Arthur Oliver Wheeler was designated a National Historic Person in 1995 due to his years working as a topographical surveyor, his support of the National Park Movement and his part in establishing the Alpine Club of Canada.
Wheeler was born on May 1, 1860 outside of Kilkenny, Ireland, at this family estate, The Rocks. In 1876, the family immigrated to Canada where Wheeler met noted land surveyor, Lauchlan Alexander Hamilton and became his apprentice at age 16. In the summer of 1877, Wheeler was hired by surveyor Elihu Stewart to work north of the Great Lakes in Ontario’s Algoma District. Stewart hired him again the following summer and Wheeler traveled from Winnipeg, Manitoba to Battleford, Saskatchewan in Red River carts surveying Indian reserves near Battleford and Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. Wishing to follow in his mentor’s footsteps, Wheeler returned to Ontario to continue his schooling and qualified as Ontario Land Surveyor in 1881 and as Manitoba and Dominion Land Surveyor in 1882.
Wheeler was hired by the Canadian Government in 1883 to complete pioneer surveys in Western Canada. Two years later, he was appointed a technical officer of the Topographical Surveys Branch of the Department of the Interior, working under Dr. Edouard Deville, Surveyor General of Canada. Here, he was trained in the specialty of phototopographical surveying or photogammetry, which Deville was using to map the Canadian Rocky Mountains.
After a stint as a lieutenant with the Dominion Land Surveyors Intelligence Corps during the Riel Rebellion, Wheeler returned to Ottawa and met Clara Macoun, daughter of famous Canadian botanist John Macoun of the Palliser Expedition. They were married in Ottawa in 1888. In 1891, they welcomed their first son, Edward Oliver Wheeler and left Ottawa for British Columbia, where Wheeler went into private practice as a surveyor. Unsuccessful in his business ventures due to a real estate crash, he rejoined the Department of the Interior in 1894. His new position took him to Calgary, where Wheeler eventually moved with his wife and son in 1898. From 1894 to 1900, he surveyed the watersheds of southern Alberta: the Elbow, Sheep, Highwood, Oldman, Belly, Waterton, Little Bow, St. Mary and Milk Rivers.
Wheeler was appointed Commissioner of the Alberta/British Columbia boundary survey in 1910. For the following 17 years, he surveyed the portion of the boundary which follows the Continental Divide from the 49th parallel to its intersection with the 120th meridian, a distance of 970 km (600 miles). This was his final project as a surveyer, after its completion, Wheeler retired from active professional work.
On a surveying trip to the Rogers Pass area of the Selkirk Range in British Columbia, Wheeler met a group of Swiss mountain guides with whom he made his first ascent of a major peak. The following year, in 1902, he took his son Oliver on a first ascent of a previously unnamed peak, which he named Mount Oliver. Wheeler also made a first ascent of Mount Wheeler, which he named after himself. In 1905, he shared his love of these mountains in a book called The Selkirk Range, the first book written by a Canadian, celebrating a mountain range.
Charles Fay, first president of the American Alpine Club and aquaintance of Wheeler, suggested that a Canadian chapter of the club be formed. Wheeler discussed the idea with many, but met great opposition from Elizabeth Parker, a journalist at the Winnipeg Free Press, who felt Canada should not become a subsidiary to the American Alpine Club. As a result of her adamant opinions, Wheeler and Parker founded the Alpine Club of Canada (ACC) in 1906. Wheeler became the ACC’s first President and Parker became its first Secretary.
Wheeler served as President of the ACC for four years and then went on to Managing Director for 16 years until 1930. After his retirement, he was named Honorary President of the ACC, a position he held until his death in early 1945. He also served as editor of the Canadian Alpine Journal from 1907 until 1927. Wheeler was the driving force behind two of the ACC’s most successful expeditions, the 1913 Mt. Robson camp, and the 1925 ascent of Mt. Logan.
Wheeler retired from surveying and much of his work with the Alpine Club of Canada in 1925, but extended his interest in mountaineering and the geography of the land by enthusiastically campaigning for the preservation of the Parks. He actively pushed for the banning of commercial development within the parks. He also lobbied for the inclusion of the Columbia Icefield within the expanded Jasper National Park boundaries.
Arthur Oliver Wheeler’s first born, Sir Edward Oliver Wheeler, participated in the first topographical survey of Mount Everest in 1921, and as Brigadier in the British Army was appointed Surveyor General of India in 1941.
Wheeler died for the second time on May 20, 1945. His first death occurred during the Riel Rebellion, at the Battle of Batoche. Wheeler was grazed in the shoulder by a sniper's bullet and while recovering, he learned that his family in Ontario had been informed that he had been killed in action.
In 1920 at the Allied Congress of Alpinism, the Prince of Monoco recognized Wheeler for co-founding the ACC as well as his involvement with other countries alpine clubs. Wheeler was made an Officer of the Order of St. Charles and was given the Cross of the Order.
A pre-eminent topographical surveyor, Wheeler represented British Columbia on the commission which located and marked the boundary with Alberta between 1913 and 1925. His party surveyed and mapped the 1000 km-long mountain section, using photographs taken from high elevations. An established expert in this technique, Wheeler also studied the movement of glaciers along the boundary. In 1906 he co-founded the Alpine Club of Canada, and as a leading preservationist helped create the Canadian National Parks Association. The boundary survey stands as his greatest achievement.
Alpine Club of Canada website, Past Presidents