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Arthur Oliver Wheeler, 1860-1945


May 1st, 1860 - March 20th, 1945

As rugged in character as the mountains he surveyed, few have been so completely identified with mountains and mountaineering as Arthur Oliver Wheeler, who led the strenuous life of a mountain topographer for more than 30 years, founded the Alpine Club of Canada, was its first President, its Managing Director for 20 years and its Honorary President until his death.

Born in Ireland, educated there and in Dulwich College, London, he came to Canada in 1876 and took up land surveying in which, for the next 9 years he worked in midwestern Canada, often under extreme pioneering conditions.

His preparation for the life of a mountain topographer began when, in 1885, having been appointed to the Surveys branch of the Department of the Interior under Dr. Deville, originator of Canadian photo-topographical methods, he learned these methods and cooperated with him in the mapping of parts of the Canadian Rocky Mountains until, in 1890, he entered private practice.

Returning to the Department of the Interior in 1893 he began, in 1895, that period of mountain surveying and mapping which continued with only minor interruptions until the completion of the Alberta-British Columbia provincial boundary survey in 1925.

Starting with the mountain foothills bordering the great plains of southern Alberta, he worked successively in the Crowsnest Pass coal mining region, the Selkirk Mountains along the route of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and the main range of the Rocky Mountains, a portion of 1903 being spent in surveying and reporting upon a definitely assigned part of the International Boundary between Alaska and the Yukon Territory, which was then being arbitrated in London. This was followed by 12 years of active survey and mapping work along the great divide during which he was Commissioner for British Columbia on the Interprovincial Boundary Survey, and surveyed and mapped some 600 miles of the main range of the Rocky Mountains. This work completed, he retired from active practice as a surveyor but supervised the production of several maps for the Canadian Pacific Railroad in subsequent years.

The mountaineering aspects of the work in the Selkirks were described in Mr. Wheeler’s beautifully illustrated book, The Selkirk Range. This 459-page work, which includes separate sections on “The Survey,” “Travel and Exploration,” “Previous Surveys” and “Mountaineering in the Selkirks,” breathes Mr. Wheeler’s deep love of the mountains and his keen desire to spread a knowledge of them. With the maps, which comprise Volume II, it is a complete résumé of knowledge of the Selkirk Mountains down to 1905, and a classic of mountaineering literature.

The years of work in the main ranges resulted in three folios of splendid maps, and three volumes of text well planned to serve the needs of mountaineers.

Of all of Mr. Wheeler’s accomplishments, those which seemed to give him the greatest personal satisfaction were the founding of the Alpine Club of Canada and of the Canadian Alpine Journal. In his In Memoriam article in memory of Professor Charles E. Fay, published in the latter, Mr. Wheeler tells of his first meeting with Professor Fay and of this discussion of the formation of American and Canadian Alpine Clubs. He said:

“I first met the Professor at Glacier House in 1902 … We then discussed the formation of an American and a Canadian Alpine Club, and the same year Professor Fay founded the American Alpine Club,* of which he was the first President. It was not until four years later, 1906, that, with the assistance of Mrs. H. J. Parker of the Manitoba Free Press of Winnipeg, I was able to found the Alpine Club of Canada, and then, also, became its first President.”

In a talk at the camp fire on one occasion Mr. Wheeler stated that at this meeting at Glacier House he and Professor Fay considered the formation of a single all American Club of which there should be Canadian and American Sections. Mr. Wheeler, however, decided in favor of a separate Canadian Club, and, according to a note in Appalachia (vol. 11, 1906, No. 1, p. 146), the same decision was reached, after discussion, at the founding meeting.

Of the intervening period between 1902 and 1906, Mr. S. H. Mitchell, Secretary-Treasurer and subsequently Honorary Secretary said:

“Then Mr. Wheeler waged a crusade through the length and breadth of Canada, Mrs. Parker wrote inspiring articles in the Manitoba Free Press, which were widely copied, and by the work of these two alone was this Club called into being” …

The first encampment was held the same year and in the following year Mr. Wheeler prepared the first issue of the Canadian Alpine Journal and continued as its Editor until 1926, with Mr. S. H. Mitchell as Assistant Editor.

As President of the Club Mr. Wheeler initiated the plan of holding annual encampments at suitable climbing centers in the mountains and of making these a means of spreading the gospel of the mountains by specializing in the instruction of beginners in the rudiments of mountaineering. One of the very important features of these “Camps” was the presence of two Swiss Guides loaned, through Mr. Wheeler’s solicitation, by the Railway Company serving the territory. To them he attributed the generally sound climbing technique developed among the Club members. The attractive Club House on the slopes of Sulphur Mountain in Banff was designed and its construction supervised by Mr. Wheeler in 1909.

As its “Managing Director,” an office perhaps peculiar to that Club but important for its contemplated activities in its early years, he organized and managed the annual camps and directed their activities for 20 years, devoting much of his thought and energy to the effort to realize his ambition of giving to the Alpine Club of Canada a standing which would entitle it to be ranked among the leading Alpine Clubs of the world. It is safe to say that few events ever gave him more satisfaction than its acceptance, as an affiliate, by The Alpine Club (London).

As Director of the Club, also, he organized and led the 1911 expedition to the then little known, Mt. Robson region; mapped it by photo-topographical methods ; made a reconnaissance survey of the Maligne Lake district and was the instigator and official executive of the Mt. Logan expedition, selecting the leaders, Captain A. H. MacCarthy and Mr. H. F. Lambart.

In 1907, as President of the A. C. C., Mr. Wheeler attended the Jubilee celebration dinner of The Alpine Club (London) and in 1920, although unable to be present in person, he organized the Club’s representation and exhibit at the Allied Congress of Alpinism held in Monaco. In the preparation of this exhibit he was greatly assisted by Dr. Deville, the Surveyor General. For this he received from the Prince of Monaco the Cross of the Order of St. Charles. The same honor was also awarded to Professor Charles E. Fay representing the A.A.C.

Mr. Wheeler was much interested in glaciers, was for many years the Canadian representative on the International Commission on Glaciers and, from the early days when he cooperated with the Messrs. Vaux in their glacier observations down to quite recent years, made scientific observations on them, enlisted the efforts of Club members in so doing and was the author of numerous reports and articles concerning them. He was also an early advocate of the use of the airplane for mountain reconnaissance work.

Mr. Wheeler was an Honorary Member of The Alpine Club (London), elected in 1908 on the proposal of the famous mountaineer, Edward Whymper. He was also an Honorary Member of the Club Alpin Français. He became a member of our Club in 1903 and an Honorary Member of the Appalachian Mountain Club in 1904.

Mountains and mountaineering continued to be his chief interests to the end. An Alpine Club friend, calling on him a few evenings before his death found him deeply engrossed in the latest book on Mt. Everest, eager to discuss the problems involved in a safe ascent and descent of the final peak and to debate the possibility that Mallory actually reached the top on the third expedition.

Mr. Wheeler was a man of great physical and mental vigor admirably equipped to endure the hardships and extreme physical exertion incident to the life of a topographer in a wilderness of major mountains. He brought to the work a high intelligence, a love of nature and a devotion to mountains which made the hardships a labor of love. It is easy to note in some passages in his writings how the topographer had to struggle with the mountaineer in him, to forego a coveted summit in the interest of topographical observations.

Few have done as much to promote mountaineering and develop mountaineers on this side of the Atlantic. For so many years had he been thus active that to many he had become almost a legendary figure and the number who look back with pleasure to his cheery presence at the Club encampments and his amusing, instructive and inspiring talks around the camp fire is undoubtedly very large. If it be true that a Gaelic sarcasm sometimes hurt feelings and aroused resentment, it was far more often true that Gaelic cheerfulness, philosophy and helpfulness inspired cooperation and kindled affection. Most of all he sought to bring to others that appreciation of mountains which gave to him so much of inspiration and uplift. He was a unique figure; he accomplished much. His work and his memory will live.

F. N. W.

Mr. Wheeler was married in 1887 to Miss Clara Macoun, daughter of John Macoun, distinguished Canadian botanist. She was of great assistance to him in the organization and operation of the Club’s annual encampments. She died in 1919. A few years later he was married to Miss Emmeline Savatard who survives. He is also survived by his son, Brigadier General Sir Edward Oliver Wheeler M.C. Surveyor General of India and his grandson, John, a student at the University of British Columbia at Vancouver.

*Professor Fay shared with several others the initiative in founding the A.A. C.—Ed.