Surveying the Rockies and Arthur O. Wheeler

Robson, Yellowhead trip. A.O. Wheeler on Lynx mountain, Smithsonian-Alpine Club of Canada Mount Robson expedition, 1911. Byron Harmon photographer. Byron Harmon fonds (V263/NA-970)

Listen to Michale Lang (Executive Director, Whyte Museum), discussing
the Surveying the Summits exhibition:

Surveying the Summits may be one of the most engaging sections in the new Gateway to the Rockies exhibition being developed by the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies. We want your input and feedback on this permanent (ten year life) exhibition that we are planning to open at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies in the spring of 2012. Tell us what you think of this and the other concepts and stories featured here. Let us know how you think we could make this exhibition more interesting. Please keep in mind that this is a draft of the storyline, not the finished product. As the stories develop, information will be updated.

Surveying the Canadian Rockies required strong legs and a brave heart. Arthur O. Wheeler and J.J. McArthur pioneered photo-topographical survey methods throughout the Canadian Rockies, carrying weighty equipment to summits to do their work. Through his involvement with the Boundary Survey and the Alpine Club over four decades, Arthur O. Wheeler probably saw more of the Canadian Rockies than any other person.

Arthur Oliver Wheeler was born in Kilkenny, Ireland in 1860. Wheeler received his education in Dublin, Ballinasloe College, Galway, and in Dulwich College, London, England. He came to Canada. When he arrived in Canada with his family in 1876, he served an apprenticeship as a Dominion Land Surveyor with Ryley and Hamilton, and with Elihu Stewart in Collingwood. Wheeler spent his first year in Canada surveying in the Bruce Mines area of Ontario with Ryley and Hamilton, before taking up with Stewart on performing Indian Reserve surveys in Canada 's new west.

In 1883 and 1884 Wheeler performed township and town site surveys for the Dominion Government and the Canadian Pacific Railway in the West, before the Riel Rebellion broke out. During the rebellion, which began in 1885, Wheeler served as a lieutenant with the DLS Intelligence Corps. When the rebellion was over Wheeler returned to surveying, and began to experiment with some of the new technology that had begun to emerge. Working for the Department of the Interior, his first chief, Dr. Edouard Deville, trained him in photo-topographical surveying. In 1900 he surveyed in the Crowsnest Pass area of the Canadian Rockies and in 1901 and 1902 he was assigned to survey in the Selkirk Range based at Glacier House and in particular to map areas utilized by tourists and mountain climbers. The report and maps of this survey were published by the Department of the Interior in book form under the title of The Selkirk Range by A.O. Wheeler, 1905.

From 1903 to 1910 he continued the photo-topographical survey of the main range of the Rockies and during this time was appointed Topographer of the Department of the Interior.

Inspired by his mountain surveys, in 1906 Wheeler founded the Alpine Club of Canada, assisted by Mrs. H.J. (Elizabeth) Parker, Dr. J.C. Herdman and Sir William Whyte. He became the club's first President from 1906 to 1910, then Managing Director until 1926, when he retired. He was then elected Honourary President and continued in that office until his death.

In 1912, the Alpine Club of Canada was asked to evaluate the alpine potential of the newly established Strathcona Provincial Park on Vancouver Island. Arthur Wheeler's son, Edward Olver Wheeler led the trip summiting the Strathcona Matterhorn that they christened Elkhorn. On the second part of the expedition Arthur Wheeler led a team that included Albert MacCarthy and his wife Bess, up Price Creek, at the head of Buttle Lake, and over to Port Alberni along the way naming another peak the Misthorns. He also named Margaret Lake after Lady McBride, the wife of Sir Richard McBride, whose cabinet supported the expedition.

In 1913 he was British Columbia's commissioner for establishing the Interprovincial Boundary between British Columbia and Alberta. Those involved in the survey were responsible for the naming of more peaks than any other group. The survey was begun in 1913 and continued every summer until 1925. It was a major effort that involved detailed mapping in the areas adjacent to the border as well as the actual delineation of the boundary itself.

While doing the survey work for the Boundary Commission, which was done during and immediately after the First World War, he received permission from the Geographic Board of Canada to name the peaks in the Kananaskis area. Wheeler, moved by Canada’s loss of so many young men in battle, named most of the peaks after World War I generals and admirals, French villages, songs of the era and battleships.

Through his involvement with the Boundary Survey and the Alpine Club over four decades, Arthur Wheeler probably saw more of the Canadian Rockies than any other person and fittingly has a mountain in the Selkirk Range named after him.

Wheeler's first wife was Clara Macoun, daughter of the eminent Professor John Macoun, Dominion Naturalist and Botanist. They had one son Edward Oliver Wheeler who would become the Surveyor General of India. Wheeler later married Emmeline Savatard. Arthur Wheeler passed away on March 20, 1945 at the age of eighty-four.


  1. I am doing a research project on the Alpine Club of Canada I found this website very helpful- even the comments!
    Thank you!


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