Canadian Consulting Engineer

A Dollar a Day

August 1, 2010
By Katherine Gordon For McElhanney

McElhanney, a western Canadian engineering, surveying and mapping firm, began when W.G. McElhanney ( "Mac") opened a tiny one-room office in Vancouver in the spring of 1910. To mark the firm's 100 yea...

McElhanney, a western Canadian engineering, surveying and mapping firm, began when W.G. McElhanney ( “Mac”) opened a tiny one-room office in Vancouver in the spring of 1910. To mark the firm’s 100 year history, the company has published Maps, Mountains & Mosquitoes: The McElhanney Story 1910-2010, by B.C. author Katherine Gordon.

Following is an excerpt from Chapter 2, “A Dollar a Day,” covering the period of the First World War.

The declaration of WWI in August 1914 was devastating in every imaginable way for everyone, and for the surveying profession in British Columbia, the impact was disastrous. A bonanza of work turned overnight into an echoing vacuum for those who did not enlist to fight, including the McElhanney brothers.

Mac [W. G. McEhanney, founder of the firm] was 37 years old and had a family to support. Tom [McElhanney] was also married, had an infant daughter, Marjory, and appears to have been fully engaged in furthering his studies. He was soon to become an expert in forestry resources, and he would leave his surveying days behind by the time the war was over. In the meantime, despite the fact that some 70 men — more than one-third of the registered pool of provincial land surveyors — had enlisted, there was little work for those who remained behind.

That fact had not yet sunk in for the profession by January 1915, when F.C. Green, the president of the Corporation of British Columbia Land Surveyors (the “Corporation”), addressed the organization’s annual general meeting in the Board of Trade Building in Vancouver. Mac’s one-room office, equipped simply with a solid oak desk and a vast and aged typewriter, was on the seventh floor of the same building, and Mac attended the meeting.

He was listening from the audience as Green spoke over-optimistically: “The war has greatly unsettled matters for the present, but the vast natural resources of this province cannot long remain undeveloped. The bonanza years for surveyors have probably departed forever, but the profession should in future provide satisfactory incomes for a large number, and the quality of the work and the standing of the profession should steadily improve now that what I might term the ‘gambling era’ for us has passed.”

Mac did not attend the January 1916 annual general meeting, held in Victoria. With a general depression blanketing the country, it was a far more sober affair. Attendance was low; four surveyors had already fallen in battle in Europe….

On a personal level, Mac was also struggling. With a $3,500 mortgage to pay on his home, rent for his office to cover and next to no work to do, it is not surprising that his budget did not stretch to attending the annual meeting on Vancouver Island. Neither McElhanney brother conducted any government survey work in 1915. How they managed to survive is unclear.

The business suffered a severe blow when several clients that had engaged the McElhanneys’ surveying services promptly closed their doors immediately after the war began. The brothers were left with a fistful of unpaid bills, which meant they were unable to pay the wages owed to their crews. It was a dreadful situation for Mac to find himself in, as he prided himself not only on his honesty and integrity but also on the way in which he always dealt fairly with employees. Through sheer determination he eventually paid what he owed, but it took several years to catch up — a situation he fervently hoped he would never face again.

During the 1916 season, Mac obtained a government contract to finalize some pre-emption surveys at Half Moon and North West Bays in New Westminster District and to complete the subdivision of a timber lease in Chilliwack. But, by 1917, even government staff surveyors were finding themselves occasionally doing work for no remuneration other than expenses incurred, simply to hold on to their jobs. Mac had no government work that year. He may well have found himself accepting, as others did, eggs and meat rather than cash in payment for his services. With the birth of his second son, Robert, in March 1917, he must have been increasingly desperate to find the means to support his growing family.

He was at least able to keep paying his annual membership dues in the Corporation, something not every member was able to do. He also had enough spare time on his hands to present a detailed paper to the annual general meeting that year on the rules and regulations governing riparian rights and foreshore. But by 1918, President Neville Townsend reported that private practice was almost at a standstill. Mac did not attend the meeting in Victoria, at which he was voted onto the board of directors notwithstanding his absence.

At the same meeting, the apparent desire of the civil en gineers of the province to take over the licensing of both engineers and surveyors led to the formation of a committee to monitor events. Although some of their own members were also civil engineers, surveyors generally were fiercely independent and jealous of the economic potential of their turf: the last thing they wanted was to join forces with the engineers, whom they regarded with great suspicion.

On October 18, 1918, Mac submitted a report to Surveyor- General J.E. Umbach on his season’s work undertaking pre-emption surveys in the upper North Thompson Valley. The end of the war was only weeks away, but the gloom of its impact had yet to lift, and when it finally occurred, Mac would not be in any position to celebrate. Another unanticipated disaster was erupting in Canada: a lethal influenza virus that had come back with returning troops was spreading rapidly throughout the country, killing tens of thousands of Canadians. By the time Mac was preparing his report in the first weeks of October, the Spanish flu had reached Vancouver and was already taking its toll. Within a month, it had reached into the McElhanney household. On November 22, William and Marion lost their four-year-old son, Hugh, to its deadly grip.

On the urging of his doctor, Mac immediately relocated his family to North Vancouver for the duration of the epidemic, despite the difficulty that caused in commuting across Burrard Inlet to his office; he could not afford a motor vehicle. In any event, the harbour ferry across the inlet was the most practical means to reach downtown Vancouver, and for the next two years Mac made the trip almost daily. . . .

Meridian Surveys: Wilderness and Technology (From Appendix A)

In western Canada, one of the earliest tasks given by governments to pioneer surveyors was the on-the-ground delineation of meridians, used as reference points for a variety of uses, from marking out settlements to establishing provincial borders. Given the challenges the early surveyors faced, the accuracy they and their colleagues achieved was remarkable.

Their tool kit was basic. A plumb bob or plumb line — a piece of pointed brass or iron suspended from a string — was used to establish a vertical line. Levels and levelling rods were used to measure elevations, and chronometers to measure time and longitude. Compasses, barometers and thermometers were also widely employed

The 66-ft.-long Gunter’s chain, weighing several pounds, was the basic unit of measurement. The chain had to be repeatedly stretched over mile after mile of mountain and muskeg, for days on end. It was an arduous task, to say the least. On the 124th meridian survey, W.G. “Mac” McElhanney reported: “The line was double-chained throughout; slopes were read by clinometer, but where steep they were checked by transit. Where chainages differed by more than two links to the mile, the mile was rechained.”

The logistics of travel were mind-numbing. With no means of long-distance communication or speedy transportation, the entire season would be spent in the field, requiring a level of planning akin to that needed for a military campaign: hiring of the local guides and crew for packing, cutting line and cooking; purchasing food, equipment, horses for packing gear and feed for up to five months at a time. In 1912, Mac used at least 37 horses on his portion of the survey, and among the equipment packed on those horses were bundles of heavy iron posts, required to be planted every 4.8 kilometres.

Surveyors were also expected to assess and report on the country they were travelling in, mapping rivers and landmarks and commenting on the potential of each region with respect to such matters as agriculture, timber extraction, mining, hydroelectric power and even tourism.

Today, the McElhanney group of companies has 700 employees, with 22 branches in western Canada and an offshore branch office in Jakarta, Indonesia. In Canada, the firm’s work has contributed to an extensive list of highway and transportation infrastructure, oil and gas wells, power schemes and other resource industry infrastructure across B.C. and Alberta.

The book can be purchased by contacting


Stories continue below