Through an Unknown Country

Trent Ernst, Editor


In the winter of 1874–75, Edward Worrell Jarvis and Charles Francis Hanington took part in an expedition on behalf of the Canadian Pacific Survey from Quesnel, British Columbia, to Winnipeg, Manitoba.  They were looking for a route for the soon-to-be-built railway.

Their trip took them over the northern Rocky Mountains through what would come to be known as Jarvis Pass (Kakwa Provincial Park, British Columbia) and eventually onto the Canadian plains. The trip took them 116 days and covered over 3000 kilometres, of which almost 1500 was travelled on snowshoes.

This epic trip has been documented in a new book from former Banff National Park Planner (now retired) Mike Murtha and local doctor and author Charles Helm.

This is the pair’s second book together, following last year’s The Forgotten Explorer: Samuel Prescott Fay’s 1914 Expedition to the Northern Rockies.

Through an Unknown Country follows a similar path as their first. In that book, Samuel Prescott Fay did much of the heavy lifting in telling the story, with Murtha and Helm providing commentary and context to Fay’s words.

Here, they are attributed as editors, bringing together four separate takes on the epic journey into a single volume. The two were not explores, as such, but civil engineers. They were commissioned by Sanford Fleming to explore what is now Jarvis pass to see if it would be a good route for the proposed transcontinental railway. The story is told first in the words of Jarvis’ official report, the through a series of letters from Hanington to his brother. Then back to Jarvis, with excerpts from his diary, and finally, back to Hanington, recounting the story more than 50 years later.

The book recounts harrowing treks through deep mountains, densely forested valleys, open foothills and wide prairies as the eight person team set out in the middle of winter in 1874 to explore the route.

With temperatures hitting close to -50, and deep snow, the group battled exhaustion, starvation and extreme cold temperatures on a trip that took them north of Prince George and up the Herrick River to the boundaries of present day Monkman Park before they backtracked and took a different, more southerly route through what is now Kakwa Provincial Park and on through the prairies to Winnipeg. two engineers

The book will be launched here in Tumbler Ridge, at an event at the Public Library on December 10. Librarian Paula Coutts was provided with an early copy of the book, and sent us this brief review:

What can I say, I am a history geek! I’m a Librarian, so for me, this book is a great example of why librarians keep everything! Imagine diaries and reports about this kind of daunting expedition being found, then ‘lost’ for years!

Although not what I expected, I read every word, including footnotes. The authors were right to include all versions of the story although the repetition may discourage some to finish the book. I enjoyed the biographies and would have liked to know more about these men who were so young when they accomplished so much…including Fleming! I wonder if anyone will start searching for the cache for which the approximate coordinates are provided? What an interesting find that would be!

I’m also intrigued by a vague reference to Jarvis having a wife … Katie? … And may play around with Ancestry to see if I can track down any vital records although I expect the authors have searched extensively. Anyway, not a book for everyone, but I can think of a few clients who will enjoy it immensely.

Another thought: It’s been years since I read Berton’s book so likely time to read it again now that I have a different perspective on the motivations for undertaking such an immense project (the western section of the railway) in a relatively short time and the decisions to be made regarding its route. Hard to imagine the kind of expedition Jarvis and Hanington took with only vague descriptions of passes, rivers, etc.

Coutts says the majority of the book, about two-thirds of it, is from Jarvis, Hanington and Fleming, though the exhaustive footnotes provide the context for what they say. “The footnotes are unbelievable,” says Coutts.

Indeed, the footnotes take up 41 pages. To put that in perspective, the chapters told from the perspective of Jarvis and Hanington take up 128 pages. The book is rounded up by an eight page chapter putting the trip in perspective, 20 pages of biographies, and then a series of appendices and errata. The two sections are divided neatly by a series of photographs, diary excepts and map reproductions.

While some people might not like the fact that the same story is told from different perspectives, says Coutts, you need to hear these people’s voices. “Hanington is a much more interesting writer,” she says. “He talks much more about what they had to face. Jarvis was much more business-like. Hanington gave more details about the dogs, about falling in through the ice…I don’t know how those guys survived. They were always falling through the ice, then having to walk two miles to get to a place where they could build a fire.”

People interested in reading about the expedition can pick up a copy of the new book when it is officially launched, December 10 at 7:00 pm at the Tumbler Ridge Public Library. People who are interested in hearing the story rather than reading it can attend the launch, too, and hear Helm speak about the expedition.