Sunday, 13 December 2015

Swift: A Precocious Pioneer

Swift: A Precocious Pioneer

Author of “The Blue Wolf
From The Canadian Magazine, 1
913 September.
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 Yellowhead Pass, appointed by himself to repre­sent himself as the total of the white population of two hundred miles of mountain peak and torrent and for­est.
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 Canada—a lit­tle 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.
When Swift first looked about him in the centre of what is now Jasper Park he could have pitched his tent anywhere within many hundreds of miles without comment or opposition. That was about thirty-five years ago. The 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 Washington, away back when Edmonton 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.
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 Pyramid Mountain 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.
To plant he must have seed. Ed­monton 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.
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 Providence for deceiving 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.
Twice a year he had to endure that month’s weary trip to Edmonton, 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 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 Edmonton once more as the source of supply.
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 Rockies. 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.

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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.