of surveying. Aerial photography made surveying faster and cheaper, while airplanes made it easier to move survey crews around the country and keep them supplied. Swannell had much less need for packers and boatmen than in previous years, and this may explain why there are far fewer images of First Nations people in this book than in the previous two – air travel freed surveyors from reliance on the people who lived on the lands they examined.

This series provides a valuable look at surveying in BC from the perspective of the men who worked “on the ground.” It is also a useful resource for historians interested in some of the province’s lesser-known corners. However, the sustained focus on fieldwork results in Swannell and his surveys appearing detached from the broader social, economic, and environmental history of British Columbia. This final book in the series would have benefitted from more reflection on Swannell’s overall significance to the province, and the short chapter about his retirement years could have provided a venue for this. Sherwood shows that Swannell lived to see mines, mills, roads, and utility lines built in areas of the province that had once seemed impenetrable. He even attended the 1952 opening of the Kenney Dam, which flooded extensive sections of the Nechako River valley that he had surveyed prior to World War One. Here, surely, was an opportunity to consider land surveyors’ role in facilitating these kinds of developments, an opportunity to locate them in “the big picture.” Given the amount of work that Sherwood has put into tracing Swannell’s travels and travails, this reader would have appreciated his thoughts on the matter.

Return to Northern British Columbia: A Photojournal of Frank Swannell, 1929-39
Jay Sherwood
Victoria: Royal British Columbia Museum, 2010 196 pages. Illus. $39.95