Member Biography

Member Name

William Thomas Thompson

(1853.11.01 - 1938.07.09)
Commission #013

Imagine, 63 years as a Commissioned Land Surveyor!

That honour went to Mr William Thomas Thompson, Cranberry Portage, Manitoba when he passed away tragically in 1938 while still surveying mineral claims in Northern Manitoba at the age of eighty five.

Of all the Land Surveyors who performed mineral claim surveys in the North, there is no doubt that Mr. Thompson was one of the most eminent in his profession.

Mr. Thompson's life story reads as an old time drama in which the hero plays a multi - educated role throughout the entire fable.

Not only a land surveyor of high repute but a true Canadian devoted to his country, his community and his family. When one reads all the material that has been penned about his life or read the many articles that Mr. Thompson contributed to history, you get a true feeling as to what a gracious and notable gentleman he was.

While surveying in the West, his inventive mind required him to try his hand at many undertakings. In 1910 he choose a blacksmith at Norquay, Saskatchewan to construct a bulldozer type of blade which he called a "side hill plow". It was his thought that the blade would push the plowed sod to one side in the construction of building roads.

Unfortunately the horsepower was not sufficient to handle it. Then when he was in the badlands of Alberta, he found the remains of a Dinosaur, dug it up, labeled all the parts, crated them and shipped it East to the Geological Survey Department, Ottawa, Ontario. There appears to be no record of Mr. Thompson ever receiving credit for his efforts.

In 1898, some of his records indicate that he was involved in bridge locations and road diversion surveys while living in Qu'Appelle, North West Territory.

Mr. Thompson started his survey career with a Mr. H.D. Lumsdon, Ontario Land Surveyor and became articled to him in 1872. One of his first jobs - he was assigned the lowly task of supplying liquid refreshments to the survey crew. The refreshments varied each day, as was the custom, and their favourite was "Blood Brothers Company's Porter and Rum". I am sure it kept the crews in good spirits. Mr. Thompson himself was a confirmed teetotaller throughout his life.

Mr. H.H. Browne (1862 - 1932 ), Provincial Land Surveyor in British Columbia talks about his involvement with Mr. Thompson in an article published by the Corporation of British Columbia Land Surveyors. Mr. Browne was articled to Mr Thompson in 1881 and came west to work with him. He wrote his preliminary examinations out of Mr. Thompson's camp at Fort Qu'Appelle, North West Territory (now Saskatchewan).

"At Portage la Prairie, the end of the track, we loaded our outfit into ten Red River carts and started up the trail to Fort Ellice. The Chief (Thompson) and his assistant rode ahead in a buck board and the apprentices followed on the hoof, with an occasional surreptitious lift in the cart. It used to be a boast of mine that I had tramped the thousand miles from Winnipeg to Edmonton in six pairs of moccasins."

The late A.C. Garner, D.L.S., S.L.S., prepared a biography, in 1938, on the late Mr. Thompson which profiles in detail the life and work of Mr. Thompson. From that biography I have listed some highlights and statistics which illustrates his varied life style.

Mr. Thompson qualified as a Provincial (Ontario) Land Surveyor before he was twenty one years old, acquiring his commission in 1875. He then obtained his Dominion Land Surveyor's commission in 1877, the same year that he graduated from McGill University with the degree of B.A.Sc., in natural sciences. Not satisfied with these degrees he went ahead and obtained, in 1882, not only his Master of Arts in Science but acquired his commission as a Dominion Topographical Surveyor, the highest commission awarded for surveying in Canada.

In fact there have only been thirty-two Dominion Topographical Surveyors in the history of surveying between 1876 and 1965. He was also in attendance at the first meeting of the Dominion Land Surveyor's association in 1882.

When Saskatchewan formed a Land Surveyors association, in 1910, Mr. Thompson's commission had number 13 on it. It was not until 1930, after Mr. Thompson moved to Manitoba and the year that the Federal Government turned the natural resources over to the Provinces, that he was granted his commission as a Manitoba Land Surveyor.

He was always involved with the various engineering and surveying organizations, as he was with the communities that he lived in. He was elected President of the Saskatchewan Land Surveyor's Association in 1918. ( In 1921 he became the first member to be honoured as a Life Member of the Saskatchewan Land Surveyors Association.)

In earlier years he also had time to article, as land surveyors, men such as Messrs A.C. Garner and E.C. Brown to name only two.

In 1879, accompanied by Arthur Maddock, who was articled to Mr. Thompson at the time, along with an expert canoe man, they made an exploratory survey, at his own expense, covering a vast area of Ontario. Starting at Lake Muskoka, along the Muskoka and Matawe rivers to the Ottawa river, thence north through various lakes and rivers until they reached Moose Factory on James Bay. They then returned via the Moose and Missinaibi Rivers to Lake Superior. The entire canoe voyage was around 1000 miles and he continually took observations for Latitude with a sextant and the artificial horizon. Upon his return he prepared a map showing the topography and geological features, which I assume is still in the Ontario Crown Lands departmental archives.

In 1880 he surveyed township block outline surveys west of the second meridian, and in 1881 and 1882 was on various baseline surveys in the West. He also found time to survey in the Lesser Slave Lake region and along the Peace River near the British Columbia Provincial boundary.

Then in 1884 he settled in the then village of Qu'Appelle, (which was at one time considered to be the capital of the Western regions ) and was appointed to the position of Chief Engineer for the proposed, "Wood Mountain, Qu'Appelle and Prince Albert Railway ". He explored and located the proposed line, however it was not constructed until 1902.

In these early years, 1886 to 1896, Mr. Thompson was occupied in a variety of engineering and surveying projects throughout the Western areas. Then in 1896 he was appointed by the council of the North West Territory to be the District Surveyor and Engineer for the Qu'Appelle Public Works district which encompassed all the south east segment of the Territory.

When the Province of Saskatchewan was formed in 1905, he continued in office with Public Works. Mr. Thompson had moved to various locations in his life and this was a man who had married in 1888 and was gifted with seven children. His son Mr G.F. Thompson still lives in Cranberry Portage, Manitoba.

Mr. Thompson had lived in Grenfell, Saskatchewan where he farmed on a large scale and in 1916 moved to Regina, then moved again in 1920 to Preeceville. When he finally settled down in Cranberry Portage, Manitoba, in 1922, his family was the first permanent white settlers in the area.

Mr. Thompson was certainly community oriented, being the President of the Cranberry Portage Board of trade from 1928 to 1934 and was the Police Magistrate from 1925 until his untimely death in 1938.

He wrote dozens of technical articles and papers blanketing early surveys and engineering in Western Canada. He even published a prospectors map of the mineral belt, north of The Pas, Manitoba, in 1924 and 1925. one of his articles mentions his encounter with the Indian Chief "Sitting Bull" while on surveys in the West.

Mr Thompson was obviously a passionate champion for the development of Port Churchill and the opening of Western Canada to that port. He prepared plans of the possible railway routes which would connect Northern Saskatchewan and Alberta to Port Churchill.

Quoting from Mr Garner's biography, sums up Mr. Thompson:

"That Mr Thompson was a real and very constructive pioneer is evidenced by his life's work and his contribution towards the development of the three prairie Provinces is eminently outstanding."

On February 26,1930, Mr. Thompson wrote to A.C. Garner regarding his own biographical notes:

"You may find something in these, on which to base an obituary notice when the time arrives to write it but unless something unexpected occurs this will be in the dim and distant future, for although I am now by the calendar 76, it is hard for me to realize that I am much over half that age."

What a great outlook on life!

The Saskatchewan Archives (R183-505) refer to a survey that covered a timber birth in The Pas, Manitoba in 1916. Mr. Thompson received a letter dated February 5, 1911 from "Jeremiah NA-WUKA-YAS" stating his objections to Thompson's survey encroaching on his Reserve.

"I understand you are running survey lines through my Reserve. It must be a mistake or you have lost your range. I have a map of my Reserve - it will show how far the Reserve extends south of the river."

Mr. Thompson then stopped his survey and requested information from Ottawa. It was soon cleared up. The timber birth description was wrong and should have bordered onto the Reserve.

Even on April 4th, 1938, when he was 85, in a letter to the Saskatchewan Land Surveyor's Association, Mr. Thompson wrote:

"This will be my last year in active practice. I have a few unfinished surveys in the Cold Lake area. I am still in very good health and it may be years yet before I pass to the Great Beyond."

How unjust, that only three months later he would be found dead in the bush, while doing the thing he loved, surveying mineral claims near Sherridon, Manitoba.

According to his friends:

"He died as he would have wished, in harness and amidst surroundings he knew and loved so well."

The following papers are only a few of Mr. Thompson's many articles on Western Canada. Some of them can be found in the Saskatchewan Provincial archives in Regina.

1. Reminiscence of life on the plains and westward to the Peace River country, 1880 - 1884. ( published in 1913 )

2. Notes on Palliser's exploration and Reminiscences of early days in the North West. (Published in 1916)

3. Reminiscences of Early days in the North West, 1800-1883.

4. Reminiscences of early days in the North West with notes on the Indian Tribes. (published in 1916 )

5. Essay: Notes on Glacial Lakes of the Great Plains. (1917)

6. Copy of letter sent to Association in 1938 by Mrs. Edith Thompson, which was written by Mr. Thompson about some of his experiences. (no date)

By J. H. Webb, SLS (LM)