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Surveying Northern British Columbia: A Photojournal of Frank Swannell

By Jay Sherwood

Review By Fran Gundry

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 147 Autumn 2005  | p. 131-2

Frank Swannell was a distinguished BC land surveyor whose career in the province extended from 1899, when he came west after completing a two-year course in mining engineering at the School of Practical Science at the University of Toronto, through the Second World War. He had a successful, full, and interesting life, but one suspects that no part of it was more satisfying than the seven successive seasons, from 1908 to 1914, he spent as a relatively young man in charge of survey parties in north central British Columbia under contract with the Department of Lands. Swannell was a keen and gifted photographer, and his collection of over 5,000 photographs, with diaries and other papers, was given to the British Columbia Archives by his sons after his death in 1969. Jay Sherwood has drawn on this material to document those years.

From 1908 to 1911 Swannell surveyed townships and First Nations reserves in the Nechako Valley, carried out triangulation surveys in the Lakes District, and travelled up the Stuart River system to Bear Lake. His ability to survey large areas with extreme accuracy in the difficult conditions that the photographs in Surveying Northern British Columbia document led to his being chosen to carry out exploratory triangulation surveys in the northern part of the province in 1912, 1913, and 1914, working north from Fort Saint James and Finlay Forks to survey the watersheds of the Omineca, Ingenika, and Finlay Rivers. British Columbia, Topographical Sketch Map of the Omineca and Finlay River Basins, five miles to the inch, 1917, which can be viewed on the British Columbia Archives Web site, is based largely on his work and shows the area he covered and the exactness of his surveys.

Sherwood, a teacher librarian who lived for many years at Vanderhoof and who has travelled in some of the areas Swannell surveyed, has selected 149 of Swannell’s photographs, grouped them by year, and drawn on Swanell’s diaries to describe for each of the years, from 1908 to 1914, Swannell’s routes of travel and surveys. He provides an introductory chapter on surveying in British Columbia, quotes from Swannell’s diaries and from the instructions Swannell received each year from the surveyor general, and includes copies of some pages from Swannell’s field books and a copy of the map that accompanied his 1913 report to the surveyor general. The photographs are mostly half or one-quarter page in size and are interspersed with the text.

Swannell’s beautifully composed photographs show the surveyors at work and in camp; the sternwheelers, stages, automobiles, packhorses, rafts, and canoes they used to get around the country; and the people they met – a group riding home to Cheslatta from Fraser Lake through the snow, “Tremblai Lake Joe and his family,” a group of First Nations boys (one of whom was dancing) at a Sports Day at Fort Saint James, an old miner at Germansen Creek.

It is unfortunate that it was found necessary to crop many of the photographs, usually only slightly; however, in some cases this resulted in cutting off, or cutting in half, Swannell’s descriptions. Also, a more clearly detailed map than the ones provided would have made it easier to follow the author’s descriptions of Swannell ’s travel routes. However, Surveying Northern British Columbia presents a good selection of Swannell’s photographs and will be enjoyed by those interested in surveying and map making, in northern British Columbia, and in First Nations history. It will also be enjoyed by those who simply like accounts of wilderness travel.