W.D. Usher

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Dave Usher, ALS
Known for President (1955), Professional Recognition Award (1979), Honorary Life Membership (1989)

Mr. Usher was both a professional engineer and land surveyor. However the greater portion of his career was devoted to land surveying. The following is an attempt to highlight some of his many achievements and contributions to the land survey community.

First, we will need a bit of background. Dave first became acquainted with surveying during his time with the First Canadian Survey Regiment, Royal Artillery while serving in Europe from 1941 to 1945. One story he used to tell was about the time they were busy reading an angle when they heard the familiar sound of an incoming artillery round. All those present ducked for cover, when they looked up again one of the tripod legs had been taken off by the shell. It would be interesting to see how a person would write up that ‘near miss’ in today’s world of reporting all incidents and near misses.

From that background he attended the University of Alberta and was granted his Civil Engineering Degree in 1949. His determination to excel in his work resulted in graduating ‘with distinction.’ After several summers with Ducks Unlimited and the PFRA and a brief tour with the City of Edmonton in the water works department. It would appear that there was some sort of affinity for water in his work. It was after this that he joined C.B. Atkins, Land Surveyor in Edmonton.

Dave earned his Alberta Land Survey Commission in 1951. He, along with other notables such as Charlie Weir, Buck Olsen, Don Dawson, George Walker and D. Rae Sutherland, were part of a new generation of land surveyors. He did not stop there. He went on to obtain his DLS (now CLS) and BCLS within the next several years.

Upon Mr. Atkins’s retirement in 1957, C.B. Atkins Land Surveyor, became W.D. Usher and Associates, then Usher Canada Limited and is currently operating under the MMM Group. Dave served as president of W.D. Usher and Associates until 1979, at which time he retired from active surveying.

Dave Usher served as President and on Council of the ALSA, as well as on many committees with the ALSA. He did not limit his ‘after five’ work to his profession, as his service to a number of community organizations illustrates. His name is on a relatively short list of Honorary Life Members of the Association.

Perhaps the most significant and lasting influence Dave had on the surveying community was the time and effort, he along others, spent to bring the Geomatics program to Alberta at the University of Calgary. It took a lot of persuasion, cajoling, innumerable committee meetings, phone calls and letters. In fact this long slow process took Dave over a long somewhat bumpy road from 1967 to 1979 at which time the course was finally established. This effort is further testimony to Dave’s determination in the tasks he undertook.

His goal to improve the level of education available to surveyors was finally realized. It did not end with that as he always encouraged employees to take extra courses whenever these were available.

Mr. Usher was not one to shy away from new technology. He conducted an extensive Tellurometer survey in the City of Edmonton to establish a control network for the City. This network was used until the Alberta Government established the now familiar Alberta Control System. Those of you who grew up with total stations would be horrified at the amount of dial twisting, recording and reduction that was required to obtain a distance. To go along with this new technology was a computer that could handle only one program at a time. To load a new program or to enter data one had to feed it a paper punch tape. The key board was a typewriter type of machine, old and antiquated even then. The noise and heat generated by this device caused it to be in its own room. However some of the software was very effective. Certainly no ‘Windows’ type of overhead here. This was only the beginning.

Mr. Usher earned the respect of his employees, his many articled pupils, his fellow land surveyors, and members of the community through his determination to get things done properly. Of course the fact that he was a gentleman, thought before he spoke and was true to his word also did wonders to earn that respect.

It was an honour to have known and worked with William David Usher.

Hugo Engler, ALS

The following is a recorded conversation with Mr. Usher as one of the Historical & Biographical Committee initiatives. Les Frederick, ALS interviewed him at his home on June 7, 2000.

LF: This is Les Frederick from the ALSA talking to Dave Usher at his home in Edmonton on Wednesday, June 7, 2000.

Dave has been active in the ALSA since 1951, was its president in 1955-1956 and was a member of several committees. Dave is also a Canada Lands Surveyor and a British Columbia Land Surveyor. He was the president of W.D. Usher and Associates from 1957 until his retirement in 1979.

Dave, I’d like to start the interview with a few questions about your background. I understand you were born near Stettler. Tell me about growing up.

DU: Actually our ranch was about thirty miles south of Stettler. I was born on the ranch.

LF: What was it like growing up there?

DU: Just went to school there and walked a couple of miles to school every day. We had a good life.

LF: Tell me about your parents or your brothers or sisters.

DU: My father emigrated from Scotland in 1902 and started that ranch in 1903. Then my mother came over from England in 1913. There were five in our family – my oldest brother, Tom, ran the ranch most of the time. My older sister Margaret took nursing and she lived for a long time at Sylvan Lake. Now she’s out in Victoria. My younger brother Les is here in the city. He kind of runs the ranch now. My older brother is not that well. He was with the Department of Agriculture for a long time and then with Culture, Youth and Recreation under Horst Schmidt. My young sister Jean took nursing here. She graduated the same time that Les and I did in 1949. She passed away about the same year. She had leukemia.

LF: You went to school in just a local school house?

DU: Until grade eight. Then I went to a boys private school in Victoria which is called University School now for grades nine, ten, eleven and twelve. Then when I got back to Alberta, the BC grade twelve was not university entrance so I went to Stettler for a year and took grade twelve all over again in the Alberta curriculum which was a lot of repeat. Then I worked for a year on the ranch and then joined the army on April 4, 1941.

LF: When you joined the army, what got you into the survey regiment? Why did you join that regiment?

DU: When you join the army, you pretty well go where you are told. You don’t have that much choice. I joined up in Calgary, took two months of basic training in Huntington, Quebec. Then I took a signal course for two months in Kingston. Then there was this opportunity to take a surveying course at Petawawa for two months. Then I went overseas after that.

LF: What did they teach you in survey school?

DU: Just the basics of how to chain, triangulation, traverse, how to turn angles, that sort of thing. I don’t thing we did much with levels because we didn’t require that in army surveying.

LF: So then you went overseas. Where did you go first?

DU: Well, I spent two years in England basically doing exercises and that sort of thing. I sailed from Canada on my birthday, the thirteenth of November. Two years later exactly, I sailed from Bristol going over to North Africa although we didn’t really know where we were going – just that we were going somewhere. So I spent maybe a couple of weeks just outside of Algiers at a staging camp. Then we took another boat over to Sicily; spent Christmas and New Years there. Then we went across the Straits of Messina on a tank landing craft, then got on a battalion train which was an interesting experience. It got stalled in a tunnel going downhill. The engineer and fireman would get off at every station and refill their wine bottles. That was quite an interesting trip. We finally ended up at a little place called Altamira and stayed there for a while. Then we moved up to the front which was up the east coast.

LF: Getting back to England from Canada. Where did you leave from – Montreal?

DU: No, from Halifax. As a matter of fact, I was marching on the boat on November 11th and halfway up the gang plank they halted us and I had to stand at attention for two minutes to observe the November 11th two-minute silence. We went to Manchester on a Polish boat called the Batory. Not a very big boat. The North Atlantic was very rough at that time of the year.

LF: Any experiences on the boat?

DU: I was away down on F deck in a hammock. There were people sleeping in hammocks, people sleeping on the tables where we ate and people sleeping on the floor. I made sure I had a hammock because everybody was kind of seasick. I can’t remember the name of the boat we took from England. I’ll think of it after a while.

LF: When you left England, when you finally got up to Altamira, how long did that take?

DU: Whoa, about two months I guess.

LF: Gee, that’s a long time.

DU: When the boat was going from England, first of all we went up to Glasgow to pick up a convoy there. Then we went a long way west. With a bunch of surveyors, we had a pretty good idea of where we were. We must have got half-way back to Canada and then turned south through Gilbraltar and over to Algiers.

LF: Were you all in the same regiment? Were you all surveyors?

DU: No, there others as well.

LF: Once you got up to the Front, what were your duties?

DU: We didn’t actually see that much action there. Did a little bit. Then we moved, I guess it would have been in March or April or something, back south down to Naples and then got into action at the Hitler line sort of in that area there. Our regiment had about three different functions. There was the survey troop which surveyed in gun positions for the gun regiments. We had to give them both coordinates and bearings. Then we had flash spotters who had posts up at the Front right up at the infantry, more or less. They would observe using a director which is like a transom only with a quick release. They watched for a gun flash; there were all connected by telephone; they took a bearing on that. Then, by telephone, they sent the results back to the computing centre and within a matter of a minute or two, they would have the position of the enemy gun. They would relay that to our gun positions.

LF: There would be a series of these spotters so that you could triangulate?

DU: Three of them; three at flash spotting posts.

LF: How far were they apart?

DU: To tell you the truth, I don’t really know. I think about probably half a mile. They would do a resection or an intersection, I guess you’d call it. Then that coordinate would be given to our gun regiments. An artillery gun can fire fairly accurately. They would bring down fire on the enemy guns. Then we’d have sound rangers doing the same thing but with microphones which picked up the sound and the difference in time it took to get from the gun to each microphone. Those positions were surveyed in of course. That could also get a gun position.

LF: So they were all working in unison so you could compare results?

DU: Pretty well.

LF: What kind of coordinate system did you use?

DU: UTM. All of Europe was UTM. Actually the surveying in Europe was pretty good because there were a lot of trig points, on the tops of all the mountains there were cairns. Those would have a coordinate and all the prominent features like church steeples and flag poles. If you could see at least three of those things then you could do a resection. If you could only see one, what we would do is lay out a base, four or five hundred feet or something, turn angles from each end of it, measure the base accurately and then take a sun shot or a star shot for bearing. Then you could calculate your position from that.

LF: What kind of equipment were you using?

DU: The equipment was good for that time. The old Cooke, Troughton and Simms optical theodolites. We didn’t have any old Vernier ones.

LF: When people think of the army, they never think of the surveying aspect of it.

DU: Yeah – well of course it’s now GPS. But at that time, it was the state of the art.

LF: Is there any recollection or memory that sticks in your mind about your whole experience or many experiences over there?

DU: Most of my time in action was spent in Italy. At times you would come under enemy shell fire and it was scary.

LF: I don’t think the younger generation can ever fathom the horror.

DU: No, but we didn’t have a lot of casualties in our regiment. There is a memorial thing in the museum of the regiments in Calgary. Army MacCrimmon could tell you all about it because he was active in putting it all together.

LF: Are any colleagues from your troop professional surveyors?

DU: Yeah. Some from our regiment did all right. From our troop – I’m not so sure.

LF: How many were in your troop?

DU: Probably thirty people – something like that.

LF: They were all surveyors?

DU: No, there was the motor transport section to look after all the vehicles. There were cooks and drivers for the officers.

LF: How many surveyors in each troop?

DU: I never even thought about that – probably about fifteen or something like that.

LF: After the war ended and you came home, what were the prospects for work?

DU: I went to university right away. I didn’t get home until October so it was too late to go to university that fall but the university put on a January class. I don’t know if they did it in all the faculties, but they did it in engineering. I started in January with my first year of engineering and graduated in 1949.

LF: You knew you were going to be a surveyor or an engineer?

DU: I was going to be an engineer. It turned out I got into surveying.

LF: What got you into surveying?

DU: The jobs weren’t that terribly plentiful when you graduated in 1949. I worked for the City of Edmonton for a year as a junior engineer. That was kind of boring so the Dean of Engineering, at that time, got me into surveying. He said he got his start in surveying in Manitoba. Dean Hardy was a MLS, ALS and DLS. So he got me in with this old time surveyor, C.B. Atkins, and I eventually got into a partnership with him. He quit right away and retired out to the coast.

LF: What was he like to work for?

DU: These guys came through the Depression. There were three of them: C.B. Atkins, Alec Stewart and Joe Doze. They were used to doing things in a pretty economical sort of a way. They didn’t believe in everybody having a vehicle or anything like that. It was totally different.

LF: How so?

DU: When I first went with Atkins, he had one old party chief who couldn’t drive, so he went out on the streetcar every morning, packed his chain with him and his transit and away he went to do lot surveys or something like that. It was pretty primitive.

LF: What were some of your duties?

DU: I got to be a party chief fairly quickly because that’s what I was hired for. Mr. Atkins, lived in town on 114 Street just south of Jasper, he used to go out for the summer. This one year he went up the Smoky River to survey coal plains up there, where I guess Grande Cache is now probably. He had a deal – CJCA broadcast every Saturday night messages to the people in the north. His wife would go down to CJCA and talk to her husband and say – Ben, this is what’s happening; all this is going on. He had a radio, but when he was fording the Smoky River with his pack train, the horse with the radio on it went down and he had no way of telling her. So she was broadcasting all summer faithfully – he never heard a thing. It was different in those days. Communication was poor, transportation was poor. I don’t know what year that was but it was before I came around.

LF: When you became a party chief, what kind of surveys did you do?

DU: Legal surveys like you do now and lot surveys and municipal road surveys. Then we got into quite a bit of oil surveying later on.

LF: What was that like when it first started?

DU: At the start, it was pretty well all in surveyed territory so it was just a matter of measuring off from the section corners and turning angles and putting in pins.

LF: You were on the committee of northern oil – something like that?

DU: Oh, was I? That could be. When you got off into the bush where there was no township system, other than the baselines, you often had to do quite long traverses, you had to check them somehow, take star shots or sun shots or something to check your bearings, run twenty miles of levels and close it. It was straight hardship.

LF: Not like two day wellsites now? How long did it take?

DU: It varied. It depended on what help you got, whether you got a bulldozer to work with or not. One thing I could mention – do we have to stick in Alberta? After I had been there for a year or two, I guess it must have been about 1951, we did some work up in the Territories. They had a sort of a petroleum and natural gas lease staking rush – like a gold rush. All the companies were staking out these claims and you could stake from one setup – just like mining claims – you can put four stakes there and then you had to cut 1,500 feet of line along the boundaries of the claim (east/west, north/south). We did a lot of that. It extended all the way from Hay River over to Fort Liard, from Fort Simpson, from the Mackenzie River down to the Northwest Territories. That was interesting. I had a lot of interesting experiences there. Landing on lakes – it was all in the middle of winter – cold.

LF: Name some experiences.

DU: The only way we could get our position was just to map spot. Of course the maps are no good anyway, so you’d take the mouth of a river or something where it came into a lake. Then you only had to cut half as much line because one line went out in the lake and one up the river or something like that. But from that one setup, you could stake four squares, each ten miles (100 square miles). So you could stake 400 square miles from one setup.

LF: How big were the survey parties doing that?

DU: Survey parties? Me and one guy and the pilot.

LF: How did you get up there? Fly from Edmonton?

DU: Oh yeah. Fly to Yellowknife (I went to the first time) and then over to Hay River. We worked out of Hay River mostly and also out of Fort Liard.

LF: How did you get to there? With trucks?

DU: Beaver on skis. Some of the airplanes we had were older. One was a Belanka – pretty underpowered. You always had your fingers crossed so it would clear the trees at the end of the lake. My initiation into that was we flew to Yellowknife to pick up the pilot and the aircraft – that was New Year’s Eve. The pilot decided we could go over to Hay River the next day. I don’t know whether it was New Year’s Day or maybe the day after. It was in a Beaver. He had flown that so often he didn’t have any maps or anything. So we flew southwest towards Hay River. It was cloudy so he said we’d go above the clouds, which was fine. Then, after we’d gone for quite a while he said we’d better come down. We came down and we were crossing from land onto water or ice which he assumed to be the west end of Great Slave Lake. Well, he was off course a little. By this time, it was starting to get dark. When he hit the south shore, he turned east hoping to hit Hay River. Hay River never showed up and in fact we came to the end of the lake. He knew he was lost. So I said, “look for a cabin.” He was hollering mayday into the thing and of course somebody was on the radio at the other end so he didn’t get through on that. Anyway, he said we’d better come down, so we landed rough – bounced 50 feet – hard drifts on the lake. So we just sat there, built a fire and stayed overnight. The next morning, he got his radio going. They couldn’t send from the ground – those aircraft. So he got his airplane heated up, got his radio going. On his radio, he could receive so he got a barometric direction so he knew what elevation we were at. He looked on this old outdated map and there was only one lake with that elevation on it and that was Buffalo Lake south of Great Slave Lake. So we took off and headed into Hay River. They were just getting a search party ready to look for us. It was all cloak and dagger. The companies were competing for this land. They had stakers out all over the place. Some of them stayed up at Fort Simpson. We stayed in Hay River. The only person that knew where we were was the pilot’s wife.

LF: How long were you up there?

DU: I don’t know. Probably three weeks or something like that.

LF: Any animal problems?

DU: Oh no.

LF: Too cold.

DU: That’s not exactly Alberta surveying but we just took whatever came along. Same as we do now I guess.

LF: The same equipment – using transits and chains?

DU: Yeah. Actually, we just used a compass to orient these lines north and south and I guess we chained out the 1,500 feet. Although, it many not have been exactly 1,500 feet.

LF: When you became an ALS, what was the education requirements?

DU: Well I had my engineering degree by then so I had quite a few exemptions. I had to write Spherical Trig. I had written my DLS exams as well. I honestly don’t remember all the stuff we had to do. I guess we had the Acts, Spherical Trig, Astronomy and then we had an oral exam which wasn’t very tough. I think they were getting desperate for surveyors then.

LF: What was the public’s view of a surveyor then? Is there a difference between then and now?

DU: Y’know I haven’t been surveying for quite a few years so I don’t even know what it’s like now. Is the publicity fairly favourable now? I don’t know. Do they still feel you are charging far too much? That’s where I was then.

LF: I think the public’s view now is that somebody goes around, sets up something and charges you money.

What was it like starting your own survey company when C.B. Atkins retired and you were on your own. What was that like?

DU: What was it like? I don’t know, we worked a lot longer than you work now. I think we worked Saturdays when I was first there. Then we had it back to only Saturday morning so that was easier. It was a case of taking work home all the time. The computations were more difficult then. We didn’t even have a little Curta or anything, we used log tables initially. Afterwards we got some traverse tables. The first computers – I think Charlie (Weir) and I got one about the same time. It was called a GP30 – it was sort of about the size of your deep freeze. The memory was a magnetic drum so when you turned it on it made a racket. All the input and output was by way of a printed output. That was a wonderful innovation for us. I forget what year – about 1957 or something like that. About the same time that we got our first Tellurometer which was an MRA1. That was magic also.

LF: How much was that computer?

DU: I don’t remember – have to ask Charlie – probably $7,000 or something. The Tellurometer was $10,000, which was a lot of money in those days.

LF: That’s quite an advancement when you don’t have to chain through bush.

DU: Yeah – but you still have to have line of sight.

LF: In 1955-1956, you were president of the ALSA. What was the Association like in those years?

DU: Jack Holloway was the secretary. He kept all the records. There was no office. He was a public service commissioner for the province of Alberta and he kept all the records in his office. There wasn’t much in the way of committees or anything. There was no ALS News. I think in my term, we started that. I’ve still got the first issue – there was a friend of mine did a cartoon for the front page of it – Doug Stevenson his name was. I just figured that it was time. The annual meetings were only men. We never invited the wives in those days. I think during my term, we starting inviting the wives – big innovation. The old guys didn’t like that. But talking about the old timers. Joe Doze, I mentioned him. He spoke to an old-timers luncheon at one time and to me his was a good speech. It was very interesting and he told a lot about the early days. He graduated in Civil Engineering from the University of Alberta in the first graduating class.

LF: Getting back to C.B. Atkins, where did he graduate from?

DU: I think he came originally from Ireland. I’m not sure where he came from. He was a pretty keen skier and outdoors person. He had a weekend cabin just down on the river – just down by Laurier Park there. I think he articled to Mitchell or somebody like that, wrote his exams – did it the hard way.

LF: Who else did he article besides yourself?

DU: I don’t know.

LF: You articled a lot of people including Dennis and Don Tomkinson.

DU: It’s hard to remember all of them.

LF: You got any stories about those two?

DU: Don and Dennis? I don’t know, they were good workers – really good. I remember doing one of those wellsites up at Fort Rigley in the Territories with Don. He and I went up and did that. I don’t know how far we traversed, it must have been ten miles from Fort Rigley east. Some we had to go both ways and chain it and double chain it and run levels there and back.

LF: How did you try to recruit new pupils?

DU: I guess we advertised. I had a preference for farm boys because they knew what to do in the bush. If they got stuck, they didn’t phone a tow truck or something, they just figured out how to get out. They knew how to cut bush. We didn’t have power saws then. Where did you come from Les?

LF: Toronto – but I spent my summers on a farm. What are your recollections of your year as president – the highs and lows?

DU: Well I know that the reason I became president was that Jack Webb was vice-president and he had to go back to Saskatoon or somewhere so somebody had to fill in. So, at the annual meeting and dance and everything, Geoff Hamilton got me and Charlie together and said one of you guys has to be the president. He flipped a coin and I was the lucky one or unlucky – whatever you want to call it – that’s how I got to be president. It was pretty low key in those days. The old-timers like Carl Lester, Jack Holloway and those, they had pretty fixed ideas on how everything should be run. It was difficult to make very many changes. We didn’t really have much of a committee system either.

LF: You were instrumental in the establishment of the surveying engineering program at the University of Calgary. What are your thoughts on the beginning of that program?

DU: I was all in favour of it. We actually tried to start one here at the University of Alberta first in Edmonton. I guess Krakiwsky came and was interviewed for that. Somehow it just never materialized here. It didn’t get enough support from the university so then Calgary took it over. The fellows down there pushed it. Alex Hittel did a lot of work on it. It think it’s a good program. I don’t know what you think of it. I don’t know what it’s like now.

LF: Do you think the University of Calgary program needs to be orientated more to surveying or engineering?

DU: To tell you the truth, I don’t know. As I say, I haven’t been surveying for quite a long time so I’m not really very well up on what’s happening. I’m not sure what’s happening in the industry nationally. I kind of think that all those old disciplines like mapping and hydrography and land surveying – the old Canadian Institute of Surveying of which both Charlie and I were president of at one time, it was made up of all those different disciplines. Probably the basic one was geodetic surveying. All those have gone by the board now and so I don’t know, on a national scale, where surveying is going. You would know better than I do. Well, Gordie Olsson – but there’s not the same need for all that – when you think of the geodetic surveying, huge triangulation schemes and finally came along SHORAN and LORAN. That changes and it has been changing ever since. Now we’ve got GPS so you don’t need that horizontal and vertical control that was a lot of work in those days. People worked for years doing triangulation in the north and in the mountains. All that’s gone by the board. I don’t even know what they learn in school anymore. I guess they learn geodesy but they learn it from the point of view of using a GPS – same with vertical control – it would be the same.

LF: You received the Alberta Land Surveyors’ Association Professional Achievement Award at the 70th Annual General Meeting. What were your feelings on that?

DU: I was flattered to receive that.

LF: It’s quite a distinction.

DU: Sure.

LF: Just in your surveying life in general, do think it’s been a good life? Do you think it’s been rewarding? Would you have done anything different?

DU: I don’t think so. It was a good life. I was involved with APEGGA quite a large amount. Served as a vice-president one year and did a lot of committee work for them. Our office was in Thornton Court and the APEGGA office was also there. The Registrar/Secretary of the engineers – he and I used to go and have coffee quite often. So, if he had some job come up that he wanted done on a committee or something like that, well, he always asked me. Ivan Findley knows. And, through him, I got the job of being the engineering representative on the University of Alberta Alumni Council. I did a lot of work for the alumni and through that, got involved in a lot of other things. I was on the Senate of the University and on the Board of Governors for a while. I’m still working for them with the Botanic Gardens.

LF: In your surveying career, what is a memory that sticks out, either a field job you went on or….?

DU: One of the ones that sticks out quite a bit is after we got the Tellurometer which at that time was a pretty innovative thing, we did a lot of work in North-Eastern BC for an oil company doing control from the tops of the mountains, which you would land on the top of a mountain where there was a trig point and shoot points down into the valley so that that the seismic crews could tie into to those. We had a lot of experiences on that. It was interesting. Beautiful scenery up there.

LF: Flying in with a helicopter?

DU: Fly up the mountain top. The pilot would help – he’d usually do the recording.

LF: That’s interesting. OK. Thank you very much, Dave. We’ll close the interview off now.