William Pearce

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William Pearce, ALS
Czar of the Prairies
Known for First ALSA President

By Judy Larmour at the Past-President's Breakfast, 2005 ALSA Annual General Meeting

William Pearce was born in Elgin County, Ontario in 1848. He graduated from the University of Toronto as a civil engineer, and went to work as an Ontario provincial land surveyor. Following the Dominion Land Act and the creation of the Dominion Land Survey, he was among the first Dominion Land Surveyors who went west to establish initial meridians. Pearce became well known as a walker with a tough constitution. In 1882 he was appointed to the Dominion Land Board to investigate settlers’ land claims.

Then in 1884 he settled in Calgary as Superintendent of Mines for the North-West Territories. As mining did not take off as quickly as anticipated, Pearce focused his attention on championing the development of irrigation for farming in southern Alberta. And his efforts eventually materialised in the instigation of the Canadian Irrigation Survey in 1894. Pearce foresaw Alberta’s long term difficulties with water —which are only now becoming fully apparent—and determined that the state should control riparian rights in the context of irrigation and water for cattle grazing as part of rational resource development, which he saw as a developing problem south of the 49th parallel.

Pearce was a trusted bureaucrat who had the ear of Prime Minister John A. Macdonald. Known as the Czar of the Prairies, he became somewhat untouchable, no matter what he did or who he irritated—and there were many. Frank Oliver, Liberal MP for Edmonton, was one who roundly condemned Pearce for his handling of Métis land claims before 1885. The Liberal administration was less than pleased with Pearce as a bureaucrat, pinning him with conflict of interest due to his own controversial irrigation company. Nevertheless, in 1901, Pearce was appointed Chief Inspector of Surveys, and his meticulousness proved at times to be a thorn in the side of his fellow surveyors.

Pearce was always where the action was, and he can certainly be described as a bureaucrat with initiative. On April 29, 1903, shortly before dawn, part of the side of Turtle Mountain in the Crowsnest Pass gave way. Seventy-five million tons of rock came crashing down into the valley. It destroyed the Canadian American Coal and Coke Company’s tipple and plant, where a quick-thinking locomotive engineer threw his throttle with seconds to spare, pulling his coal cars to safety, just out of the slide’s path. Seventy-six people who lived on the eastern flats at Frank were crushed to death as they slept. As the news spread, William Peace was immediately roused and on board one of the rescue trains speeding south from Calgary for Frank. On arrival Pearce removed his overcoat, rolled up his sleeves, and went to work, assisting in rescue efforts. He organized the running of a line of levels to determine whether the rock slide that ran across the middle fork of the Old man River would act as a dam, and ultimately cause the flooding of the town. The survey determined that flooding would not occur, and in any event the water continued to flow through the slide. When Pearce returned to Calgary on May 3, he was without his overcoat —it was lost to the confusion of disaster and panic.

Once back at his desk, he wasted no time in asking the Department of the Interior to forward him fourteen dollars to replace it. His somewhat petty request was refused.

His larger than life character was also expressed in Pearce’s personal life. He built this impressive sandstone residence in 1889 only six years after the CPR reached Fort Calgary, on the open prairie. It was one of the earliest of such large homes to be built by men who set a high tone as Calgary’s emerging elite. Pearce gave it the modest name of Bow Bend Shack. It was located at 2014 17th Avenue SE, and it originally encompassed an estate farm of 197 acres.

Pearce kept a well ordered home—evidently with plenty of domestic help. He and his wife Margaret had six children, Frances, Tassie, Seabury, William, and twins Harry and John.

The Pearce family had a privileged lifestyle. Pearce maintained a tennis court for his family and for entertaining. In November 1907, his wife and daughters sailed for Europe leaving Pearce, in his own words, “a grass widower.” It was a trip in the manner of the grand tour popular at the time. They visited Naples, Florence, Rome, Venice and Milan and then planned to travel to Switzerland, Hungary, Germany, before hitting Paris and Brussels. “I have written urging Mrs Pearce to take a couple of months in Great Britain and Ireland,” Pearce told Superintendent Constantine of the RNWMP in Edmonton in March 1908. Meantime the Pearce boys were all at school or college.

When in 1904 the CPR finally moved forward with plans for irrigation schemes, Pearce after 30 years with Department of the Interior jumped ship. He went to work for the CPR for the next twenty-two years.

Some of Pearce’s papers are in the Glenbow Archives, and some are in Saskatchewan, but the bulk of his papers are at the University of Alberta Archives. It is an extraordinary collection. It covers every aspect of his work, broken into seven series with copious boxes in each. Pearce’s papers cover every aspect of his long career until his retirement in 1926. Pearce was the ultimate bureaucrat. He kept copies of every letter he wrote, and sent copies of each letter to all relevant and potentially interested parties. He would have been a natural, if somewhat pesky, email user! Pearce was also an historian, and carefully recorded the early history of the Dominion Land Survey.

In 1908, as township subdivision finally began in the Peace River Country, the CPR joined the rush to consider a rail line north. Pearce was dispatched to investigate a possible route, as well as the resources and potential of the Peace country for settlement. Although Pearce had previously expressed reservations about the Peace Country—because of killing frosts and the lack of rail line— his papers reveal a thorough approach to this new project. He set out to secure copies of every report that had ever been published on the Peace, including naturalist James Macoun’s banished negative report of 1905, and the route of Chalmers’ forgotten trail through the Swan Hills from 1897. Pearce employed the ruse of making enquiries for his “secret mission” as a private individual, making sure to never use CPR letterhead. But he nevertheless failed to procure information from the Department of Railways and Canals on surveys undertaken by the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway.

Pearce left for Peace River from Edmonton on June 8, 1908. The inflatable mattress with pillow he carried with him may have ensured his good humour. He also took the precaution of ordering a life belt for his river trip—“one Manhattan Life belt cut out for arms with shoulder strap forty-six inches.” He later reported the trip was “not nearly so disagreeable as one would expect.”

Pearce compared his own observations with those of the surveyors who had sub-divided townships to date. He pointed out that much of the settlement that would take place would in fact be north not south of the Peace as many people imagined. Then much to Pearce’s amusement, in September 1908, the Calgary Herald published a somewhat premature story that engineers were on hand to begin grading the CPR’s projected line for the Peace River through to British Columbia. In his final report to the company Pearce concluded, “there is not sufficient inducement to warrant the building of a railroad into the Peace River country.” He never did change his mind about the Peace River Country. In 1925 he wrote to F.W. Alexander, District Engineer for the CPR: “The attempt to settle that country was probably the most insane idea that ever a body of men, outside a lunatic asylum, attempted.”

There was nothing that touched on the development of Alberta that William Pearce did not have views on. We have Pearce to thank for our national parks, his vision was largely behind the initial idea of reserving public parks in the Rockies, at Banff and then Waterton.

Pearce freely gave his opinions on many matters, even when they were unsolicited.

He wrote to Surveyor General Deville, for example in 1913, with his progressive views on the desirability of extensive development of automobile roads in the Rocky Mountains. He argued for development in the interests of tourism and forest conservation.

Pearce invested in Calgary Petroleum’s Products’ gas exploration in Turner Valley. He was among the prominent Calgarians on hand watching the condensate pouring into a barrel at Dingman Number One well, June 4, 1914.

It was from his desk at the CPR, following the formation of the Province of Alberta in 1905 that Pearce sent out letters to Alberta-based Dominion Land Surveyors urging them to consider the necessity of forming a professional organization. In 1906 the Public Works Bill introduced in the new legislature allowed engineers to sign road diversion plans for registration at the land titles office. For Pearce this was the thin edge of the wedge for, in his own words, “the dishing of surveying as a profession.” Pearce went on the offensive, and although the issue was quickly rectified by Minister John Stocks, he tried to rally surveyors into action. “Don’t you think,” he wrote in a letter that went to more than 20 surveyors in February 1906, “we had better get together and engage someone to look after the necessary legislation?” Alberta’s surveyors, however, were run off their feet as the pre-World War I economic boom was taking off. As Pearce noted in April 1906, “none in this province seem to have any idea of taking any steps except myself.” It was to take almost three years before Pearce managed to get a number of surveyors to meet in his Calgary office to discuss the matter for the first time. Surveyor Jean Leon Côte, member of the Alberta Legislature, subsequently wrote to Pearce on December 7, 1909. “There is no doubt that you as a senior member of the profession, would have more weight in preparing and organizing for the legislation than anybody.” Pearce, however, disagreed, leaving the task of researching and preparing for a private members bill to a committee. The final bill was drafted by Lionel Charlesworth, Director of Surveys, and Richard Cautley, surveyor to the Land Titles Office.

Nonetheless, in early February 1910, Pearce aggressively lobbied behind the scenes, soliciting political support for the bill from a number of influential Albertans. “Ever since the establishment of the Province of Alberta,” He wrote, “I have been trying to obtain the cooperation of my fellow surveyors to procure incorporation, but it was not until this year that we succeeded in making a practical start in the matter.” He pointed out that surveyors were asking no less than the other professions and that it was necessary for the protection of the public. “If there is any one class of people in the country that deserve special consideration,” Pearce declared, “I think it is surveyors. They are the pioneers in the opening up of the country, having endured as great hardships as any and have done good work without being brought into limelight, have been usually too far in advance to make any money by reason of the knowledge obtained by them.”

The Alberta Land Surveyors’ Act passed on March 9, 1910. It clearly stated that no one could survey lands within Alberta—other than Dominion Lands—unless he had been duly authorized as a registered member of the Alberta Land Surveyors’ Association. The Association was to be set up “as a body politic and corporate with perpetual succession and a common seal.” While others subsequently took over the role of actually setting up the Association, Pearce’s crucial role in prodding Alberta’s surveyors into action was recognized through his election as the Association’s first president in January 1911. He was awarded the first life membership of the Association in 1924.

Pearce was a great supporter of the Calgary Stampede, often taking part in the parade and faithfully attended each year— in costume.

By the late 1920s Pearce was beginning to slow down, as his knees were stiffening— making walking less the pleasure it used to be. Pearce’s stiffness was soon afterwards diagnosed with what doctors referred to as “an aneurism of the artery” and he was ordered to curtail his walking. William Pearce died on March 3, 1930. Bow Bend Shack was torn down in 1957, and in 1965 became the site for Simpson Sears’ main Calgary warehouse. It was an ignominious end for the grand residence of Alberta’s best known surveyor, a somewhat enigmatic historical figure, who played a major role in shaping the development of the west, and whose biography is long overdue.