Academic journal article Alberta History

The Hector Memorials of 1906: Tributes to Sir James Hector and Douglas Hector

Academic journal article Alberta History

The Hector Memorials of 1906: Tributes to Sir James Hector and Douglas Hector

Article excerpt

The Sir James Hector cairn, now nearing 100 years of age, is the oldest monument in the Banff and Jasper National Parks. It was erected to acknowledge the scientific contributions of James Hector as a member of the pre-confederation Palliser expedition of 1857-1860 and for his identification of the Kicking Horse Pass. (1)

The eight-foot high cairn now stands isolated on the top of the pass named after Hector's near fatal accident on August 29, 1858, forty-three kilometers to the west of that point. It faces north between the four CPR rail lines and the Great Divide interpretive site on old 1A highway, twenty kilometres west of Lake Louise, or nine kilometres east of the Trans-Canada Highway-Lake O'Hara turnoff. The cairn rests at its third location where it has been for over seven decades. Years have passed since the last CPR train stopped for passengers to disembark and admire the beauty of Mounts Niblock, Richardson, St. Piran, and Pope's Peak; to confirm that the waters divide, with half flowing to the Pacific Ocean and the other to Hudson Bay; to stand astride the two provinces of Alberta and British Columbia; and to reflect on the significance of the cairn and the explorer that it honoured.

The inscription reads: "Erected in Honor of SIR JAMES HECTOR, K.C.M.G. Geologist & Explorer to the Palliser Expedition, 1857-1860. By his friends in Canada, the United States & England. One of the earliest scientists to explore the Canadian Rocky Mountains, he discovered the Kicking Horse Pass through which the Canadian Pacific Railway now runs from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Erected in 1906."

In early 1857 Sir Roderick Murchison of the Royal Geological Society selected the twenty-three year old James Hector for the Palliser Expedition because of his medical and natural science training, love of the outdoors, powers of observation, and penmanship skills.

By late 1857 the Palliser Expedition had reached western Canada. The field-men were Hector, Eugene Bourgeau, Thomas Blakiston, and John Sullivan, under the supervision of Captain John Palliser. Only Palliser and Hector remained with the expedition for the full three years. The two returned to London in March 1860 to write the Palliser Report and draft the Great Map, labouring at their own expense for most of that year.

While on the prairies, Hector left behind a lasting reputation amongst contemporaries and aboriginals as the "scientific gent" who was level headed, friendly, yet of sound judgement and common sense. He was never deterred from his focus on the Expedition's objectives to record and analyse the geological and environmental information gathered by the members, to identify the possibilities for settlement, and to locate any navigable passes on the prairies and contiguous Rocky Mountains. Hector diarised his travels on a daily basis. He traversed over 3,000 kilometers in present-day Alberta covering up to one hundred and fifty kilometres in a day. His Metis guide, Peter Erasmus, described Hector as one who "could walk, ride, or tramp snowshoes with the best of our men ... and his fame as a traveller was a wonder and a byword among many a teepee that never saw the man." (2)

After the expedition, Hector would be known as the geographer, geologist, surveyor, cartographer, meteorologist, ethnologist, physician, botanist, and data recorder, who co-authored the Palliser Report and authored the two major scientific articles that followed. Until the CPR Reports of Progress of 1872, 74, 77, 80 and the Geological Survey of Canada Reports of 1882-5, the Palliser report, map and Hector's articles were the primary sources of information on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains from the 49th parallel to the North Saskatchewan River.

In the summer of 1858, Palliser split his expedition into three teams. The two led by Hector and Blakiston began the search for passes through the Rocky Mountains. With five companions (Samuel Ballenden, Robert Sutherland, Joseph Brown, Nimrod, and Peter Erasmus) Hector headed for the Devil's Head at the east end of Lake Minnewanka to search the Bow River system for passes, following landmarks described by George Simpson in his book, Journey Around the World ill 1841/2. …

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