In a history of pioneers, gold miners, loggers, and fur traders, one group that trekked through early British Columbia is often overlooked: the surveyors.
A display at the B.C. Farm Museum in Fort Langley casts a spotlight on the people who measured out the colony and province, using a handful of simple instruments, math, and a lot of sweat and toil.
Hilary Ruffini put together the exhibit, which displays some of the antique tools actually used in 19th century surveying work, including levels, transits, and surveyors’ chains.
She was talking with museum president Syd Pickerell about the Dominion Land Survey, and she started reading more. She stumbled on a book about surveyor Frank Swannell, who had left numerous photos and journals behind.
“They were so adventurous,” she said of the stories.
She dove into more research, and a few months ago began working seriously on the exhibit that now greets visitors to the museum.
“The first surveyors led a really hard life,” said Ruffini.
The very first surveying crews were with the Royal Engineers who arrived around 1858 and 1859, when B.C. first became a British Colony.
The only surveying done before that had been in Langley, where the Hudson’s Bay Company had laid out its farm along the Salmon River in the Milner area.
That’s why property lines in that area of Langley turn diagonal around Glover Road. But in the 1850s, there was a political situation that affected the lay of the land.
There was an urgent need to mark off boundaries, especially the boundary between British colonial territory and the United States.
“They just cut straight as a die,” Ruffini said, pointing to photos that show a line of trees chopped through virgin forest.
Surveyors mapped out townsites like New Westminster, and some maps show fanciful plans for dividing up land around Fort Langley that never came to pass. They also laid out the earliest major roads in the colony and province, like the 400 mile Cariboo Road and the 450 mile Dewdney Trail.
They marked off vast amounts of land, all using transits, levels, chains, and compasses. Detailed notes for the Dominion Land Survey, and later for the provincial government, had to be kept at every stage.
The work demanded both technical knowledge and back-breaking physical toil. Among the tools on displays are axes, and a surveying crew also needed a cook, packers, guides, porters, and canoeists, depending on the terrain.
They used First Nations canoes or built their own boats, or took trains of pack horses.
“They very often just had to hoof it,” said Ruffini. “If you were in the mountains, there was no other way.”
They were scourged by mosquitoes, suffered numerous injuries, and in one case in the B.C. Interior, a crew lost all their supplies to a forest fire.
Wherever they went, the hammered stakes and metal pegs into the ground, and marked trees. In the Prairies, without trees, they dug up mounds of sod to mark out boundaries and key locations.
The surveying allowed for the settlement of B.C., and paved the way for the farmers and loggers who would found modern Langley and other communities.
“What I hope to show is how exciting it was,” Ruffini said.
The display includes a number of loaned items, including the intricate brass transits from around B.C.
It is on display now at the B.C. Farm Museum.