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Surveying Southern British Columbia: A Photojournal of Frank Swannell, 1901-07

By Jay Sherwood

Review By Kelly Black

August 15, 2014

BC Studies no. 186 Summer 2015  | p. 173-74

When the Vancouver convention centre was completed in 2009, a series of interpretive panels describing the history of British Columbia were placed along the waterfront promenade. Featured among these panels is the story of “BC’s greatest surveyor,” Frank Swannell. Visitors to the waterfront receive only a glimpse into Swannell’s legacy, but in Surveying Southern British Columbia: A Photojournal of Frank Swannell, 1901-07, Jay Sherwood reveals the surveyor’s extensive role in BC’s political and economic history.

Surveying Southern British Columbia introduces us to Swannell at the beginning of his career, spanning the years 1901 to 1907 when Swannell was employed by the Victoria-based surveying firm Gore & McGregor. Sherwood describes this book as a “prequel” (1) to three other books that he wrote which cover Swannell’s later contract work with the BC Government.

Sherwood reveals an omnipresent, hard working, and romantic Swannell. From Ocean Falls to Quesnel, to the Flathead Valley, Texada Island, and Bamfield, Swannell’s work shaped a myriad of communities and resource industries across the young province. The book traces these numerous and diverse projects through the use of Swannell’s diaries, journals, letters, and vast archival photo collection. However, Sherwood notes that Swannell’s diaries contain “primarily one-line entries” (1), which made the surveyor’s letters to his sweetheart and future wife, Ada Driver, a richer source of detail for the book. With these primary sources, Sherwood has constructed a chronological account that provides the reader with the necessary historical context needed to understand both Swannell and British Columbia during the early Edwardian era.

One of the book’s primary features are Swannell’s photographs, which are a stunning and revealing look at the people and places of turn of the century British Columbia. His images not only reveal the spectacular landscapes of British Columbia, but also the harsh working conditions and lived experience of surveying. The final chapter uses recent photographs by Sherwood to contrast some of Swannell’s images with their present-day locations. Yet, this care and attention to photographic detail is not extended to every image in the book. Specifically, the human subjects of Swannell’s photographs are inconsistently identified.  For example, one image is presented to the reader as showing an “Indian Chief” — Swannell’s own term — and “probably his wife” (30). Sherwood has carefully assembled a great quantity of information on a variety of projects, locations, and persons, but given that Swannell’s images are foundational to the book, Sherwood might, perhaps, have dug deeper to link faces with historical names.

Perhaps the main shortcoming of the book is Sherwood’s failure to explicitly establish Swannell as an agent of colonialism. With an economy rooted in resource extraction, the alienation of land from Indigenous peoples is central to both the past and present of British Columbia. Readers of this journal may be familiar with Darby Cameron’s article “An Agent of Change: William Drewry and Land Surveying in British Columbia, 1887-1929” (BC Studies, no. 167) which details the many ways provincial and Dominion surveyors were instrumental in plotting land grants, resource claims, and Indian Reserves. Sherwood does look at several of Swannell’s projects that involved the relocation, reduction, or destruction of Indian Reserves and sacred sites (117-119; 137-143) but he does not analyze events as part of a larger colonial project, which is an unfortunate oversight. Nevertheless, there are many historical threads in Surveying Southern British Columbia that could lead to further fruitful research in this regard.

Swannell’s photographs, letters, and journal entries — compiled by Sherwood with crucial context and attention to detail — are a vivid look into British Columbia’s coming of age as a resource frontier in the early years of Richard McBride’s premiership. Swannell’s seemingly ubiquitous involvement in political and economic events at the turn of the twentieth century makes Surveying Southern British Columbia an essential book for any BC history collection.

Surveying Southern British Columbia: A Photojournal of Frank Swannell, 1901-07
Jay Sherwood
Halfmoon Bay: Caitlin Press, 2014. 160 pp. 150 b&w images $36.95 paper