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Excerpt: Lost Obelisks of the Rockies



Jerry Auld walks through history and into the alpine to discover a piece of Alberta’s heritage, finding evidence that hasn’t seen sunlight since it was first placed.

Humans have agendas, and humans make maps, so all maps have agendas. But some of the earliest in the Canadian Rockies, such as the fur trade routes or the railway surveys, were lost – stashed in defunct corporate vaults, hoarded in case they led to riches, or just discarded as obsolete.

Yet this story is a map to treasures that were not lost as in hidden, but lost as in forgotten: little brass pyramids. More precisely, obelisks that, like staples on the long seam of mountains, were placed to cement Alberta’s demarcation from the Dominion’s Northwest Territories in 1905.

Until then, British Columbia’s borders had been defined by the British-American treaties of the 1800s, and carried over when B.C. joined Confederation in 1871. But the treaties only loosely described the boundary running along the mountains as that where water flowed west to the Pacific. Although the most plausible passes had all been surveyed by 1885, of this 1,000-kilometre Continental Divide, almost nothing beyond sight of the Pullman coaches was known.

Coal deposits and timber straddled the Alberta-B.C. boundary, and settlers were pouring in, making claims, building homesteads and establishing businesses – all of which demanded a clear legal line. Wars are won or lost on the basis of good maps. Taxes are based on them. It was imperative that the boundary be marked accurately, and physically. 

But there was something else, something behind it all that wasn’t concrete and brass. The idea, the need, that drove the settlers west came from words spoken 40 years previously of a magical, near-empty place that was filling up fast even then.

In 1871, a Captain W. F. Butler journeyed across the prairies, a decade before the Canadian Pacific Railway would start the great railroad. Then he published The Great Lone Land, a book that described the west in poetic terms. Before then, it was referred to as desolate, uninhabitable, savage. Butler had given the Northwest an identity that contained a vision. For the downtrodden of Europe wanting a new start, it was a siren song.

By 1913, the ribbons of pearlite steel that had joined Canada’s coasts had opened the land. Yet the most prominent peaks marked on maps of the Rockies were still Mts. Hooker and Brown, even though these mythical pyramids had been revealed to be 10,000 feet lower than earlier explorers had believed. The maps were not keeping afoot. A commission was struck between B.C. and Alberta to remedy this. 

→ Keep reading this feature in Volume 5 of the Canadian Rockies Annual.

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