Sunday, 13 December 2015
Swift: A Precocious Pioneer
Author of “The Blue Wolf”
From The Canadian Magazine, 1
Digitized by Doug Frizzle, November 2015.
WHEN Canada’s new transcontinental, the Grand Trunk Pacific, pushed its way into the unknown Rockies of Northern British Columbia it was welcomed by one pair of hands only—the only white ones in all that vast region of undiscovered grandeur. Swift, the pioneer, was official reception committee of the
, appointed by
himself to represent himself as the total of the white population of two
hundred miles of mountain peak and torrent and forest. Yellowhead
Not that the railway was essential to Swift! He had lived so long in there on his own resources that nothing on earth seemed able to interfere with his independence. But the same brains that had turned into a sustaining home a mountain valley three hundred and fifty miles from the nearest neighbour came to his assistance in realizing that the two little rails could bring him luxuries he had not learned to despise as well as renounce.
And the Grand Trunk Pacific? It was too experienced to ignore the outstretched hands, for the way to the Pacific was effectually blocked by Swift’s domain, the most unique farming enterprise in
patch of tilled ground that extended across the only available pass from
mountainside to mountainside. Yes, Swift stood there with extended hand—but he
kept his back to the Pacific and his eyes open. Even the big railway stopped
to shake hands, to smile its thanks and commence the parley. Canada
When Swift first looked about him in the centre of what is now
he could have pitched his tent anywhere within many hundreds of miles without
comment or opposition. That was about thirty-five years ago. The Jasper Park Hudson’s Bay Company represented everything of authority
within a month’s journey, and the only present or predicted value of the Rockies was on the back of the fur-bearing animals that
appreciated the protection of unscalable heights and uncharted valleys. Swift
himself was not drawn to the spot by any special prescience. He just liked it,
and, liking it, sat down because it fitted his mood. That he has continued to
sit there is proof of the durability of the surrounding attractions.
Swift—nobody seems to have heard any other portion of his name—developed the wanderlust as a youngster down near
away back when
was only a Company trading-post and the whole north country a Company
hunting-ground. He and a partner reached Edmonton
still unsatisfied. They passed farther westward through the Rockies to Jasper
House, the mountain post of the Hudson’s Bay Company; and near there the
unfordable Athabaska forced them to pause. Edmonton
That moment’s hesitation was sufficient to make more than a passing scene of the grandeur around them. Anyone else would have pulled out a sketch book, or built a raft to see what was beyond. But Swift and his mate built a shack. And instead of making lines on paper they made them on the ground. There in the heart of the western mountains they dared attempt to introduce the arts of the East, to rouse the soil into a belief in bigger things than the production of spruce and poplar and cottonwood trees. But Swift seems to have monopolised faith in their works, for his partner showed a decided preference to his traps and rifle.
They parted—over a little bit of workable level ground in the midst of the Rockies, with no neighbours but a few Indians a hundred miles west on the Fraser, and no future that promised profit. The partner wandered off through the Yellowhead Pass, rifle in hand; and Swift, left alone to an impossible life, capitulated and shouldered pan and pick for the gold that might lie in those mountains.
But the little clearing beside the Athabaska kept calling to the man who had felled the trees and broken the sod. Restlessly he wandered about, hoping to drown the profitless call, but in his ears it kept tinkling like sweet music. Before his eyes there floated pictures of towering peaks, snow-covered, of a swift river and tumbling torrents in the midst, and of a crude, log shack where he had dreamt dreams. The beckoning finger of the wilds would not be denied, and he yielded. Thirty years ago he struck back through the mountains to the only “home” he knew, to a life whose lonesomeness only Swift can know. He takes no credit for being a prophet. He just smiles and looks out over the few tilled acres and smiles as a father would pat the back of a son who has not disappointed him.
It was a simple operation for the erstwhile prospector to stake out two thousand acres. If the mountainside had not obtruded itself he might as well have made it two million. He built another little shack beside a rushing mountain stream that poured down from the glaciers of
on its way to the Athabaska. He cut down more poplars and cottonwood. And
after he had two acres cleared he began to plan and hope. Pyramid Mountain
To plant he must have seed.
was three hundred and fifty miles to the east, but after years of travel
without destination that distance was negligible. With his supply of seeds
and what few provisions even he required he started back to his lonesome home
in the mountains. And ahead of him tramped six cattle. It must have been a
trail of difficulties; but there was the satisfaction of knowing that, once
the cattle reached their two thousand acre pasture, a reasonable stability of
mountain and river would keep them there without a cowboy. Edmonton
Then the serious work of the mountain farmer began. It was possible to drive in cattle, but he could not set down on his farm an outfit of factory-made implements. Just there commenced a display of that ingenuity that would prevent even a socialist begrudging Swift the opulence that will be his. A big fir tree was a simple conversion into a roller, and jackpine trees lacked only the finish of machine-turned shafts. Of wood he made a plough, a harrow, and even garden tools. And the wooden tools he planned and cut in those days he is using now, without the land resenting the absence of style and polish.
When the land was seeded Swift was only beginning to know his own resources. He discovered that the rainfall of the mountains was too uncertain for his ambitions. So far as is known he expressed no grouch against
him into attempting the impossible. Instead, he dug a trench from a mountain
stream back of his shack, and radiating from it many little ditches cut the
farm. Where each ditch left the main trench he placed a sluice gate—and then
this single-handed mountain farmer was as independent of nature as it is well
for man to be. If his potatoes were languishing he lifted a couple of gates and
sat down to watch the glacier do his work. If his wheat was ripening to the
scythe he jammed down the interested gates and definitely decided when to harvest.
Swift, with his wooden implements, with his unmarketable crops from his
unmarketable land, was farming scientifically. Providence
Twice a year he had to endure that month’s weary trip to
, and like any
other obstacle in Swift’s way it must have a remedy. All that long trail meant
only flour to him, for he had long since learned to forgo the luxuries of
civilisation. And the problem of flour he accordingly set out to solve. He
built a millwheel, placed it in one of the convenient mountain streams, and
watched it for a few days like a new toy, as it shakily yielded to the rush of
the water. Then he set out for Edmonton
and brought back a small grinder. Doubtfully he set it in place, connected it
with the wheel, and sat down to see if Edmonton Edmonton
had anything on the Rockies. The flour came—good
enough for his purpose — and there was his own flour mill on his own farm,
manufacturing solely for himself. Lots of us afford inexpensive luxuries like
automobiles and yachts and valets, but Swift has a monopoly of the personal
flour mill luxury.
My first visit to Swift’s farm was via a gasolene “speeder” that rattled its way over the eight miles of new track from Fitzhugh, the mountain divisional point of the Grand Trunk Pacific. "When the speeder drew up before the shack a cluster of young faces that had curiously watched my approach disappeared instantly, and I had time to look around.
The railway ran within twenty yards of the front door, passing between the shack and the stables, and cutting a line through scenic grandeur that branded it as an intrusion. The shack, a long, low, log building, was in three sections, one the overhanging, log-roofed porch that is a feature of all ambitious residences in the wilds, then the original house, and behind it an addition of more recent years, the demand of an increasing family. Back of the shack toward Pyramid Mountain, one of the prominent peaks of the Yellowhead Pass, and from it a noisy stream rushed past the house, appearing here and there through the trees Swift had allowed to remain along its banks, and rattling off towards the Athabaska a half mile away. Opposite the door, across the Athabaska, was a precipitous upheaval of mountain, like the first efforts of a landscape maker who is unfamiliar with his tools. East and west the railway disappeared in the clutching folds of other mountains on mountains.
It was a spot for a tourist hotel, rather than for a farmer. Either Swift had fallen upon a freak of nature in such a glorious combination of agricultural possibilities and scenery, or his weird ability had utilised nature to his own ideas of beauty and use. Anyway, the farm lay there in the centre of a valley of greatest loveliness.
Just inside the door sat a stout half-breed woman, Swift’s wife of later years, working on a pile of moccasins that flecked with brilliant colour the top of a rough table.
“He way two, tree day. Mebbe back soon,” she said in answer to an inquiry for Mr. Swift.
The information was not sufficiently definite whereon to base an appointment, but it was interesting as a sidelight on the wandering, independent life of the pioneer, who happened also to be a husband and father.
Inside, the first thing that came into view was an oil-cloth-covered table on which rested soup plates and cups and saucers. Probably it was the
Rocky Mountains version of
a curio table, for the rest of the
interior and the history of Swift scarcely paved the way for soup plates. A
stove, innumerable tins, old blankets, and three rough chairs that carried the
overflow of litter covering the floor, made it a matter of careful progress to
reach the one chair that was emptied of its load. Swift’s special hobby
appeared in a line of eight or ten clocks and watches that hung from the logs
supporting the roof. One would think time of value in the Rockies.
Most of the walls and ceiling was concealed by pictures clipped from
newspapers, the only system of selection appearing in the children ’s faces
that covered the outside of the front door.
Besides the mother four children managed to squeeze into the room, the younger generation well-dressed, intelligent and alert, and eager to supply the missing English of their mother’s halting conversation. The woman faced the pile of bright leather—the light brown of the young moose, the white caribou, the brown, smoked caribou, and a few shocking developments of her own ideas of leather staining. The cheapest of the moccasins was held at three dollars, and the white caribou brought four; but then the caribou had disappeared since the railway came in with its hilarious bohunks, its rattle and rush. Of late she has been forced to recognise
once more as the source of supply. Edmonton
In all, fifteen acres have been broken on the farm, and the success with wheat and most of the vegetables justified replanting year after year. Horse raising is one of the main features of the Swift industry. Forty-five horses now roam the range, the easy pasture and open winters making them a clear profit. Mrs. Swift is proud of what her husband has done, but she looks forward to that which will make her prouder still. The presence of the one railway would have profited Swift for much of his life, but a second, the Canadian Northern, has built its grade to his borders and beyond.
Swift has recently knocked much from the romance of his life by giving up part of his farming for the lure of real estate. He says it is because the railway has interrupted his irrigation system, but the avidity with which he dropped the one for the other speaks well for his perspicacity. The business negotiations he has carried on with the Government and with the two railways are ample proof that the pioneer life does not necessarily narrow a man.
When the Canadian Government decided to anticipate the railway by setting aside all that district in the mountains as a national park it approached Swift in the light of its experience. But Swift enlarged that experience. He refused to move. He had a pretty firm conviction that thirty years of unquestioned residence was above governments. He stuck. And the Government succumbed. They granted him a quarter section in the centre of one of the grandest national parks in the world. Swift knew it was enough for any ordinary man to hope for or to require.
When the Grand Trunk Pacific came along it learned that Swift made no favourites. He set a price for the land the railway required; and rather than suffer the tedious delay of arbitration they paid it. Again Swift had won.
The Canadian Northern rushed its work to catch up to the Grand Trunk Pacific; and once more Swift blocked the wheels of progress. Negotiations failed to move him, and, as there was no way round his farm, the railway built its grade to the edge of the quarter section and then jumped to work from the other side. Last fall terms had not been made, but Swift is content to wait. His demand is that the Canadian Northern establish a townsite on his farm. It wouldn’t cost the railway anything, and the level bit of land is the most suitable in many miles.
In anticipation of that event the townsite is already laid out, and the name of Swiftholme will assist in the monetary returns.
Swift deserves the best that can come to him. He took up a task that would have lain to this day like the rest of the
He lived entirely alone for a dozen years where comforts were the products of
his own hands. He put his brains to the solution of problems that would have
driven another back to civilisation decades ago. But probably he will never be
worth writing about again, now that wealth is his. For it was in the fastnesses
of the mountains he found himself.
- ► 2016 (74)
- Impressions of Mount Robson
- Edmonton Casually
- By Car and Cowcatcher Part 2
- Canso and Hazel Hill
- With The Cod Fishermen
- Swift: A Precocious Pioneer
- Where Nature’s Gas is King
- Tramping in Unfrequented Nova Scotia
- Grenfell from a Deck Chair
- The Life and Opinions of William Lacey Amy
- By Car and Cowcatcher
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.