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Tom Wilson of the Canadian Rockies.

Although Tom Wilson's name is virtually unknown today, even to Canadians, it is preserved in the name Mount Wilson, east of the Columbia Icefield, and in a bronze plaque, erected on a rock near the great Takakkaw Falls in the Yoho Valley. It records two of his discoveries in these words: "Tom Wilson, Trail Blazer of the Canadian Rockies, Lake Louise 1882, Emerald Lake 1882." This tablet is now at the Wilson grave site in Banff cemetery.

Thomas Edmonds Wilson was born 21 August 1859 at Bond Head, Ontario. (1) At the age of eighteen, moved by an early demonstration of his spirit of adventure, he worked his way west through Detroit and Chicago but after three years, he was overtaken by homesickness in Sioux City, and returned home. Not for long though; his restless nature combined with the lure of the West, soon prompted him to hit the trail again. This time he enlisted in the NorthWest Mounted Police (NWMP).

To reach his destination, according to his daughter, he travelled from Barrie to Sarnia, then by steamship to Duluth, Minnesota. There he took the Northern Pacific Railway to its end-of-steel at Bismarck, North Dakota, where he transferred to a vessel which voyaged some thousand miles up the Missouri River to Fort Benton, Montana, the head of navigation. From there he travelled horseback, overland to Fort Walsh.

Wilson served as a constable in the NWMP for only a year, until 16 May, 1881, when, says the official record, "he was invalided from the force at Fort Walsh." His daughter, however, says that upon "hearing of the plans of the [Canadian Pacific] railroad syndicate, [he] applied for his discharge" and "bought himself out." Ada adds that, "He was in perfect health."

The Canadian Pacific Railway had announced that it was hiring men at Fort Benton, Montana, and hence Wilson journeyed down the Missouri River. Here he found the Union Jack flying over a United States' trading post, just for the occasion, and he was engaged by the American firm of I.G. Baker and Company as a packer for a CPR survey party.

The survey team left Fort Benton and arrived at Fort Calgary on 3 July, 1881, then moved on to the Bow River to await the arrival of Major Albert B. Rogers, the supervisor. Rogers had already earned the sobriquet in his native United States of "The Railway Pathfinder" for his engineering and line-location work for the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad. His services were secured by the CPR in February, 1881, to supervise all its route explorations through the Canadian mountain ranges. Rogers' principal challenge was to find the most suitable passes through the Rockies and the Selkirk Range. Rogers had already, in April, 1881, sent survey parties from Fort Calgary to explore passes through the Rocky Mountains; but it was the more westerly Selkirk Mountains that presented him with a task of far greater difficulty. Previous explorations had reported that no pass through the Selkirks could be found. This exploration, a supreme challenge, Rogers reserved for himself; and in this he was spurred forward by the promise of James J. Hill to name the pass after Rogers, if such he could find. (He did, on 24 July, 1882, and henceforth it was indeed called the Rogers Pass.)

Rogers arrived at Fort Calgary from his mountain surveys in July to meet the new Fort Benton survey party. Rogers immediately warned the men of the enormous difficulties and hardships that faced them in the mountains. He then asked for a volunteer to become his packer and to be his personal assistant. Wilson offered his services without hesitation and was accepted. This episodic encounter was to result in the warm friendship and great success of these two stalwart adventurers, lasting till Rogers' death at the end of the decade.

That summer of 1881, Rogers located a route for the CPR line through the now-famous Kicking Horse Pass. Not till the following May, 1882, was he able to return to his chief task of finding a pass through the Selkirks.

During the intervening winter, when snow hindered the mountain surveys, Wilson spent his time trapping in Montana. With the return of spring in 1882, he again signed up with the CPR survey parties at Fort Benton. This time he was made head packer, in charge of camp supplies, again under the leadership of Major Rogers. This was to become the sovereign year for Wilson: it included his discovery of Lake Louise and Emerald Lake. (2)

In August 1882, while returning to his camp on the Pipestone River with supplies, Wilson met a small band of Stoney Indians on their way to their reserve at Morley. They all camped together, Wilson communicating by a few Indian words he had picked up, and by sign language. As they huddled together in the rain around the camp fire, they heard the roar of avalanches near at hand. One of the Indians with the English name of Edwin Hunter, who spoke some English, explained that the snowslides were from above "the Lake of the Little Fishes, where the blue picture is painted." This enigmatic remark served only to provoke Wilson's curiosity. When he asked for more details, Hunter replied:
 It is the picture of the Great Spirit made
 for Indians of blue that never fades. When
 He paints for white man, pictures all fade,
 but the Indians' picture lasts forever.

God making thunder in the ice mountains! A scene painted by the Great Spirit in imperishable colours! Tom Wilson had to find out what this was all about.

The next morning, 21 August (Wilson's twenty-third birthday) he asked Hunter to show him "the Lake of Little Fishes." They travelled together on horseback through about five miles of forest when they came upon the lake. Wilson was at once overcome with awe as he faced its great beauty. His reaction is recorded in several accounts, each differing somewhat in detail so that the event seems to have become something of a legend; but that he was deeply impressed is quite clear. His words were recounted in several newspaper obituaries of Wilson in 1933. One reported as follows:
 As God is my judge, never in my
 experience in these mountains have I ever
 stood before such a matchless scene. The
 lake as I saw it at that hour, was green, an
 emerald mirror, reflecting its surroundings.
 On the right, a heavily-wooded mountain
 rose majestically to great heights. To the
 left, there was a rocky pile in shades of
 brown, with irregular ribbons of yellow
 flowers. At the point of the lake, in the
 distance, a glacier gleamed white and
 opalescent against the summer sky, with
 fleecy white clouds drifting about, all
 reflected in the still water. As I stood with
 bated breath, gazing upon a picture that no
 man has ever been able to describe, I felt
 puny in body, but glorious in soul. God, I
 whispered, is here. (3)

Wilson sat for a time smoking his hooked briar pipe which, with his battered old hat, was inseparable for him. He was gazing with rapt admiration at the lovely body of water now known as Lake Louise, the gem of beauty beneath the glacier (later named Victoria Glacier). It was a tremendously moving experience for him, and one which has been relived by visitors to this famous lake a myriad times since.

This, then, was the source of the disturbing noises Wilson had heard the night before his visit. During the warm summer weather, great avalanches of snow and ice constantly thundered down from the heights above the lake.

The remarkable quality of the colour of Lake Louise has been described with more frequency than consistency. For some, it is an opaque reflection, changing with the daylight hours. At dawn, it has been observed to present the deep blue of lapis lazuli, becoming shimmering silver as the sun rises, deepening into emerald, with flashes of jasper, and an ever-changing topaz and onyx flitting over the lake's surface. One early explorer of the Selkirk Mountains, Arthur O. Wheeler, said that the colouring of the mountain lakes is not owing to reflection because the colour remains the same under cloudy or clear skies. The same source further states that three little lakes close together in one valley were each of a different colour. But all who have seen Lake Louise are agreed upon the unusual nature of its emerald hue.

Today, the various colourings are ascribed to chemicals suspended in the lake waters. Because of its brilliant colours, Wilson had named his discovery Emerald Lake in his report to the CPR. It appeared under this name in the first geological map of the region made by Dr. George Mercer Dawson. In 1884, however, it was changed when the Geographical Society of Canada sanctioned its final title, 'Lake Louise,' to honour the Princess Louise Caroline Alberta (after whom the province was also named). She was the fourth daughter of Queen Victoria, and the wife of the Governor General of Canada, the Marquis of Lorne.

"There are many Emerald Lakes in the world, Tom," someone observed, "but there is only one Lake Louise."

Wilson's daughter, Ada, has recorded that in 1884, her father "blazed 2 foot trails to the Lake [Louise] and took Mrs. James Ross and her party up." Annie Ross and her companions were, Ada claims, "the first ladies to see the Lake." After this, Wilson blazed another trail to Lake Louise, this time for a group of distinguished members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The first big-game hunters out of Banff, H.W. Calverley and a companion, from London, England, were also guided there by Wilson in 1887.

Soon after his first sight of Lake Louise in 1882, Wilson met Major Rogers back at the camp on Pipestone River. Rogers had just returned from exploration surveys, once more in search of a pass through the Selkirk Mountains. Upon hearing of Wilson's glorious new lake, he exclaimed to him, "You'll never leave these mountains again as long as you live. They've got you now!" It was a portentous remark!

Rogers was worried about his earlier choice of the Kicking Horse Pass for the CPR route through the Rockies, rather than the Howse Pass route. Some had said that the latter might have presented an easier grade for the railway line. Now he wanted to check the Howse Pass to settle his mind, but it would take too long to reach with pack horses so he suggested to Wilson that if he would investigate the Howse Pass by travelling on foot with only a back pack, it would take but half the time. Wilson readily accepted the challenge and, after several days of daunting hardships, forcing his way through virgin forest, he accomplished the objective and was able to put Major Rogers' anxiety at rest.

Soon after this incident, in the late summer of 1882, Wilson made his second great discovery. While tracking some of his horses that had wandered from their pasture, he stumbled across another beautiful sheet of water. Continuing his impressive discoveries, he was the first white man to see the scenic mountain gem known today as Emerald Lake, located near Field, B.C. It was certainly the chance incident of the lost horses, Wilson stated later, that resulted in this discovery.

In later years, during his work with the CPR survey parties, Wilson became the first white man to see other beautiful and now famous regions in the western mountains. He was the first to view the Yoho Valley and its many splendours, and blazed a foot trail up the valley in 1884. Originally it was called Valley of the Wapta; but was changed to 'Yoho,' a Cree word which has been translated variously as 'wonderful' and 'awesome.' This is a breathtaking area of the Rocky Mountains, and in 1886 the federal government set it aside as Yoho National Park, with an area originally of 26 sq. kms. (10.4 sq. miles). It has since been expanded to cover 2,153 sq. kms. (861 sq. miles), and renamed the Yoho National Park Reserve. The main line of the CPR runs through the park, and its headquarters and visitors' centre are at Field, B.C.

The name Yoho is also given to other features in the park--a pass, a cataract, a peak, and a river. Within the boundaries of the park are steep valleys ground out by the movement of glaciers, also turquoise lakes, more than a score of 3,000-metre high peaks, caves, natural bridges, hoodoos, and steep waterfalls. One, Takakkaw, just west of the Great Divide, is the highest in Canada, falling 380 metres (about 1,250 feet) into the Yoho River.

Wilson's daughter Ada, transcribing from her father's notes, writes that in 1895 he attempted to persuade "some members of the Appalachia Club" to explore Emerald Lake and the Yoho Valley, "and to write it up" so as to publicize the attractions of the region, and indeed an article did appear in the Appalachian Magazine in 1896. "In July 1897," Ada continues, Wilson "got Jean Habel to go into the Yoho and write it up"; this resulted in another article in the same magazine, in January 1898.

In 1893, accompanied by a well known American mountain climber, R.L. Barrett, Wilson blazed a trail to the base of Mount Assiniboine. They made their way on foot by way of Healy Creek, Simpson Pass, and Simpson River, and became the first white men to reach the mountain. Then, in 1896, Wilson "cut and cleared out the old Indian trail from Field to the crossing of Emerald Creek, and from there cut a trail to [Emerald] Lake." In 1898, in continuing to promote the lovely mountain places he had discovered, often (Ada writes) at his own expense, Wilson "took a party of fourteen members of the Philadelphia Photographic Society to the East end of this lake [Emerald], and this was the foundation of the present development of Emerald Lake and Yoho Valley." In 1900, Wilson cut the first trail into Moraine Lake, with the encouragement of the CPR. Moraine Lake is, by the highway of today, only some eight miles from Lake Louise. Wilson also conducted several parties into Moraine Lake, including a party of Mrs. M.L. Matthews, wife of the Banff Springs Hotel manager, and another consisting of Agnes Laut, the noted Canadian writer. Ada claims that these were the first white ladies ever to see Moraine Lake.

Most of these early visitors did publicize, in magazine articles, the scenic areas to which they were guided by Wilson. Small wonder that he was so favoured by the CPR and soon became known as the Trail Blazer of the Canadian Rockies!

Returning to the year 1882, after Wilson had found Lake Louise and Emerald Lake: that autumn, snow arrived in early October, long before it was expected. Wilson planned to spend the winter in Montana again, but had journeyed only as far as Fort Calgary when he decided to pass the winter in nearby Morley, with David McDougall and wife, employed in survey work.

Major Rogers had said in the previous fall, "See you in the spring Tom," and so it was that, in June 1883,Wilson started out for the Kicking Horse Summit. The end of the CPR line across the prairies was quickly approaching the mountains: Maple Creek had been reached during that winter. With the coming of summer weather, the end of steel had arrived at Silver City, a tiny community located at the base of Castle Mountain. Wilson continued working in the mountains until the autumn.

During the winter of 1883-84, Wilson remained in Silver City, a settlement whose brief life ended when its mining prospects failed. In the spring of 1884 Major Rogers arrived, and he and Wilson travelled in the unaccustomed comfort of a CPR caboose to Calgary. For the first time, Wilson saw the railway for which he had been labouring in the mountains for three eventful years. Now, his survey work with the CPR was coming to an end.

That spring and summer, Wilson and a friend named Jim Wright partnered in prospecting in the Rockies but without much success. With the arrival of cold weather, he returned again to Silver City, for the winter of 1884-85. Then, in April, 1885, Wilson received a telegram from Major Sam Steele of the North-West Mounted Police, supervisor of detachments protecting the construction work of the CPR, inviting him to join with Steele's Scouts against the Cree chief Big Bear in the Riel Rebellion. The scouts, with Wilson amongst them, were engaged in fighting at Frenchman's Butte and at Loon Lake where, on 3 June 1885, Big Bear and his band were routed. The chief surrendered in July of that year.

Wilson returned to Morley where he began to homestead. Later in the year, 7th November, he was at Craigellachie, at the western entrance to Eagle Pass, to witness Donald Alexander Smith (later Baron Strathcona and Mount Royal) driving the symbolic "Last Spike" (it was not made of gold, as legend would have us think) in a ceremony to mark the meeting of the ends of steel coming from both the east and the west, thus completing the transcontinental line of the CPR.

Just over two weeks earlier, on the 19th October, 1885, Wilson had been occupied with an occurrence even more important in his life: his marriage. He was twenty-six years of age, and his new wife, Minnie McDougall, had attained her twentieth birthday in the previous month. She was the daughter of the couple with whom Tom had stayed earlier, David and Mary McDougall. In 1884, while on a visit to Silver City with her older sister, Minnie met Tom Wilson for the first time. After their wedding the following year, the couple settled at Morley. Their nearest neighbours lived over a mile away, but Minnie's cousin, Mrs. Norman Luxton, was not too far away. Here Ada was born, 1st November, 1886, as were her sister Rene, 18th January, 1891, and later their brothers John Clark and Thomas Edmonds (Jr., but called Ed) Wilson. Ada's other sisters, Bess and Dora, were both born in Banff. Wilson moved from Morley to Banff in 1892 and brought his family there in 1893, when he had found a small house on Main Street near to the school. In 1894, during the floods of May and June, Wilson was called upon to meet with the Stoney Indians to resolve issues that had arisen as a result of the flood. The outcome of this incident was the founding by Wilson of the Banff Indian Days, which became an annual celebration. When the Calgary Stampede was started in 1912, the Indian Days were held immediately after that event.

In this same year of 1894, Wilson was able to purchase a log house in Banff, described as being at that time north of the bridge, at Main and Buffalo Streets. It was still standing in 1936, occupied by Walker the jeweller.

Wilson's principal occupation now was conducting his mountain guide and outfitter business for tourists. On the corner where the Imperial Bank was later built, Wilson had a stable and corral for horses to serve the increasing number of his customers. His tour guide and camping parties usually started from here, and when business was brisk he employed other guides to assist him, including Bill Peyto and Tom Lusk. As outfitter and guide in the Rockies he had no peer, and he came to be known far and wide amongst mountain adventurers.

During the almost thirty successive years that Wilson lived in Banff, he ventured into other businesses besides his mountain guiding. For a time he had a store on Main Street, in partnership with the Fear Brothers, where they sold beads, beadwork, china, curios, and other items for tourists. Later, his daughter Ada says, he was in partnership for a while with Norman K. Luxton, but this was denied by Luxton. This business was conducted in a log store built on lots afterwards occupied by a Dr. Atkins and the Canadian Legion hall.

About 1901, Tom Wilson ventured into the horse-breeding business on a beautiful ranch in the Kootenay Plains, west of Banff, on the flats of the North Saskatchewan River. The rich grasslands provided for the horses, and the warm chinook winds allowed winter grazing. There were several log buildings, and corrals near the river from which Wilson carried water for his horses. In the summer, he took his saddle and pack horses back to Banff, where he continued his business as mountain guide and outfitter. The government took over his ranch in 1919 to attach it to a Forest Reserve, so Wilson sold his horses to Frank Wellman and returned to Banff. His enduring love of the mountains inspired Wilson to take an active part in the foundation of the Alpine Club of Canada in March 1906. (4)

In October 1920, Wilson, now sixty-one years of age, sold his Banff home and moved to Vancouver with two of his daughters, Ada and Rene (the other children were now married); but city life didn't agree with them. Less than a year later, he sold his Vancouver home and he and his two daughters moved to Enderby, B.C. By 1926 or 1927, they sold their home once more and returned to Banff. Here, Wilson lived out his remaining years.

Tom Wilson was far from being prosperous in his declining years. His hardship, however, was somewhat relieved when the CPR awarded him a monthly pension for his services in finding so many tourist attractions along their transcontinental line through the Rocky Mountains. In 1927, the railway invited Wilson to celebrate his sixty-eighth birthday at the Chateau Lake Louise. Ada, who had just been appointed postmistress at the Chateau (a position she held for twenty-four summers), shared the joyous occasion with her father. This became an annual event.

It was in 1927, too, that the CPR invited their elderly trail-blazer to come east to Montreal, headquarters of the company, to talk about his marvellous discoveries in the Rockies. They wanted Wilson to recount his story for their records, and to publicize the attractions along their line to encourage visitors. While Wilson did not engage in lectures or public speaking, he did love to talk about his experiences in the mountains. His listeners were enchanted by his tales of adventure, as he recollected them so many years later, and embroidered no doubt in the traditional manner of the itinerant storytellers and strolling players of old.

This genial spirit of embellished entertainment is captured in the amusing lyrics of a ditty composed about Wilson by the Trail Riders of the Canadian Rockies, to be sung to the tune of "The Old Scottish Cavalier." Two verses of the lyrics are on record:
 And when to hunt the mountain goat or
 deer or sheep he went,
 He hit the beasts he aimed at on the very
 spot he meant;
 And when at night to camp he came, his
 ammunition spent,
 He played black-jack and poker with the
 grizzlies in his tent,
 Like a great Canadian pioneer, all of that
 olden time.

 And when he told a fishing tale, you saw
 the fishes grow,
 From mountain trout to giant whales, all
 swimming in a row;
 And if at times you thought he had a
 tendency to blow,
 He said he caught the habit from those
 whales of long ago,
 Like a great Canadian pioneer, all of that
 olden time.

Since 1930 Wilson's eyesight had been deteriorating, and by 1933 he could barely distinguish shapes before him; he could recognize friends and family members only by their voices. He was struck by a heart attack in 1930 and again in 1933 where he was confined to his bed at his home in Banff. Only one month after his last Chateau Lake Louise birthday celebration, on 20 September 1933, he drew his final breath. He died peacefully in Banff, his cherished home for so many years, in the heart of the Canadian Rockies.

Besides a mountain's name and a plaque, Wilson's memorial today is Lake Louise, "the Lake of Little Fishes where the blue picture is painted." The world has all but forgotten him, but "the Indians' picture lasts forever."

In fairness, it should be mentioned that the claim for Wilson being the first white man to see Lake Louise is not without its gainsayers. Norman Luxton claims that "Indian traders in Banff ... told me time and again that Tom had no claim on Lake Louise. Also they told me they knew the two Englishmen who first saw the lake, being guided to it by a Stoney Indian hunter. If ever I heard their names I have forgotten ..." He also said that the Banff Indian Days began in 1904, ten years later than the date claimed by Wilson. Luxton added in his letter to me that Wilson was lazy and improvident for his family; but his years of indefatigable work in the mountains, and the evident affection of his daughter Ada, do not convey strong support for Luxton's negative judgments. Luxton was in his mid-eighties when he wrote this, and a failing memory could be excused.

Ada Wilson (whose 1959-60 correspondence with the writer has frequently been drawn upon in this chronicle) was herself in her mid-seventies when she wrote; her memory too, as well as her impartiality, might justly be questioned. Yet, such first-hand sources are not now easily found, and Ada often quoted from her father's own notes.

Wilson's work with the mountain surveys placed him in the right circumstances for discoveries. There were many other surveyors who were equally well placed but Wilson seems to have been blessed with a preternatural aptitude and appetite for searching out new and beautiful places, aided at times, to be sure, by pure good luck.


(1) Tom Wilson's daughter, Ada, whose correspondence with me in the 1950s has been helpful throughout this article, states that the Wilson family was originally from Northern Ireland They came to Upper Canada where Tom was born

(2) This account of these important events is based largely on the recorded testimony given by Wilson to W.E. Round, and on letters written to me by Ada Wilson from her father's notes.

(3) "Discoverer of Beauty Spots," Winnipeg Free Press, 2 Dec. 1933.

(4) Alpine Journal, volume 1, number 1, 1907.

William Morley retired in 1985 as Curator of Special Collections in Queen's University Library. Previously, in the 1950s, he had been CPR Librarian. His publications include a three-volume bibliography of Canadian local histories. He is a past president of the Bibliographical Society of Canada and founder/editor of Canadian Notes & Queries. He now lives in Kingston, Ontario.

Tom Wilson is seen posing beside Lake Louise on August 21, 1932. This was the 50th anniversary of the date when Stoney Indian Ed Hunter led Wilson to the site; as a result he was considered to be its "discoverer." This was Ada Wilson's favourite photograph of her father.
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Author:Morley, William F.E.
Publication:Alberta History
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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