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Searching for a Seaport: with the 1870s CPR Explorer Surveyors on the Coast of British Columbia

By James Sirois

Review By Jay Sherwood

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 175 Autumn 2012  | p. 123-24

While researching Surveying Central British Columbia I learned that in the 1920s Frank Swannell found evidence several times of the Canadian Pacific Railway surveys which had been made through the Tweedsmuir and Chilcotin areas a half century earlier. He cut out an inscription written onto a tree from an 1876 camp and brought it back to the Royal BC Museum, and I had the opportunity to view this special artifact.

When we think of surveying the route for Canada’s first transcontinental railway we usually picture the difficulties of getting through the Rockies or Major Rogers finding a pass through the Selkirks. Most people don’t realize that equally important and difficult was the search for a seaport on the Pacific Ocean. That is the subject of James Sirois’ latest book, Searching for a Seaport. Throughout the 1870s, the CPR sent several survey parties to examine every possible harbour and inlet from the U.S. boundary to the mouth of the Skeena River. The surveyors were trying to find a route that would connect with one of the possible passes through the Rockies, provide a feasible railway grade through the Coast Range, and reach the ocean at a suitable seaport that had sufficient land to accommodate a large city. Through excerpts from the journals kept by the surveyors, Sirois chronicles the incredible hardships and near-starvation most survey crews endured. 

As Sirois points out: “The CPR project in BC should have begun with a consensus of the only places on the BC coast where a world-class harbour could be developed.” He also contends that: “There were arguably, at that time, only two mainland locations in coastal BC with the potential of developing into a world class harbour. One was Burrard Inlet and the other, up until 1879, was the disregarded northern possibility of Port Simpson.” The geography of the BC coast was not as well understood as the possible routes through the Rocky Mountains. A closer examination of the potential seaports first would have enabled the CPR to eliminate many of the surveys they did in the 1870s. As the men worked in the field searching for the best technical route, engineers and politicians lobbied for their preferred location, while the Canadian government looked at the route with an eye to its neighbour across the border.

In the end, the selection of the CPR route across the Prairies and through BC to the Pacific seaport was based more on political than technical considerations. Sirois writes, “to the complete astonishment of many, and the total horror of others, the Syndicate, on the basis of their own agenda, scrapped Fleming’s [Sandford Fleming, chief engineer] ten years of transcontinental rail engineering with 1,160 miles of location surveys through the western interior – to say nothing of the millions spent and the many lives that were lost.” Fortunately for BC, the political choice included Burrard Inlet as the seaport.

Sirois’ book includes several photographs taken by Charles Horetzky, one of the surveyors, and hand-drawn maps made by the author. The author draws on his knowledge of the area and includes some personal photographs of locations visited by CPR surveyors. He provides an extensive bibliography and footnotes, but no index. The book would have benefitted from better editing and organization of the information. The first quarter of the book, which is largely background, could have been compressed. Some of the source material is not properly referenced. Despite these drawbacks, Searching for a Seaport is an informative and absorbing account of a little-known but vitally important part of the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Searching for a Seaport: with the 1870s CPR Explorer Surveyors on the Coast of British Columbia
James Sirois, with a foreword by Barry Gough
Hagensborg, BC: Skookum Press, 2011