Breaking ground: 150 years of federal infrastructure in British Columbia – North Coast: Dryad Point lighthouse

By Caitlin Webster

British Columbia joined Canada 150 years ago, and in the years that followed, federal infrastructure expanded throughout the province. This infrastructure is well documented throughout Library and Archives Canada’s collections. This eight part blog series highlights some of those buildings, services and programs, as well as their impact on B.C.’s many distinct regions.

With Canada’s long coastlines and countless navigable lakes, lighthouses have been fixtures in the country for hundreds of years. After British Columbia joined Confederation in 1871, the need for an expanded system of navigational aids on the often-dangerous West Coast became increasingly important. The newly created federal Department of Marine and Fisheries took responsibility for an ambitious construction program, and by 1914, Canada had tripled its inventory of lighthouses throughout the country.

Most of these new lighthouses were constructed of timber, and the lighthouse at Dryad Point was no exception. Originally built in 1899, it comprised a lightkeeper’s dwelling attached to a square wooden tower. Reconstructed in 1919, the current lighthouse is a reinforced concrete tower 24 feet (7.3 metres) high.

Black-and-white photograph of a lighthouse tower and attached building. There are some small rough outbuildings in the foreground and the ocean in the background.

Lighthouse tower and dwelling, Dryad Point, B.C., 1929 (a148037-v8)

In 1930, a new dwelling and boathouse were constructed; the light station currently includes a number of accompanying buildings: dwellings, greenhouses, fuel storage and equipment sheds.

Black-and-white photograph of a lighthouse tower, a residence, a boathouse and other buildings, with the shoreline in the foreground.

Light station [Dryad Point], 1935 (a149341-v8)

Located on the northeast corner of Campbell Island near Bella Bella, the lighthouse sits on the traditional territory of the Heiltsuk Nation. Its earliest lightkeeper was the Heiltsuk leader, artist and boat builder Captain Richard Carpenter (1841–1931), who was keeper until 1930.

Since its original construction, the light station has been guiding vessels through potentially dangerous tight turns and low-lying lands at Main Passage and Seaforth Channel. Dryad Point was designated a Heritage Lighthouse in 2015, preserving its unique character and setting.

To learn more about lighthouses and lightkeepers in B.C., check out the following resources:


Caitlin Webster is a senior archivist in the Reference Services Division at the Vancouver office of Library and Archives Canada.

Five Myths about the Arms of Canada

This article contains historical language and content that some may consider offensive, such as language used to refer to racial, ethnic or cultural groups. Please see our historical language advisory for more information.

By Forrest Pass

The Coat of Arms of Canada (also known as the Arms of Canada, the Canada Coat of Arms and the Royal Coat of Arms of Canada) turns 100 on November 21, 2021. An official emblem of the Government of Canada, the coat of arms appears on Canadian passports, banknotes, military badges, and public buildings. Elements of the coat of arms have influenced the design of other emblems, notably the National Flag of Canada, adopted in 1964.

A colour painting of a coat of arms. The shield at the centre is divided into five sections. The first section is red with three gold lions. The second section is gold with a red lion within a red fleur-de-lis border. The third section is blue with a gold harp. The fourth section has three gold fleurs-de-lis. The bottom (fifth) section is silver with a sprig of three green maple leaves. Above the shield is a crest consisting of a crowned gold lion holding a red maple leaf in its right paw. The lion stands on a twisted wreath of red-and-white silk atop a gold royal helmet. The motto “A mari usque ad mare” is written on a blue scroll below the shield, which rests on roses, thistles, shamrocks and lilies. The shield is supported by a lion and a unicorn. The lion holds a lance to which a British flag is attached. The unicorn holds a lance with a blue flag charged with three gold fleurs-de-lis, the banner of pre-Revolutionary France.

The final design for the Coat of Arms of Canada, 1921. Illustration by Alexander Scott Carter. (e008319450) The signatures of the committee members, including Dominion Archivist Arthur Doughty, appear in the bottom right-hand corner.

Library and Archives Canada preserves the records of the committee that designed the coat of arms. This committee, struck by the federal cabinet in 1919, included Dominion Archivist Arthur Doughty. Unlike the flag debate some four decades later, the coat of arms question never prompted a parliamentary debate or widespread public discussion. As a result, few Canadians know much about the deliberations that led to the adoption of the coat of arms, and popular myths about the emblem’s history and meanings have filled the gap. Here are five misconceptions, debunked by primary sources.

Myth # 1: The three maple leaves on a single stem were chosen to represent Canadian multiculturalism.

The three maple leaves on the shield are the Arms’ most distinctively Canadian feature. Since the 1960s, some commentators have suggested that this arrangement of leaves represents the unity of Canadians of different backgrounds. In her twangy ballad Three Red Leaves, written during the Great Flag Debate of 1964, country-and-western singer Diane Leigh praised the “Three red leaves all tied together / [that] Bind three nationalities in unity / English, French, and new Canadians / Living in this land of opportunity.” Until very recently, some official publications also described the leaves as symbolizing Canadians of all origins, including First Nations, Inuit, and the Métis Nation, who were conspicuously absent from Leigh’s lyrics.

An emblem’s meaning evolves with the country it represents, so the symbolism of “unity in diversity” is attractive today. However, there is no evidence that the committee intended the leaves to represent this Canadian ideal. Rather, a sprig of three maple leaves was already a popular emblem by 1921. It first appeared as decoration on a Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day poster in 1850. The three-leaf motif also appears on the provincial arms of Quebec and Ontario, which the heralds of the College of Arms in London designed in 1868. In 1868, as in 1921, the choice of three leaves was probably aesthetic rather than symbolic: three leaves fill the triangular base of a heraldic shield better than one.

A typed page with the heading “Association Saint Jean-Baptiste” featuring a sprig of three maple leaves. Components of a parade, including “Drapeau britannique,” “les pompiers canadiens,” “la Société mercantile d’économie,” “la Societé de tempérance” and “Bannière du commerce,” are listed below the heading in a variety of typefaces.

A poster advertising the annual procession of the Association Saint-Jean-Baptiste, Montréal, June 24, 1850. (OCLC 1007829742) This is perhaps the earliest use of three maple leaves on a single stem.

Myth # 2: King George V chose red and white to be the national colours of Canada.

Beginning in the 1940s, Colonel Archer Fortescue Duguid, a military historian and heraldry enthusiast, suggested that King George V had chosen red and white to be Canada’s national colours because these were the colours of the wreath and mantling—the flowing cloth around the helmet—of the Arms of Canada. Therefore, Duguid argued, a new Canadian flag must also be red and white.

The idea that the Arms design would determine Canada’s national colours originated in 1918 with Eugène Fiset, the Deputy Minister of Defence. To Fiset, red suggested Britishness, military sacrifice, and autumn splendour. White evoked chilly Canadian winters. The coat of arms committee’s first design incorporated Fiset’s proposed red maple leaves on a white background, as well as a red-and-white wreath on top of the shield.

A colour painting of a coat of arms. The shield at the centre is divided into five sections. The first section is white with a sprig of three red maple leaves. The second section is red with three gold lions. The third section is gold with a red lion within a fleur-de-lis border. The fourth section is blue with a gold harp. The fifth section is blue with three gold fleurs-de-lis. On top of the shield is a crest consisting of a crowned gold lion holding a maple leaf in its right paw and standing on a patch of green grass, the whole resting on a twisted wreath of red-and-white silk. Under the wreath is a shield. Below the shield, the motto “A mare usque ad mare” is written in a grey scroll. The shield is supported by a lion and a unicorn.

The committee’s first proposal, illustrated by Alexander Scott Carter, 1920. (e011313790) Green maple leaves replaced the red in the final version, but the red-and-white wreath, and eventually red-and-white mantling, remained.

However, not everyone was a fan. Sir Joseph Pope, Undersecretary of State for External Affairs, preferred green maple leaves to red ones, which to him suggested death and decay. In the end, Pope prevailed, but the red-and-white mantling remained, probably by accident.

No one, least of all the King, cared much about the mantling in 1921. When a concerned citizen complained in 1922 that the mantling should be red and gold—the main colours of the shield—committee members shrugged and replied that it was too late to make changes. Neither the royal proclamation nor an official pamphlet issued in 1922 to explain the Arms’ symbolism mentions national colours. In 1946, during parliamentary hearings on a new Canadian flag, heraldry buff Hugh Savage rebutted Duguid: a national flag, not a coat of arms, typically gave a country its “national colours.”

Nevertheless, Duguid’s theory convinced many people and contributed to the choice of red and white for the Canadian flag in 1964.

Myth # 3: The chained unicorn commemorates the British conquest of New France.

The supporters in the form of a lion and a unicorn are borrowed from the Royal Arms of the United Kingdom, reflecting the Imperial loyalties of the committee. The unicorn originally represented Scotland. Its chain perhaps recalls medieval legends about how difficult it is to tame these mythical beasts.

Because the Canadian chained unicorn also holds a royal French banner, some have interpreted this depiction as symbolizing British dominance over French Canada. There is no evidence that the committee intended, or even considered, this possible interpretation.

However, the committee’s inclusion of three gold fleurs-de-lis on the shield did concern the King’s heraldic advisors. The College of Arms worried that the fleurs-de-lis, intended to honour French Canadians, might imply that Canada claimed sovereignty over France! Canada’s Commissioner-General in Paris discreetly confirmed with French officials that the design would not spark a diplomatic spat.

A colour painting of a coat of arms. The shield at the centre is divided into seven sections. The first and fourth sections are red with three gold lions. The second section is gold with a red lion within a fleur-de-lis border. The third section is blue with a gold harp. The fifth and seventh sections are white, and each has a single green maple leaf. The sixth section is blue with three gold fleurs-de-lis. Above the shield is a crest consisting of a crowned gold lion holding a red maple leaf in its right paw. The lion stands on a twisted wreath of red-and-white silk. Below the shield, the motto “A mari usque ad mare” is written on a blue banner. The shield is supported by a lion and a unicorn. The lion holds a lance to which a British flag is attached. The unicorn holds a lance with a blue flag charged with three gold fleurs-de-lis, the banner of pre-Revolutionary France.

Counter-proposal from the College of Arms, London, September 1921. (e011313801) The English College of Arms suggested a new placement of the fleurs-de-lis so as not to imply that Canada ruled France. The Canadians rejected this idea.

Myth # 4: The committee that designed the coat of arms did not consider including Indigenous symbols in the design.

The symbols of two colonizing powers, Great Britain and France, dominate the Arms of Canada; there is no reference to Indigenous peoples. Yet one proposed design did spark a discussion with respect to featuring First Nations figures as supporters. It was a submission from Edward Marion Chadwick, a Toronto lawyer interested in both heraldry and First Nations cultures.

A black-and-white drawing of a coat of arms. The shield at the centre features a lion between two maple leaves at the top and a fleur-de-lis at the bottom. On top of the shield is a crest, consisting of a moose with its right hoof raised, standing on a twisted wreath and flowing cloth mantling; the crest sits on top of an esquire’s helmet marked with a cross. Below the shield, there is a scroll that reads “Dieu Protege Le Roy.” Two First Nations men support =the shield. They are wearing feathered headdresses and fringed buckskin clothing. One holds a tomahawk; the other holds a calumet, or ceremonial pipe.

Proposed Canadian Coat of Arms, by Edward Marion Chadwick, 1917. (e011313794) The supporters featured in Chadwick’s version were intended to represent First Nations from Eastern and Western Canada.

Including Indigenous figures and emblems in colonial heraldry was not unprecedented. The centuries-old arms of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador both have First Nations figures as supporters, and the pre-Confederation seal of Upper Canada included a calumet, or ceremonial pipe, to commemorate treaties and alliances. However, to Sir Joseph Pope, who often spoke for the coat of arms committee, Indigenous peoples were a forgettable part of the past. “I myself do not see any necessity for commemorating the Indians at all,” wrote Pope in dismissing Chadwick’s proposal.

Pope’s response was racist, and reflected the opinion of many white Canadians of the time. Few people today would approve of Chadwick’s design either, but for very different reasons. Chadwick did strive to depict clothing and regalia accurately. However, to modern eyes, his proposal smacks of stereotyping and cultural appropriation. His supporters are “noble savages,” romantic fantasies of what First Nations individuals look like. They represent regions of the country rather than constitute meaningful inclusion of Indigenous people, who were not consulted about the coat of arms project. Today, many Indigenous individuals rightfully object to the way that they have appeared in heraldry. As a result, the provincial government of Newfoundland and Labrador, for example, is now reconsidering how First Nations individuals are depicted on its coat of arms, designed in 1635. Canada would undoubtedly be doing the same if Chadwick’s design had prevailed.

Myth # 5: The Arms of Canada can never be changed.

Could the Canadian government change the Arms of Canada to make them more representative of a diverse country? Coats of arms have an air of ancient permanence, but even very old emblems can evolve. For example, the Royal Arms of the United Kingdom—the model for Canada’s Arms—have changed half a dozen times since the union of the English and Scottish crowns, in 1603, most recently  in 1837). Since 1921, artists have twice reinterpreted the official version of the Arms of Canada, in 1957 and 1994, to update its “look and feel” without changing the formal elements.

If, one day, the Government of Canada wants to change the Arms design, it will require the collaboration of the Canadian Heraldic Authority, the division of the Office of the Secretary to the Governor General responsible for granting and registering coats of arms in Canada. The next time a major change occurs, there will be no need to consult British heraldic authorities, though the Queen (or King) will still have to approve the final design.

Whether it resulted in modifications to the current arms or in a completely new design, the process today would undoubtedly be more participatory—and more transparent—than it was a century ago.


Forrest Pass is a curator with the Exhibitions team at Library and Archives Canada.

Breaking ground: 150 years of federal infrastructure in British Columbia – Cariboo Region: Railway Mail Service, Prince George to Prince Rupert

By Caitlin Webster

British Columbia joined Canada 150 years ago, and in the years that followed, federal infrastructure expanded throughout the province. This infrastructure is well documented throughout Library and Archives Canada’s collections. This eight part blog series highlights some of those buildings, services and programs, as well as their impact on B.C.’s many distinct regions.

After British Columbia joined Confederation in 1871, the extension of rail service to the province allowed the freer movement of people and goods within B.C. and to other parts of Canada. This included the transport of mail for individuals, organizations and businesses. Trains have carried mail since their invention, but in 1897, the federal government officially formed the Railway Mail Service within the Post Office Department.

Departmental order from Deputy Postmaster General William White, dated February 22, 1897, announcing the establishment of the Railway Mail Service Branch. The announcement includes the initial locations and other details regarding the service.

Department Order, No. 38 [Establishment of the Railway Mail Service Branch] (e002151860)

This service used a system of travelling post offices aboard trains, staffed by crews of specialized railway mail clerks. These clerks performed the regular work of receiving, sorting, cancelling and distributing mail, all done while on board trains travelling from town to town. Clerks needed to be speedy, accurate, strong and trustworthy as they prepared often-valuable items for the mail service. Especially tricky was the pickup of mailbags on the fly. The clerk would swing out a catch arm on the side of the rail car to pick up the waiting bag, while simultaneously kicking out a delivery mailbag for that location. The manoeuvre was particularly challenging if the train was running late and going by a station at full speed.

Railway mail cars had various configurations, but all were fitted with dumping tables, sorting cases and other furniture for preparing mail, as well as stoves, toilets and sinks. Although this made for cramped quarters, such equipment was an absolute necessity for crews who often lived on board the cars for long runs.

Black-and-white photograph of a young man beside tables and mailbags in a railway mail car.

Portrait of railway mail clerk A.L. Robinson on the Grand Trunk line’s first Prince George–Prince Rupert run, 1914 (s002386)

In B.C.’s Cariboo region, railways and the accompanying railway mail service arrived somewhat later than in other parts of the province. In 1914, the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway completed a line from Prince George to Prince Rupert as part of its larger network. The company located the terminus of the line on the traditional lands of the Ts’msyen at Prince Rupert, and it purchased 553 hectares of Lheidi T’enneh land to form the new town site of Prince George. However, by 1915, the company was in financial trouble, and the federal government nationalized the railway and integrated it into Canadian National Railways in 1920.

Colour map of Canada and the northern portion of the United States, showing various railway lines across the continent.

Map showing the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway and the lines of the Grand Trunk Railway system in Canada; also the relative position of the Grand Trunk Pacific to the three northern transcontinental lines now completed: Canadian Pacific Railway, Great Northern Railway and Northern Pacific Railway, 1903 (e01751895-v6)

The Railway Mail Service reached its peak in 1950, when it employed 1,385 railway clerks on lines all across the country. However, the service was in decline by the mid-1960s, and while some mail was still carried by rail up to the 1980s, the Railway Mail Service officially ended in 1971.

To learn more about the Railway Mail Service, railways in B.C., and the purchase of the Lheidi T’enneh land for the Prince George town site, check out the following resources:


Caitlin Webster is a senior archivist in the Reference Services Division at the Vancouver office of Library and Archives Canada

Charlie Chaplin goes to war — Part II: Going beyond a First World War record for your genealogy research

By Emily Potter

In Part I of this blog article, we explored how to start your genealogy research using a First World War file. I chose a random name to search in Library and Archives Canada’s (LAC) Personnel Records of the First World War database and selected the file of William Charles Chaplin. From his First World War file, we found out the following genealogy information about him:

  • Date and place of birth: June 23, 1870, Chatham, Kent, England
  • Date and place of marriage: Unknown
  • Date and place of death: October 5, 1957, place unknown
  • Mother’s name: Unknown
  • Father’s name: Unknown
  • Spouse’s name: Eliza Agnes Turton, daughter of Agnes Eliza; died before March 2, 1916
  • Children’s names: Miriam, James, Richard, George, Agnes, William, and Celia

Now, let’s see whether we can fill in some of those unknowns by searching other genealogy sources held at LAC.

Veterans Death Cards

I’m going to start at the end and see whether we can find out where Chaplin died by searching the Veterans Death Cards. Created by Veterans Affairs Canada, Veterans death cards—although ominous sounding—are index cards that include information about a First World War veteran’s death, such as the date and place of death and the next of kin. They usually also indicate whether the death was a result of the veteran’s military service.

Although a very helpful resource, the cards have limitations. There is not a card for every First World War veteran because Veterans Affairs was not always notified of the death. Moreover, the cards include only deaths that occurred up to the mid-1960s.

By following these instructions, I was able to find the card for William Charles Chaplin:

We know this is the correct card, because the regimental number and the date of death match those we saw on the envelope in Chaplin’s file, as discussed in Part I.

We now know that Chaplin passed away in Toronto. The line that reads, Death not, indicates that his death was not attributed to his First World War service.

Census

Now that we’ve searched the Veterans Death Cards, let’s explore another important genealogy research tool: censuses. Census returns are official Government of Canada records that enumerate the country’s population. They are an invaluable source of information for genealogy research because they provide details about each person in the household, such as age, country or province of birth, ethnic origin, religious denomination and occupation. In some years, the census also indicates the year of immigration.

We already know that Chaplin was born in England, but the 1911 census may help us find out when he immigrated to Canada, as Chaplin was in Canada by the start of the First World War.

After a few tries, I found a reference to Chaplin and his family by using the search terms seen in the image below.

Screenshot of the LAC 1911 Census of Canada database.

Search screen of the 1911 Census database.

Screenshot of the LAC 1911 Census of Canada database results page for W Charles Chaplain.

1911 Census database, W Charles Chaplain.

Chaplin’s name in the census appears as “W Charles Chaplain.” This serves as an excellent example of how common spelling variations can be in older documents. If you’re having trouble finding reference to your ancestors in the census, see Research Tips on our census page for help with name and place searching.

Let’s have a closer look at the census image.

Census document with columns and handwritten entries.

1911 Census, Toronto, Ward 4, page 7 (e002028460).

As we can see from the above image, the family immigrated to Canada in 1904. From what we saw in Part I, Miriam (or Marian) was the eldest child, born in 1898 or thereabouts. In this census, we see reference to a child by the name Annie, or Amia. The year of birth indicates that it is likely this is in reference to Miriam. The name we see here could have been a middle name, a nickname or an error, and we already know how common it is to see name variations in older records. Regardless, from this census, we gather that Annie/Amia/Miriam/Marion was born in England, along with her siblings James and Richard, whereas Agnes, William, Charles and George were all born in Ontario. This suggests that William and Agnes were most likely married in England, not in Canada. Their first child was likely born in 1898. Therefore, they were likely married that year or earlier.

Passenger lists

The census indicated that the family immigrated to Canada in 1904. Can we confirm this information?

Library and Archives Canada has several immigration databases, all of which are listed on LAC’s Ancestor’s Search page. For this search, we will be using the Passenger Lists for the Port of Quebec City and Other Ports, 1865-1922 database.

Screenshot of the Passenger Lists for the Port of Quebec City and Other Ports, 1865-1922 database search page.

Passenger Lists for the Port of Quebec City and Other Ports, 1865-1922 database search page.

From the database search screen, I searched using only his first and last names. I chose not to enter a year of arrival to keep the search as broad as possible to start.

Luckily for me, there were only eight results, and the first one was in reference to our William Chaplin.

As we can see, the family actually arrived in 1905, not in 1904. This is no surprise, because, as we learned in Part I, it is quite normal to see discrepancies in older records.

A close-up screenshot of the Chaplin family entry from a passenger list form.

Detail of passenger list showing William Chaplin’s arrival on the S.S. Dominion to Halifax, RG76, microfilm reel T-499.

William Chaplin, his wife, Agnes, and their three children are listed. Once again, we see Miriam’s name listed under a variation; in this case, it looks like “Amy.” Amy would have been born in 1898. This matches what we saw in the census and in the First World War file for Miriam.

Other than an additional name variation, the passenger list did not add to our list of missing information, but it did confirm the date on which the family immigrated.

  • Date and place of birth: June 23, 1870, Chatham, Kent, England
  • Date and place of marriage: England, likely 1898 or earlier
  • Date and place of death: October 5, 1957, Toronto, Ontario
  • Mother’s name: Unknown
  • Father’s name: Unknown
  • Spouse’s name: Eliza Agnes Turton, daughter of Agnes Eliza; died before March 2, 1916
  • Children’s names: Miriam, James, Richard, George, Agnes, William, and Celia

Reviewing our list of information on William Charles Chaplin, we see that we have added that his place of death was Toronto, Ontario, and that he was likely married in England in 1898 or earlier. We also learned more about his family, such as approximate birth dates, the country and province of birth for each family member, and the date on which the family immigrated to Canada.

That being said, we are still missing some key details about Chaplin, primarily… who were his parents?

At this point, we’ve searched through the primary genealogy sources held at LAC, but many other helpful genealogy sources are maintained by other institutions. We won’t search them here, but I’ll outline what my next research steps would be if I were to continue researching Chaplin and his family.

Civil registration

In order to find out the names of Chaplin’s parents, my first step would be to look for his marriage record. Civil registration records are extremely helpful genealogy sources, and both birth and marriage records usually indicate parents’ names.

I would start with Chaplin’s marriage record since we know his wife’s name. This will help us to identify the correct record. If we were to start with his birth record, we would have no means of knowing whether we had found the correct William Charles Chaplin or simply another baby with the same name.

We know that Chaplin was married before he immigrated to Canada. So, we would need to search English records.

British birth, marriage and death records are held at the General Register Office (GRO) in England. The indexes to those records are arranged by year and can be searched on various websites, including FreeBMD.

We could also find out more information about Chaplin’s family by searching civil registration records for each family member. In Canada, the civil registration of births, marriages and deaths is a provincial and territorial responsibility. As a federal institution, LAC does not hold those records. Information about the records, including how and where to access them, can be found on our Places pages, which include resources for each province.

There is definitely a lot more genealogy research we could do on William Chaplin and his family, but after reading these two blogs, I bet you’re itching to get started on your own research.

Information about how to start your family history research can be found on LAC’s How to Begin page.

Finally, don’t forget LAC’s Personnel Records of the First World War database, which you can search for references to your ancestor’s service in the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

Thanks for reading!


Emily Potter is a genealogy consultant in the Public Services Branch of Library and Archives Canada.

Tags: William Charles Chaplin, genealogy, immigration, passenger list, S.S. Dominion, census, 1911 Census of Canada, Veterans Death Cards

Charlie Chaplin goes to war — Part I: Starting your genealogy research from a First World War record

By Emily Potter

William Charles Chaplin, in actual fact—and, yes, the title is misleading. A little like the information you can sometimes find while doing family history research in a First World War file!

In Genealogy Services, one of the most common questions we receive is from clients asking about an ancestor’s First World War service. In many cases, military service is one of the defining stories they have heard about their ancestor, and they are keen to learn more about it.

Military personnel files are also chockful of biographical information and can be a great starting-off point for your genealogy research.

Let’s explore what genealogical information can be gleaned from a file through a fun exercise. For this exercise, I chose a soldier’s personnel file: that of William Charles Chaplin. Keep in mind that, when doing genealogy research, we are looking for names of ancestors, as well as dates or places of key life events, such as births, marriages and deaths. For this exercise, let’s see whether we can find that information for this person. We’ll also see what we can find out about his parents and his spouse.

Searching the personnel file

References to the personnel files of Canadian soldiers, nursing sisters and chaplains can be looked up in the Library and Archives Canada (LAC) Personnel Records of the First World War database. The digitized files can be accessed for free.

We begin by searching the database. At the search screen, enter your ancestor’s surname and given names, and click Search.

As you can see, I chose to search for the name “Charles Chaplin.”

A screenshot of the search results for the name “Charles Chaplin” from the Personnel Records of the First World War database.

Search results for “Charles Chaplin.”

Review the results to see which reference matches your ancestor. If your ancestor had a common name, this will be more difficult because there could be hundreds of results. Be sure to check out the database’s Search Tips if you’re having trouble.

From the Result screen, I selected the entry “Chaplin, William Charles.”

Screenshot of the reference page for “Chaplin, William Charles” from the Personnel Records of the First World War database.

Reference page for “Chaplin, William Charles.”

Once you have clicked on the name, you’ll see the reference information for the file. In most cases, there will also be a thumbnail image of the attestation paper. To access the complete file, click on the link marked “Digitized service file – PDF format.”

Screenshot of the envelope holding William Charles Chaplin’s service file from the Personnel Records of the First World War database.

File envelope for William Charles Chaplin, RG150 Accession 1992-93/166, Box 1621 – 27, Image 1.

Among the first images in this digitized file, we see the envelope that held William Charles Chaplin’s physical file. This is where we find our first piece of information. The writing on the envelope indicates that Chaplin died on October 5, 1957.

The exterior of the envelope also includes the note “over age.” This implies that Chaplin was discharged for being too old to serve. In order to enlist, recruits had to be between the ages of 18 and 45, but it was common for men to lie about their age in order to appear eligible to serve.  Envelopes aren’t always included in the file, but when they are, they can include helpful information.

The attestation paper from William Charles Chaplin’s service file in the Personnel Records of the First World War database. The words “Attestation Paper, 95th Battalion” are typed at the top centre. The word “Original” is handwritten at the top right-hand corner.

Attestation paper for William Charles Chaplin, RG150 Accession 1992-93/166, Box 1621 – 27, Image 3.

As we move to the third image of the PDF, we see the attestation paper. This is the document that was filled out when a soldier enlisted. This document indicates that Chaplin was born on June 23, 1874. This date may not be accurate because, as mentioned above, the envelope indicated that he was “over age.” It is possible that he lied about his age in order to enlist.

The attestation paper also indicates that he was born in Kent, England, but was living in Toronto at the time of enlistment.

Usually, a parent or spouse is listed as the significant other. In this case, we see that Chaplin has listed his daughter Miriam Chaplin. The reason for this is that his wife had died; this is confirmed by his answer to question seven.

From looking at the second page of the attestation paper, we also discover that Chaplin was Anglican.

The separation allowance card from William Charles Chaplin’s service file in the Personnel Records of the First World War database. It has “Separation Allowance” typed at the top.

Separation Allowance document for William Charles Chaplin, RG150 Accession 1992-93/166, Box 1621 – 27, Image 17.

Genealogical information is not limited to the attestation paper. Additional details can often be found throughout a service file.

For example, in some cases, when a soldier married while in service, a document showing the change from the soldier’s pay being sent to the mother’s address to its being sent to the wife’s is included in the file.

In this case, on numerous pay sheets, we see the pay being sent to Agnes Eliza Chaplin, who appears to have been the designated guardian of Chaplin’s children.

An examination card issued by the Standing Medical Board, Shorncliffe, from William Charles Chaplin’s service file in the Personnel Records of the First World War database.

Examination card for William Charles Chaplin, RG150 Accession 1992-93/166, Box 1621 – 27, Image 35.

On image 35, we get another clue about his age, indicating again that Chaplin was overage when he enlisted. Here we see his age as 46 in October 1916. If we accept his birth date as June 23, this would mean his birth year was in fact 1870, not 1874 as stated on his attestation paper.

A typed and handwritten document, titled Particulars of Family of an Officer or Man Enlisted in C.E.F. [Canadian Expeditionary Force], from William Charles Chaplin’s service file in the Personnel Records of the First World War database.

Particulars of family document for William Charles Chaplin, RG150 Accession 1992-93/166, Box 1621 – 27, Images 45 and 46.

Images 45 and 46 are of the document Particulars of Family of an Officer or Man Enlisted in C.E.F. From them, we glean a whole bunch of additional information.

We find out that Chaplin had six children: Marian (also spelled Miriam elsewhere in the file), James, Richard, George, Agnes, and William. The children’s ages are also provided. From looking at the date of the document and knowing their ages, we can guess the approximate year of birth for each of the children.

From the second page of the document, we learn that Chaplin’s father has died and that Agnes Chaplin is his mother. This suggests that the guardian, Agnes Eliza Chaplin, whose name was mentioned in other documents, was his mother because the address provided for her is the same as the one that appears on image 17.

A typed and handwritten document called Canadian Expeditionary Force (Information for Separation Allowance Board) from William Charles Chaplin’s service file in the Personnel Records of the First World War database.

Canadian Expeditionary Force (Information for Separation Allowance Board), William Charles Chaplin, RG150 Accession 1992-93/166, Box 1621 – 27, Image 87.

On images 87 and 88, we come across a document titled Canadian Expeditionary Force (Information for Separation Allowance Board). This document was completed in 1919 by Gertrude Ada Prentice to have Chaplin’s separation allowance and assigned pay transferred to her, as she was now the one caring for the children.

Confusingly enough, the first page of the document indicates that Chaplin’s wife’s name was Eliza Agnes Chaplin and that she passed away on March 1, 1914.

Wasn’t his mother’s name listed as Agnes Chaplin? It is quite possible that they have the same name, but it is also very possible that mistakes were made by those completing the forms.

A typed and handwritten document from William Charles Chaplin’s service file from the Personnel Records of the First World War database. The handwriting is in red, black and blue ink.

Page from the CEF service file of William Charles Chaplin, RG150 Accession 1992-93/166, Box 1621 – 27, Image 88.

The first bit of information we find on image 88 is that his son J.W. Chaplin also served in the First World War and that his regimental number was 868139. Presumably, this is James, the eldest son, mentioned on image 45.

It appears that Chaplin’s daughters Agnes and Celia were adopted by Prentice when their mother died. Although not yet formally adopted, the boys were also living in her care at this time.

We also see that the children’s grandmother died in February 1919.

The note at the bottom states the following:

S.A.[separation allowance] and A.P. [assigned pay] paid to soldier’s mother-in-law as guardian of children, while soldier in service. On return from O.S. [overseas] soldier took children to live with present guardian (applicant) as grandmother not strong enough to look after them. Grandmother died Feb. 1919…

The quote above indicates that it was Chaplin’s mother-in-law caring for the children, not his mother. In some ways, this makes more sense. Specifically, the fact that his wife and his mother-in-law share the same given names is more logical because it was quite common to pass down names in a family. Mothers and daughters would sometimes share the same given names, much like fathers and sons.

On the other hand, why would his mother-in-law have the same surname as he does? Perhaps Prentice made an error when stating that the children had been with Chaplin’s mother-in-law and not his mother.

There is definitely an error somewhere in the file, but which is it? Unfortunately, this is the nature of genealogy research: we sometimes find information that simply does not add up.

Close-ups with yellow highlighting of typed and handwritten documents from William Charles Chaplin’s service file in the Personnel Records of the First World War database. The handwriting is in red and black ink.

Details from images 21, 46, 88, 87 (clockwise from left) from Chaplain’s service file, RG150 Accession 1992-93/166, Box 1621 – 27.

From the above images, we can see that Agnes Eliza Chaplin, who lived at 16 Kipping Avenue, is indicated as either his mother or mother-in-law at different points in the file.

Let’s have a look at the personnel file of Chaplin’s son James W. Chaplin to see whether it can shed any light on this issue.

Screenshot of the reference page for James William Chaplin from the Personnel Records of the First World War database.

Reference page for James William Chaplin from the Personnel Records of the First World War database.

A quick search in the Personnel Records of the First World War database revealed the reference shown in the image above.

A portion of a soldier’s attestation page, with numbered columns on the left and typing with some entries crossed out and handwritten.

Detail of the attestation paper from James William Chaplin’s service file, RG150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 1621 – 14, Image 3.

Upon opening the digitized file, there is some immediate clarification. James has listed his next of kin as his grandmother, Agnes Eliza Turton, living at 16 Kipping Avenue, Toronto, Ontario.

This suggests to me that the Agnes Eliza Chaplin in the file was always Agnes Eliza Turton, the mother-in-law of William Charles Chaplin.

But then why was Agnes listed with her last name as Chaplin throughout the file?

It is unclear whether this information was merely a clerical error that was copied several times or his choosing to identify her in this manner because he feared that there would be issues with his pay being sent to someone who was not a blood relation. Unfortunately, we really have no means of knowing.

Alt text: A typed document bearing red markings.

Detail of a page from William Charles Chaplin’s service file (RG150 Accession 1992-93/166, Box 1621 – 27, Image 97).

Returning to the file of William Charles Chaplin, we come across one last piece of helpful information. On image 97, we have another birthdate for Chaplin, June 23, 1870. This date aligns with the fact that he was discharged for being overage and is most likely more accurate than the date listed on his attestation paper. We also find out that he was born in the town of Chatham.

Let’s review what we have learned about William Charles Chaplin from his file:

  • Date and place of birth: June 23, 1870, Chatham, Kent, England
  • Date and place of marriage: Unknown
  • Date and place of death: October 5, 1957, place unknown
  • Mother’s name: Unknown
  • Father’s name: Unknown
  • Spouse’s name: Eliza Agnes Turton, daughter of Agnes Eliza; died before March 2, 1916
  • Children’s names: Miriam, James, Richard, George, Agnes, William, and Celia

This is quite a lot of information to discover about the soldier, not to mention all the information on Chaplin’s children, from looking only at his personnel file. This information includes not only the children’s names but also their ages, from which we can surmise their approximate birth years. We also know that two of his daughters were adopted by a Gertrude Ada Prentice and that she cared for his other children after his mother-in-law died.

Keep in mind that not all personnel files will include this amount of information, but we can definitely see how the files can serve as a great starting point for your genealogy research (and can also include conflicting information!).

We can now use this information to dive deeper into William Charles Chaplin’s family history, by searching other genealogy sources. Continue learning about this in Part II of this blog article.


Emily Potter is a genealogy consultant in the Public Services Branch of Library and Archives Canada.

Breaking ground: 150 years of federal infrastructure in British Columbia – Peace River Region: RCAF Fort St. John

By Caitlin Webster

British Columbia joined Canada 150 years ago, and in the years that followed, federal infrastructure expanded throughout the province. This infrastructure is well documented throughout Library and Archives Canada’s collections. This eight part blog series highlights some of those buildings, services and programs, as well as their impact on B.C.’s many distinct regions.

Public airports have been a constant in Canada since the 1920s, when purpose-built facilities replaced the rudimentary airfields and landing strips of the early days of flight. However, the Second World War led to a marked increase in civilian and military airport construction.

In the late 1930s, the Department of Transport constructed a basic airfield in Fort St. John, British Columbia. Located on the traditional territories of the Treaty 8 First Nations, the airfield served as part of a transport route through Grande Prairie, Fort St. John, Fort Nelson, Watson Lake and Whitehorse. When the United States entered the Second World War in 1941, this route offered a strategic location for transportation to Alaska, and for the construction of the Alaska Highway. As a result, in 1943 the U.S. Air Force completely rebuilt the airport in Fort St. John, with resurfaced runways, new fuel facilities, hangars, barracks and accompanying buildings.

: Black-and-white photograph of the administration building at RCAF Fort St. John, B.C. Various individuals stand at attention as three men raise a flag. Several buildings and other structures are also in the background.

Administration building at RCAF Fort St. John, B.C. (e011309348)

RCAF Fort St. John opened in 1943, with personnel performing such duties as maintaining runways and buildings, facilitating incoming and outgoing flights, and monitoring weather conditions. Personnel at the detachment were involved in flights to help the Halfway River First Nation during a 1949 diphtheria outbreak by airdropping supplies of anti-toxin, and by airlifting individuals to medical centres for treatment.

Staff at the detachment also participated in popular outdoor activities in the area, such as picnics, swimming, hunting and fishing. In addition, the station organized teams to play in local amateur sports leagues, including baseball and hockey. However, in the summer of 1948, a polio outbreak in the area forced the station to cancel many of these activities. Certain sections of the station itself were quarantined from July to September of that year due to polio outbreaks among staff.

: Page from a Royal Canadian Air Force operations record book, with columns indicating place, date, time and reference to appendices. Entries on the page are for RCAF Fort St. John, and they date from June 9, 1948, to June 20, 1948.

Page from Royal Canadian Air Force operations record books, including a note indicating the cancellation of Air Force Day due to a local polio outbreak (RG24-E-7; image found on Heritage Canadiana)

By 1950, activity at the station was winding down, and on October 1, 1950, RCAF Fort St. John was officially disbanded. The RCAF funded its maintenance costs until March 31, 1951. In April 1951, it transferred responsibility for the airport to the Department of Transport. Today, the North Peace Regional Airport serves as an important gateway for business and tourism in the area.

To learn more about RCAF Fort St. John, check out the Royal Canadian Air Force operations record books, which contain details of daily duties, flying operations, events and social activities for various units. Microfilm copies of the records are available online, including entries for RCAF Fort St. John on reels C-12185 and C-12399.


Caitlin Webster is a senior archivist in the Reference Services Division at the Vancouver office of Library and Archives Canada.

Explore the records of No. 2 Construction Battalion

By Andrew Horrall

As described in the “Serving despite segregation” blog, No. 2 Construction Battalion was the first and only segregated Canadian Expeditionary Force unit in the First World War. Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has identified and digitized records relating to the unit to make its story, and the individual stories of the men who belonged to it, easy to explore and understand.

A printed form completed by men joining the Canadian Expeditionary Force. The form includes 12 questions about the individual, including name, date of birth and next of kin. At the bottom are a declaration and oath sworn and signed by the man, and a magistrate’s statement and signature confirming that the man had enlisted.

Attestation page for Arthur Bright, Canadian Expeditionary Force, RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 1066 – 39

Individual experiences

Archival records contain details about the individuals who served in No. 2 Construction Battalion. Each story is unique and evocative.

You can find the men’s individual personnel records by searching their names, or by entering “No. 2 Construction Battalion” in the “Unit” field in our database. Each file has been completely digitized and includes detailed information about the individual’s life, family and military service.

Friends and families serving together

Personnel records can also tell collective stories. We know that men often joined-up in small groups of family, friends or co-workers in hopes of serving together.

Here are two strategies to find and explore these small groups within the unit. Start by identifying all of the men, by entering “No. 2 Construction Battalion” in the “Unit” field in our database, then:

  • Sort the list in alphabetical order. You will see that many surnames appear more than once. Open the individual files of men with shared names and look at their places of birth, addresses and next of kin (often a parent) to explore whether and how they were related.

For example, we can see that these two men were brothers:

  • Sort the list by regimental service number. These were assigned to men in numerical order. Sorting the list in numerical order can recreate the lines of men as they enlisted at a recruiting station. Open the individual files to explore whether a man joined up alone or with a group.

For example, we know that the Bright brothers joined up together because they were assigned sequential service numbers. We also discover that the men with numbers on either side of them—who would have been standing next to them in the recruiting office in 1916—were all of similar age and occupation, and lived within a kilometre of one another in St. Catharines. How did they know each other?

Follow the men in civilian life

To explore Black Canadian history more widely, you can also find out about the civilian lives of many of the men by entering their names in other LAC databases in the “Ancestors Search” section of our website:

  • The 1911, 1916 and 1921 Canadian censuses; for example, the 1921 census lists Arthur and Norman Bright living together as lodgers at 3 Brown’s Lane, in downtown Toronto. Neither was married, and they were both working as labourers.
  • Passenger lists show when, where and with whom individuals immigrated to Canada.
  • Personnel records can open pathways for exploring Canada’s early-20th-century Black community and what it meant to serve in No. 2 Construction Battalion.
Two pages of a personal diary. The date is printed at the top of each page, October 30 and 31. Underneath it, Captain White wrote general observations about the weather, letters he wrote and received, and life in camp.

Two pages from the personal diary of Captain William  “Andrew” White, the unit’s chaplain (e011183038)

Day-to-day life in the unit

Two digitized documents allow you to explore the unit’s daily activities:

  • The personal diary of William “Andrew” White, No. 2 Construction Battalion’s chaplain. We believe that this is the only first-hand account written by a member of the unit.
  • The War Diary. Units on active service were required to keep a daily account of their activities. While war diaries do not focus on individuals, they describe the events that took place each day.

How the Canadian military managed the unit

LAC has digitized about half of the administrative, organizational and historical records relating to the unit. These documents provide insights into how the Canadian military managed the unit and the men belonging to it.

Digitized resources documenting No. 2 Construction Company held at LAC

Basic information about the unit

Other photographs depicting Black soldiers

Note that LAC holds many other photos showing Black soldiers, but these cannot be found in a regular search, since that information was not included in the original title.

Recruiting poster

Textual records

Records that may be consulted at LAC (not available digitally)

Department of Militia and Defence

Department of National Defence


Andrew Horrall is an archivist at Library and Archives Canada. He wrote the blog and, with Alexander Comber and Mary Margaret Johnston-Miller, identified records relating to the battalion.

Serving despite segregation: No. 2 Construction Battalion

By Andrew Horrall

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) holds the largest collection of records documenting No. 2 Construction Battalion, a segregated unit of the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the First World War. Over 800 Black men served with the unit. They wanted to fight, but racist attitudes among political and military leaders, and in society in general, prevented them from serving in the front lines. Instead, the unit was assigned to the Canadian Forestry Corps. The men spent the war in the French Alps, cutting down trees, milling raw logs into finished lumber and transporting the wood to the railway. The work was vital, since huge quantities of wood were needed to build and reinforce front-line defences, but it was far from the type of service that the men had hoped for.

A black-and-white drawing of a badge in the shape of a shield. At the top is a royal crown and a banner reading “Canada Overseas.” Beneath are the words “No. 2” above another banner with the word “construction.” Maple leaves adorn each side, and a wooden bridge below the crown and a tool under the second banner symbolize that the unit’s members were builders.

The cap badge for No. 2 Construction Battalion (e011395922)

LAC has identified about 830 men who served in the unit at some point during the war. This is about 200 more names than are generally associated with the unit. The discrepancy reflects the fact that most studies have relied on the “nominal roll” compiled on the day that the unit left Canada for England, in March 1917. By re-examining the records in the collection, LAC experts identified many men who served with the unit after it sailed. Their names do not appear on the nominal roll because they were not in the unit on the day it left Canada. While we believe that every man who served with the unit has been identified, additional members may come to light.

The unit was mobilized at Truro, Nova Scotia, in July 1916. It recruited from established Black communities in the Maritimes, southwestern Ontario, and across Canada, the Caribbean and the United States. At least two members were from much farther away: Cowasjee Karachi (regimental number 931759) came from modern-day Yemen, and Valdo Schita (regimental number 931643) was born near Johannesburg, South Africa.

A black-and-white photograph depicting 21 soldiers. They are casually posed outdoors, either sitting or standing on a pile of long wooden planks. Eight of the men appear to be in Russian uniforms, and the rest are Canadians, including two Black men.

Lt. F.N. Ritchie, Lt. Courtney and a few of the enlisted men of the Canadian Forestry Corps in France. This is the only photo of the unit held in the collection at LAC (a022752)

While the unit was composed of Black men, the officers were white, apart from the chaplain, Captain William “Andrew” White.

The unit is referred to by both the terms “battalion” and “company” in archival documents and published sources. It was originally created as a battalion, a unit composed of about 1,000 men in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. When only about 600 men arrived in England in 1917, military authorities redesignated it as a company, which better reflected its size.

The unit returned to Canada at the end of the war and was officially disbanded in September 1920. The story of No. 2 Construction Battalion faded over time, until families, community members and historians began recovering it in the early 1980s. By that time, there were only a handful of surviving members.

A note about terms used in the records

Many of the records documenting No. 2 Construction Company contain terms that were commonly used during the First World War but are no longer acceptable. LAC has replaced such terms in descriptions, but they are still found in many of the original documents. The use of these terms by military authorities is evidence of the racism faced by the men in the unit.


Andrew Horrall is an archivist at Library and Archives Canada. He wrote the blog and, with Alexander Comber and Mary Margaret Johnston-Miller, identified records relating to the battalion

Breaking ground: 150 years of federal infrastructure in British Columbia – Northwest Region: The Dominion Telegraph Service’s Yukon Telegraph Line

By Caitlin Webster

British Columbia joined Canada 150 years ago, and in the years that followed, federal infrastructure expanded throughout the province. This infrastructure is well documented throughout Library and Archives Canada’s collections. This eight part blog series highlights some of those buildings, services and programs, as well as their impact on B.C.’s many distinct regions.

As British Columbia negotiated its terms for joining Confederation, one of the conditions included the establishment of a telegraphic service. Canada’s Dominion (or Government) Telegraph Service, which formed part of the Department of Public Works, was responsible for providing this. It operated telegraph lines in remote areas not covered by railway telegraph systems or private firms. In B.C., the federal government operated lines in the south and on Vancouver Island, and as it expanded its presence in northern B.C. and Yukon in the 1890s, work began on the Yukon Telegraph Line.

In 1899, the Privy Council Office approved the construction of a telegraph line between Dawson City in what is now Yukon and Bennett, B.C. Now a ghost town, Bennett was once a thriving centre for the Klondike Gold Rush.

Black-and-white photograph of the town of Bennett, B.C., at the edge of Bennett Lake. There are buildings and temporary structures along the shoreline, with a mountainside in the background and a wooden bridge in the foreground.

Part of Bennett, B.C. (a016295-v8)

Soon after the line to Bennett was completed, work began on a branch line to Atlin, and then an extension from Atlin to the transcontinental line at Quesnel. This work finished in 1901, although the construction of various branch lines continued over the next decade. As the construction work progressed, the Department of Public Works built telegraph offices and stations at regular intervals along the line. Stations in towns and settlements often housed other federal government services such as post offices and customs houses. Operators at these stations worked regular business hours and enabled customers to send and receive telegrams.

Black-and-white photograph of the three-storey post office building in Atlin, B.C. A sign on the building reads “Dominion Government Telegraph Office.”

Post office in Atlin, B.C. (a046672-v8)

To help ensure that the line had sufficient voltage to carry telegraph messages between the stations, crews also constructed intermediate battery stations, also known as repeater stations, along the more remote sections of the line. At first, these “bush stations” were simple one-room cabins, housing both the assigned operator and the lineman. As these sites rarely saw customers requesting telegrams, both operators and linemen undertook the difficult work of keeping the telegraph wires in good order. In the summer of 1905, crews built second cabins at these isolated stations to ease some of the difficulties of living in such close quarters.

Black-and-white photograph of a young man and his dog sitting in front of a one-room log cabin.

One of the government telegraph cabins [Dominion Government Telegraph cabin, North of Hazelton; telegraph operator Jack Wrathall and dog sit in front of the cabin] (a095734-v8)

Even smaller were the refuge cabins, where linemen could stay overnight if caught in bad weather while maintaining the line. Spaced approximately 10 miles (16 kilometres) apart, these small 8 x 10-foot (2.4 by 3 metres) cabins contained a stove, bunk and limited food supplies.

The telegraph lines affected local First Nations, ranging from the Lhtako Dene, Nazko, Lhoosk’uz Dene and ?Esdilagh Nations near Quesnel to the Taku River Tlingit First Nation in Atlin. Early work on telegraph lines in the 19th century often proceeded without consultation or agreements with First Nations, which led to confrontations when work crews trespassed on their land. A number of First Nations made use of materials left from earlier abandoned telegraph lines, using the wire on bridges and traps. Some First Nations men worked on the telegraph lines, serving as construction workers, linemen and pack-train operators. The most famous among them was Simon Peter Gunanoot, who helped to construct the line and later worked delivering provisions to the bush stations. Accused of murder in 1906, he evaded searchers for 13 years before turning himself in. At his trial in 1919, a jury acquitted him in a mere 15 minutes, and his remarkable story has since inspired books, documentaries and short films.

By the 1920s and 1930s, the federal government began replacing telegraph lines with radio and telephone communications. At the same time, interest in the line as a trail for adventure hiking grew. While the federal government sold off or abandoned the last portions of the Yukon Telegraph Line by 1951, parts of the line are still used by guide outfitters today.

To learn more about the Yukon Telegraph Line, check out the following resources:

  • “A socio-cultural case study of the Canadian Government’s telegraph service in western Canada, 1870–1904,” John Rowlandson thesis, 1991 (OCLC 721242422)
  • Wires in the Wilderness: The Story of the Yukon Telegraph, Bill Miller, 2004 (OCLC 54500962)
  • Pinkerton’s and the Hunt for Simon Gunanoot: Double Murder, Secret Agents and an Elusive Outlaw, Geoff Mynett, 2021 (OCLC 1224118570)

Caitlin Webster is a senior archivist in the Reference Services Division at the Vancouver office of Library and Archives Canada.

A page in Canada’s history: Carnegie libraries

By Sara Chatfield

A black-and-white photograph of a two-storey stone building with a columned portico and ivy growing up its sides.

The Ottawa Public Library opened in 1905, funded by a Carnegie grant. (a044774-v8)

Libraries have always been special places for me. When I was young, my grandmother worked as a reference librarian at my local library, making my visits to the library extra memorable. I have always appreciated the scope of what you could find within the walls of a library: I loved the books, the magazines and chatting with the librarians about new arrivals. But the thing I loved most (and still love most today) about libraries are the buildings that house library collections, especially historic Carnegie library buildings. Carnegie libraries are distinctive buildings built in the late 1800s and early 1900s by Andrew Carnegie to promote free library access in North America and the world.

A colour photo of a one-storey building with brown-brick exterior walls and a green roof. A small set of stairs and a railing lead up to the entrance.

The Renfrew Public library, built in 1919/1920 and funded by a Carnegie grant. Photo credit: Sara Chatfield

To me, Carnegie library buildings have a majestic yet welcoming appearance. The early buildings (1901–1905) were not designed according to standardized plans. The architects, who hailed from Canada and the United States, were free to use their imaginations. Later buildings have similar design elements, such as arched windows, cupolas, porticos and symmetrical columns.

A black-and-white photo of a two-storey building with a columned portico. A man is walking in front of the building. Power lines can be seen to the right and behind the building.

The Galt Public Library, built in 1903, through a Carnegie grant given in 1902 (a031832)

I am not alone in my love of Carnegie library buildings. A former Ontario Minister of Citizenship and Culture once wrote that “Carnegie libraries represent a significant part of the cultural history and architectural heritage of Ontario.”

Carnegie libraries would not have existed without Andrew Carnegie and his lifelong love of libraries and learning. Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919) was born in Scotland and immigrated to the United States with his family in 1848. He amassed a fortune with his Carnegie Steel Company, which he sold in 1901. He placed the money from the sale in trust for philanthropy, which became his main occupation. In total, the philanthropist gave grants to build 2,509 free public libraries to English-speaking communities worldwide. Andrew Carnegie believed the best way to provide free education and foster growing communities was to establish public libraries.

A black-and-white photograph of two ornate buildings, one with a columned portico and a cupola. People walking, a street car, and power lines are in the foreground.

The Vancouver Public Library (right) opened in 1903 with funding from a Carnegie grant. Since 1980, this building has served as the Carnegie Community Centre, which houses a library branch on the main floor. (a009531)

Carnegie provided the grant for each library building, but did not contribute funds towards the purchase of books or staff salaries. To secure a Carnegie grant for a library, cities and towns had to fulfill the “Carnegie Formula.” Among other criteria, this formula stipulated that cities provide the site, guarantee an annual budget and ensure free public access. Many applications for grants were refused because a town or city already had adequate library services or would not be able to guarantee the yearly funds needed for the upkeep of the facility. Some communities did not apply for or accept money from the Carnegie foundation, as they viewed Andrew Carnegie as a robber baron and disapproved of his business methods.

Of the 2,509 Carnegie libraries built in the early 1900s, 125 were constructed in Canada. Of those 125 libraries, 111 were built in Ontario. The majority of the libraries were built in the United States and Great Britain/Ireland. Carnegie libraries were also built in South Africa, Australia, Serbia, New Zealand, Fiji, Mauritius, Barbados and Guyana, among other places.

A colour photo of a brown-brick building with several beige accent columns as well as pediments and curved windows. There are red flowers to the left in the foreground.

The former Perth Carnegie Library, now known as the Macmillan Building. The two-storey library was designed in the Beaux-Arts style by renowned architect Frank Darling. The building was severely damaged by fire in 1980 and restored in 1982. Photo credit: Emily Tregunno

I have always found it interesting that the Carnegie Foundation gave grants to build libraries in both small towns and large cities. For example, in 1901, a grant was given to Ayr, Ontario, whose population was 807. At the time of construction of its Carnegie library, Perth, Ontario, had a population of slightly more than 3,500 residents.

A brown brick 2 storey building with curved windows on the top floor. The entrance is glass and there is a yellow fire hydrant in the foreground.

Ottawa’s Rosemount Branch of the Ottawa Public Library, built in 1918. A major renovation to upgrade the branch took place recently. Photo credit: Sara Chatfield

Many library collections outgrew their original Carnegie library buildings. Some of the buildings have been torn down, some have been damaged by fire, some of the buildings have been repurposed, and some municipalities have chosen to expand and renovate. Ottawa’s Rosemount Branch, originally known as the Ottawa West Branch, is an example of a Carnegie building that has undergone substantial renovations. Interestingly, the 1917 grant to build the Ottawa West/Rosemount Branch was the last of its type given in Canada.

A black-and-white photo of a two-storey square building with a large number of pedimented windows, a columned portico and a small balcony. There is text written across the bottom, which reads “HJW, 1788, Dawson Yukon, Carnegie Library July 1907.”

The Dawson City, Yukon, Carnegie Library. The grant for this library was given in 1903. The building was designed by Robert Montcrieff. Construction was completed in 1904. (a016721-v8)

Unfortunately, some communities could not sustain the financial strain of maintaining a library. The Dawson City library, built in 1903/1904 was popular and well attended. However, by 1920, the city’s population had shrunk to fewer than one thousand people, and the city could not continue to fund the institution. In 1920, the building was sold to the Masonic Lodge.

A black-and-white photo of a two-storey square building with several windows, some of them arched, an arched entrance, and columns. The building is surrounded by a decorative metal gate. There is text written across the bottom, which reads “Carnegie Library.”

The Winnipeg Carnegie Library, built in 1904/1905. This was the city’s first public library. It served as the city’s main branch until 1977. (a031593)

From 1995 to 2013, the Winnipeg Carnegie Library building was home to the City of Winnipeg Archives. According to a 2019 report by the Association of Manitoba Archives, construction was under way in 2013 to transform the former Carnegie Library into state-of-the-art facilities for the municipal archives, when an intense rainstorm damaged the roof and sent staff and the archive holdings to a temporary warehouse location.

Of the 125 library buildings built in Canada from 1904 to 1922, approximately 20 have been demolished. Several of the buildings are still being used as libraries as originally intended.

  • A colour photograph of a brown-brick building with a curved entrance. Two short flights of stairs lead to the building entrance.
  • A colour photograph of the inside of a library. A large skylight, book shelving and computer terminals can be seen in the room. There are four windows at back.
  • A colour photograph of a beige building with a columned entrance and a pediment above the front door. There is single set of stairs leading to the building. The words “Public Library” are etched above the entrance.
  • A colour photograph of a large room with three windows, two hanging lights, a black mat and book shelves.
 

Keep an eye out for these historic buildings. You might come across one in a small town near you!

Additional resources:

  • Local Library, Global Passport: The Evolution of a Carnegie Library, by J. Patrick Boyer (OCLC 191759655)
  • The Man Who Loved Libraries: The Story of Andrew Carnegie, by Andrew Larsen and Katty Maurey (OCLC 970404908)
  • The Best Gift: A Record of the Carnegie Libraries in Ontario, by Margaret Beckman, Stephen Langmead and John Black (OCLC 11546081)
  • Ottawa Carnegie Library – Application for State papers (RG2, Privy Council Office, Series A-1-a, vol 964)

Sara Chatfield is a project manager in the Exhibitions and Online Content Division at Library and Archives Canada.