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The Photographic Record of the Boundary Survey - the Grande Prairie

There are said to be about 100 known photographs to have documented the 1858-62 survey of the northwestern segment of our international boundary. Most were taken by only two specially trained sappers working alongside the British Royal Engineers as they worked their survey across the southern B.C. border. Duplicate copies of these historic prints are housed in several archives in Great Britain, Canada, and the U.S.A., each with a slightly different selection of the 100 extant prints. The overall collection is quite rare and unique in itself, although the relative value or importance of any particular image may be "in the eye of the beholder". This website looks only at selected photographs relating to the West Kootenay-Boundary, as found in the following archives:

The Victoria and Albert Museum in England
The Library of Congress in Washington D.C.
The Bancroft Library at the University of California

Although not readily available online at the time, the historic prints have been under the microscope of expert archivists for a number of decades, and we can learn from the research of at least two of them in the online articles posted below:

The first (Link), a 1980s article by Canadian archivist, Andrew Birrell, appearing in BC Studies, No. 52 Winter 1981-82, "Survey Photography in British Columbia, 1858-1900", examines survey photography in a general historical sense. The second article, (Link) is a recent, more specific scholarly analysis of the archives, their differences and their photographic content, by James A. Eason (2015), "When Narrative Fails: Context and Physical Evidence as Means of Understanding the Northwest Boundary Survey Photographs of 1857–1862," Journal of Contemporary Archival Studies: Vol. 2, Article 2.

Photography was still essentially an emerging technology in the 1850s and the survey photographers' field conditions were undoubtedly less than ideal, considering that their gear, said to have weighed 200 pounds, was packed by two mules, in harsh weather conditions and over difficult terrain. And as quoted from an article posted above, "The wet collodion process (that they were to be using), required that the photographer carry with him not only a large camera and heavy glass plates but also a complete darkroom and a full array of chemicals because he was forced to coat, expose and develop the glass plate on the spot before the emulsion dried. In addition, any number of problems which could take hours or even days to trace and correct could arise in his sensitizing bath of silver nitrate."

All the more reason we should be thankful to these photographers for their perseverance and the existence of the sepia-toned image that appears at the top of this web page.

The Newhoialpitku (Nehoialpitku, Nehoialpity, Ne-hoi-al-pit-kwu) Grande Prairie Photographs

As shown below, there are several images within the collection of 100, depicting locations along the Kettle River Valley (then the Newhoialpitku). The historic photograph above, is a composite of two individual such prints located separately in different locations of the same Library of Congress Digital Archive in Washington D.C. The two prints were identified by their captions or labels as a pair and when placed side-by-side, their depicted location became more apparent. The prints are claimed to have been created in 1860 and may possibly be the first photographs of any kind, to have captured a view of the pristine grasslands in the beautiful "Grande Prairie" valley.

The two images have been stitched together here to create a seamless image as a means of comparison with a modern photo equivalent which appears below it. At first glance the vintage photo doesn't look especially spectacular or unusual. Grand Forks viewers might even mistake it for a more recent view of their Sunshine Valley, recognizing the familiar yet uniquely characteristic profile of Observation Mountain visible at left behind the Ponderosa pine trees in the background.

To verify the location of the photo-landscape in question, and to possibly identify the photographer's precise vantage point, we would need to consult a local historian who would undoubtedly know more ... and perhaps even be aware of the photo's previous existence. Fortunately we're now living in the twenty-first century. A copy of this panorama was emailed to Grand Forks and within hours, a local good friend and historian was out in the weeds in the Almond Gardens area of Grand Forks, and with a print copy of the old photograph in hand, he was able to identify and stand precisely on the original photographer's vantage point. He described the "wierdness" of the moment, claiming to have looked about for any remaining evidence of the photographer's old boot prints in the dry prairie grass beneath his feet. He commented: "The point in question is just about 1/2 km. South of Spraggett Bridge and then about 200-300 metres West into the field. Gemieff's orchard and domestic deciduous trees, plus the power line, somewhat obscure the tree line along the Kettle, which is otherwise remarkably similar to what it was 160 years ago! It would also be interesting to learn why the coniferous tree line did not spread out into the flat field of bunch grass, which it has now tended to do, once the original bunch grass "prairie" was disturbed by human cultivation."

While there, he was also able to duplicate the same panoramic view in a digital snapshot taken with his cell phone. His photograph appears below the historic sepia print ... and the juxtaposition of these two images is very striking.

Looking at previously researched written documentation, we can also speculate that the Grande Prairie photographs may have been created during Captain Haig's Boundary Commission Survey of Grande Prairie, taken from a vantage point near his astronomical station (Inshwointum) in 1859-60, not very far at all from the vantage point referenced above. This survey has been described on this page: (Link)

Further research has subsequently revealed even a third print in this same panoramic set, found in another online archive. This image was labelled with a small tag in its lower left hand corner with the following hand written comment: No. 40  View on Grande Prairie Newhoialpitku Valley. Experts call this sort of thing, "provenance".

There are a few other dual panoramic photo-pairs among the 100 extant photos, but curiously, this Grand Prairie photo set is the only triptych.

View a screen preview of all three of the archival Grande Prairie photographs side-by-side. The images were cropped and resized for better alignment. (Link).


View a composite of six other historic Boundary Commission prints depicting the international boundary survey between Osoyoos Lake and the third Crossing of the Nehoialpitku (Kettle) River. (Link)