Member Biography

W.R. Reilly

William Robinson Reilly

(1857.08.10 - 1936.03.21)
Commission #007

William Robinson Reilly was President of the Saskatchewan Land Surveyors Association in l915 and again in 1928. He was issued a Saskatchewan Land Surveyors' Commission, number seven, in 1910. During his career he served the public in many capacities; firstly as a mechanic for his fathers wood-working machines, followed by architecture, a land surveyor, a farmer and lastly, a steam engineer.

Mr Reilly was born in the Village of Wardsville, County of Middlesex, Upper Canada on August 10th, 1857. His father, Francis Bell Reilly, came to Canada from the Parish of Killmore County of Armagh, Ireland. His mother, Elizabeth, was from Wardsville Village whose family had also immigrated from Ireland.

William had four brothers and four sisters. In his youth he obtained experience working for his father in the family saw mills and in their cabinet factory. As a result, he became proficient in the use of tools and wood-working machines. At the age of 19 he was a qualified machine mechanic. In 1877, he apprenticed to Mr. S. Peters of London, Ontario, to study Architecture, Civil Engineering and Land Surveying. It was during this period when he became involved in architectural design. Shortly after, Mr. Peters retired and Mr. Reilly transferred his articles to Mr. John 0. Mara, P.L.S., in the Middlesex, Elgin, Kent and Lambton Counties, Upper Canada. While with Mr. Mara he was engaged primarily with land surveys. As a result he obtained his Provincial and Dominion Land Surveyors certificates in 1881, after which he travelled to Winnipeg to seek his fortune.

In February 1882, he was engaged by Disbrow and Laycock, real estate agents in Winnipeg, to survey various town sites in the West. In a few short months he had laid out over 400 acres of subdivisions in Manitoba. The real estate boom came to a halt but Mr. Reilly was able to secure more work from the firm of Murdock, Armstrong and Beddoe, Engineers and Surveyors. While with them, in the summer of 1882, he surveyed over 800 acres of small residential lots at Rapid City (north of Brandon, Manitoba).

That fall he surveyed a "timber limit" near the head of the Swan River on the west side of the Porcupine Mountains. (The hardships he encountered while going to and from the job can be read between the lines of a letter he sent the Saskatchewan Association in 1933.) The route commenced in Winnipeg via the Canadian Pacific Railway to Moosomin, North West Territories, then by wagon trail to Fort Ellice, followed by boat on the Assiniboine River to Fort Pelly, and again by wagons for ten miles to Livingston on the Swan River. After transferring all their equipment for the ninth time onto a boat they progressed up the Swan River until they located the timber limits.

Livingston, of historical fact, was the first Capital of the North West Territories. In fact, the first session of the Territorial Council was held there in March 1877. Livingston was also the headquarters of the North West Mounted Police from November 1876 until March 1877. A Cairn to mark the site has been erected by the Historical Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.

The following year, in May of 1883, Mr. Reilly was under contract to subdivide townships for the Federal Government: Townships 19 and 20 in Ranges 18 to 23, West of the third meridian. This area extended West of the South Saskatchewan River into the great sand hills, West of Cabri, Saskatchewan. The old Hudson's Bay trail to Edmonton happened to pass through the area which allowed his crew access to a traffic route for their surveys. By 1883, the railway had reached Swift Current and was continuing westward at a hectic pace. Mr Reilly comments:

"It was a novel sight to watch the precise and easy manner in which a vast number of men, teams and grading machines worked in harmony in forming a road bed on which track laying machines were placing a band of steel which connected, on Canadian soil, the Atlantic and Pacific oceans."

He tells of seeing and speaking to a lone man with a pony pulling a Red River cart loaded with furs on his way from Edmonton to Winnipeg. The trader had already been on the trail for one month and expected to reach his destination in another month. He baked his bannock and wild meat (antelope and prairie chicken) on an open fire. For exercise he walked behind the cart and for pleasure he rode on top. Mr. Reilly stated:

"Even so, he was happy as a lark and the world moved on. My crew never mentioned being lonely again."

He explains how the prairie was strewn with buffalo bones and how he used buffalo heads (whitened by the sun) or ribs, capped with a small inverted sod, for his back sites on the survey lines. He mentions that by 1880 the buffalo were nearly extinct. A buffalo hunter told Mr. Reilly:

"In the early stages of the game it was not unusual to try and kill the buffalo leader first, so that the herd would scatter, then they would shoot a hundred head all at once. When the buffalo were numerous, only the two year old choice heifer hides were taken. Later any hide was taken and sold. Apparently the buffalo would winter in the northern United States and travel North in the spring. The cows and calves were herded and flanked on either side by the young bulls. Mr Reilly recalls a good reliable friend telling him that it took three days for a herd to pass one point (literally thousands of buffalo and the ground looked like a ploughed field). When the buffalo arrived in the North they would scatter into herds since the young bulls turned the old bulls out of the main herd. It was these smaller herds that made the many paths on the prairie."

Mr. Reilly states:

"I have seen as many as a dozen paths, side by side. As soon as a path got too deep, another was made, around the ends of fresh water lakes. "

In 1884, he again contracted with the Government to subdivide Townships 51 and 52 in Ranges 25 to 28 West of the third meridian. The area is North East of Lloydminster on the Alberta boundary. When they left the railway at Swift Current by wagons and while waiting for the ferry to cross the South Saskatchewan River at Saskatchewan Landing, they witnessed a freighters' outfit comprised of 70 carts and ponies. The carts were placed on the ferry, a few at a time, but the ponies were driven into the river to swim across. It was a peculiar scene to see the whole band of ponies take the water at once. They were carried down stream a quarter of a mile before they landed on the opposite shore.

When the Riel Rebellion broke out in 1885, it put a stop to most Dominion surveys. It wasn't until 1903, when active work for Dominion Land Surveyors commenced again. That year Mr. Reilly subdivided more lands in the West, namely: Townships 47 and 48 in Ranges 13, 14 and 15 West of the Third meridian, near Rabbit Lake, Saskatchewan and in Townships 52 and 53 in Ranges 23 and 24 West of the third meridian, around the Paradise Hill district. These surveys comprised ten Townships of work for one summer.

In 1904, he completed three townships by contract on the Athabasca River in Township 66 in Ranges 22, 23 and 24 West of the Fourth meridian. Again these were performed by day contract due to the rough terrain and heavy bush. The same summer he completed another six townships West of Jackfish Lake in Saskatchewan. They were Townships 47 and 48 in Ranges 17, 18 and 19 West of the Third.

Due to his good record as a surveyor he was engaged on retracement and resurveys covering previous early surveys by other surveyors. His work extended over the central parts of Saskatchewan from the Third Meridian to the Athabasca River in Alberta In those days a surveyor stayed in the field for the entire summer.

The present day surveyors in Regina, in all probability, have tied into Mr. Reilly's original block outline monuments. These were planted by him in 1910 and covered an area for the original Regina town site. The area was about one and one-half miles square. It would be interesting to know how many of these early corners still exist or have been replaced in recent years. The concrete monuments were 12 inches by 4 feet deep with a three quarters inch pipe and offset at the North East corner of each block. He also placed caps over the monuments when they fell in a concrete side walk. The open end pipe also allowed the placement of a survey picket in an accurate position over the corner.

Mr. Reilly relates to the boom years between 1909 and 1914 when he performed many subdivision surveys:

"I have had as many as forty quarter sections, at one time, on the boards, located in and surrounding the cities Regina, Weyburn, Moose Jaw, Swift Current and other places There is no doubt that Mr. Reilly played an important roll in opening up parts of the Canadian West. "

He also talked about a special event in his life when he participated in the unveiling of the Memorial Cairn and Tablet on July 14th, 1930, in Manitoba. The Cairn commemorates the planting of the first monument on the Principal Meridian on July l0th, 1871. Mr. Reilly represented Saskatchewan at the unveiling.

While Mr. Reilly spent a majority of his life on survey work his inclination had always pointed towards Architecture. As an example: In 1906 he brought into partnership, F. Chapman Clemesha, Architect. The firm was known as "Reilly and Clemesha". This relationship did not last and the firm dissolved in 1909. However a new group was formed with his brother, F.B. Reilly and an Architect, Harold Dawson. In 1911 another Architect, Mr. Hancock, joined the firm but he retired in 1915 and Mr Dawson left the firm to become the Saskatchewan Provincial Architect in 1922. A Mr. Warburton, Architect, joined the firm and they were known as Reilly, Warburton and Reilly .

Mr. Reilly and his son operated a farm, which was very modern for the times, near Regina. They used steam power and to guard against any delay in a major break down, Mr. Reilly studied to be a steam engineer and passed his examinations in 1915.

In 1933, at the age of 76, he had no thought of retiring and lived for the day when he could (due to the depression) return to his work as a land surveyor. Many land surveyors were engaged in positions other than land surveys during the depression. Such conditions did not change until the 1940's.

The writer notes that he had his office at 312 Westman Chambers, Regina. The same building that I occupied while in partnership with Sidney Harding, S.L.S., D.L.S., for a short period in 1949.

Mr. Reilly married Jane H. Coutts on May 7th, 1883, and they had one son and three daughters. Mrs. Reilly spent one season with Mr. Reilly on survey work one hundred miles from their neighbours. During their fiftieth year of marriage, Mr. Reilly wrote to the Saskatchewan Association about his life history.

Some of Mr. Reilly 's accomplishments:
  • Provincial Land Surveyor (Ontario), 7 April 1881
  • Dominion Land Surveyor, 17 November 1881
  • Saskatchewan Land Surveyor, 9 May 1910
  • Charter member, Architectural Institute of Canada, 20 August 1907
  • Fellow, Architectural Institute of Canada, 30 September 1908
  • Charter member, Saskatchewan Association of Architects, 1 May 1912
  • Fellow, Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, 1 February 1930
  • Member, Association of Professional Engineers of Saskatchewan, 12 May 1931
  • Certificate, Steam Engineers of Saskatchewan, 23 June 1915
  • President, Saskatchewan Land Surveyors Association, 1916 and 1928

A Land Surveyor worthy of his Commission and recognition for his accomplishments in the pioneer days of Western Canada.

J.H. Webb, S.L.S., C.L.S.