By Judy Larmour at the Past-President's Breakfast, 2005 ALSA Annual General Meeting
Charlie Snell was born in the coastal town of Torquay in Devon in 1880. At thirteen he apprenticed to a book binder and at 18 moved to Croydon in London. In 1905 at the age of 25, the lure of Canada’s west found him crossing the Atlantic. He later said: “I guess it was the advantages of outdoor life that appealed to me and brought me here.” He worked as a farm hand in Manitoba before arriving in Alberta, where other family members were to follow, brothers, a sister and their mother.
He and his brother Bert took out homesteads in the Lesliville area in 1908. In 1909 Charlie married Mabel Tozer who had arrived from England. Destiny was not on their side. Mabel died shortly after the birth of their son Sidney in 1910.
Now the single father of an infant, Snell relied heavily on his mother, who ran the family’s stopping house near Eckville, to help him raise his son. It was a busy area as the Alberta Central Railroad was soon to be constructed. During 1911 Snell watched Wilfred Laurier—whom he had seen during the events for the coronation of Edward VII in London—drive the spike. In 1912, Snell moved to Red Deer to manage a store for T.A. Gaetz in North Red Deer.
Then in 1916 Snell joined a survey party as a rodman. The job obviously appealed, as in 1917 he signed article papers with Dominion Land Surveyor Claude Walker, who was responsible for many surveys in Banff. The next year he transferred his articles to George Constable Cowper, and in 1922 he received his DLS commission. In 1924, at the age of 44, Charlie Snell sat his ALSA examinations, and set up his own survey practice in Red Deer where he did most of the city’s subdivision and other survey work. In 1930 Snell designed and laid out the Ross Street Bridge. His practice maintained a virtual monopoly in Red Deer for decades and he became the stuff of legendary stories.
Snell’s letterhead noted his firm paid “special attention to urban and rural municipalities.” One that hired him consistently was the municipal district of Last West headquartered in Rimbey. In response to a query about undertaking road diversions in 1942 Snell noted: “The rates for road surveys are $20.00 per day and expenses. Most of the municipal districts I work for provide my help and arrange for my board. I have my car pulmanized and sleep in it during the summer. This enables me to stay near my work and avoid unnecessary car mileage.” Snell, and his son Sidney, shown here with his grandmother, were a familiar sight with their Dodge touring car on the side of dusty summer roads.
Charlie Snell, by all accounts, was a bit of a tight wad in everyday matters. He used to buy his linen for survey plans at Gaetz Cornett, the drug and book store in Red Deer, buying only the exact length required for each one. A frugal man – he wasted nothing.
He kept his office in his two and half story red brick house with wrap-around veranda on the corner of 48th Avenue and Ross Street, which he purchased in 1929. Built in 1904 from local Piper brick, the house was a landmark, grand central, people came and went, clients, and everyone who worked for or with Snell. It was demolished in 1985 to make way for the new courthouse.
Charlie Snell was a man who adhered to socialist principles. From 1911 he was a member of the Socialist Party of Canada, and subscribed to several socialist magazines, including Weekly People published in New York, and Cotton’s Weekly published in Quebec. Snell was a pacifist, and in 1914 when elected councillor for the village of North Red Deer he refused to swear allegiance to the King. A general fracas apparently ensued and although some of his fellow councillors wanted to throw him in the Red Deer River, calmness eventually prevailed.
After World War I, the Winnipeg General Strike raised the spectre of Bolshevik revolution in western Canada. Snell took no chances. He dug a hole in the floor of his garage and buried all his socialist magazines and materials. Apparently some sort of special unit of the RCMP duly turned up to search his premises, but found nothing. Those papers are today safe in the Red Deer and District Archives.
Snell was also a member of the Non-Partisan League and of the United Farmers of Alberta. He admired the social gospel ideas of James S. Woodworth, which so influenced the formation of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation in 1932. Snell joined the CCF and later became a member of its successor, the NDP. He was honoured by the local constituency branch of the NDP in the 1980s.
Charlie Snell seems to have kept every piece of paper—receipts, memberships, letters—that ever crossed his desk. When he decided to deposit his papers in the Red Deer District Museum and Archives, he asked archivist Michael Dawe to clean out his attic. Michael described rows of coat hangers that had been used by Snell to file correspondence on an annual basis. Snell opened up the coat hangers, and he used the spike to impale incoming correspondence once it was dealt with. At the end of the year he twisted the end—a cheap form of filing cabinet. Eventually Michael organized the 34 boxes of personal papers, along with maps and plans. Later Snell’s field notes, running to 34 volumes for the years 1925-1952 were also deposited in the Archives.
Snell was a man of many interests including the history of central Alberta. In 1948 the Federal Historic Sites and Monuments Board decided to put up a monument to acknowledge the achievement of Icelandic poet Stephan Stephansson who lived at Markerville. The Board contacted the ALSA for information. Jack Holloway immediately referred them to Snell as a source of local knowledge.
A keen bird watcher, Snell was a member of the Alberta Natural History Society. “We need a provincial museum in Alberta,” he wrote in 1958, while renewing his subscription to the Blue Jay magazine. This was published in Saskatchewan and he praised it as an example of a government institution working in cooperation with private individuals interested in natural history.
In 1960, well-known Red Deer naturalist Kerry Wood interviewed Snell for an article on birds to be published in The Albertan. Wood duly arrived at Snell’s house but realised Snell was interested in maps that day, not birds. Snell pulled out his large collection of township survey and sectional maps from which he had pieced together the routes of many of central Alberta’s earliest trails. Wood related how Snell showed him the route of the trail to Rocky Mountain House through the Medicine Lodge Hills west of Bentley, pointing out a trail that ran south to Snake Lake. Snell then launched into recollections of the garter snakes he had seen there around 1910, in the days before the lake assumed the more appealing name of Sylvan Lake. Wood took his cue, and concluded his historical article about trails with the cheerful hope that maybe the next visit Charlie Snell would share his knowledge of local birds.
Snell’s other abiding passion was reading. A firm believer in public libraries he sat on the Red Deer Public Library Board for 35 years. In 1943 he married the city librarian Mabel Besant. In 1966 he made a $66,000 donation to the library, and today the library’s auditorium bears his name.
Charlie Snell played a major role in the Alberta Land Surveyors Association. He served on council for 25 years. Charlie Snell served as president during some of the most challenging years in the history of the Association. He was first elected president in 1929, and again in 1934, as Alberta’s land surveyors struggled with a lack of work and declining membership due to the depression. Snell was re-elected in 1943 as future post-war reconstruction became the focus. He served a fourth term in 1948 leading the Association at a time when there was a huge post-war demand for survey work and not enough surveyors to do it. This prompted major efforts to maintain standards and new education programs to get surveyors into the field. Charlie Snell never missed an annual general meeting from 1924 until 1956. Then, in December 1956, he told Jack Holloway: “Mrs Snell and I are rather old fashioned for modern ‘dos’ and I’m getting too deaf to take much part in our meeting.”
Nevertheless in 1959, at the age of 79, Snell went into partnership with Gil Oslund, ALS, and continued to work from his home office until his retirement in 1973. Once he was no longer able to be out in the field, he gave directions from the living room of his house, which according to one source was kept at tropical temperatures, while the drafting tables were kept upstairs. He retained a steel trap mind for detail and could recall distances and land locations in flash.
Charlie Snell lost his son Sidney in 1958 and his wife Mabel died in 1968. In 1980 he moved into a nursing home, but remained sharp, still avidly reading the Weekly Manchester Guardian to keep abreast of news in his native England. A reflective man, Snell, in 1977 told a reporter from the Red Deer Advocate: “A man is a fool when he reaches my age to say there are things he wouldn’t do differently if he had to do it all over again.” Charlie Snell, who did not smoke or drink, died February 16, 1982 at the age of 101.