MOBERLY, Walter




Author Tags: 1850-1900, Early B.C.

Christopher Columbus died ignominiously in 1506, feeling discredited and disheartened, having once been dragged back to Spain in irons. The conqueror of Mexico, Hernán Cortéz, died of dysentery, a bitter and chronic complainant, long suspected of murdering his first wife. So when Walter Moberly died penniless and friendless on May 14, 1915 in Vancouver, he was far from being the first pathfinder to have lost his way later in life.

Self-proclaimed as the founder of New Westminster (back when it was named Queensborough and he was an assistant to Colonel Moody), Moberly also claimed to be the original pre-emptor of land in the West End. But his greatest achievements were non-urban, in eastern B.C. and the Interior. He surveyed the first road into Barkerville and built part of the Cariboo Highway between Lytton and Cache Creek in 1861. From 1859 to 1865 he also oversaw the creation of the Dewdney Trail with Edgar Dewdney. Most important, in the mid-1860s Moberly located Eagle Pass, the gateway through the Selkirk Mountains. In the early 1870s he made a trail to the gold diggings at Big Bend from Shuswap Lake. He also served as a member of the Legislative Council for Cariboo West (1864-1865) and spent four years in the U.S. as a railway builder and explorer. On the literary front, he wrote The Rocks and Rivers of British Columbia (London: England, 1885), a guide to the 'Klondyke' gold fields, and a thinly disguised autobiography 'by Noel Robinson and the Old Man Himself', published less than a year before his death.

Walter Moberly was born in Steeple Aston, England on August 15, 1832. It was always Moberly’s ambition to find a Northwest Passage—by land, not by sea—to allow for an all-Canadian route, by rail, across the continent. As a government surveyor, he had realized his dreams by trudging Cortéz-like through the snow-covered mountain ranges of the province. He envisioned Eagle Pass could allow the main line of the Canadian Pacific Railway to reach the West Coast via Revelstoke, thereby linking B.C. with the rest of the nation. The Toronto Mail once described him as ‘the pioneer of pioneers,’ a man on par with Alexander Mackenzie, Simon Fraser and Edgar Dewdney. “Walter Moberly…must occupy a place in our picturesque history second only to that of [George]Vancouver himself,” the Vancouver Province once wrote. In 1914 Moberly had tried to immortalize his reputation with a 15-page account of his explorations as a Canadian Pacific surveyer entitled Early History of the Canadian Pacific, plus a flattering self-portrait entitled Blazing the Trail Through the Rockies: The Story of Walter Moberly and his Share in the Making of Vancouver, a recounting of his many achievements since Governor James Douglas first encouraged his engineering bravado in 1858. But posterity has been far from generous to Walter Moberly. There’s a Moberly school in Vancouver, a Moberly Road near False Creek, a Moberly Pub north of Golden, a Moberly Peak, a Moberly Theatre at Three-Valley Gap and a Moberly Park in south Vancouver, but precious few people know his first name.

In Daphne Sleigh's even-tempered appraisal of her subject, Walter Moberly and the Northwest Passage by Rail (Hancock $14.95), the former Maple Ridge museum curator concludes the engineer’s personality limited his fame, even during his lifetime. “Touchy, opinionated, careless with money and prone to self-importance,” she writes, “he antagonized many people in spite of his sociable and generous nature… Yes, Walter Moberly was a flawed hero, but which of our heroes is not?”

BOOKS:

The Rocks and Rivers of British Columbia (London: H. Blacklock & Co., 1885; facsimile edition, Vienna, 1926)
Eight Routes to the Klondyke, With Tables of Distances, Cost of Outfits, Map of Routes, and other Information (Winnipeg: Colonist Printing, 1898)
Blazing the Trail Through the Rockies: The Story of Walter Moberly and his Share in the Making of Vancouver (Vancouver News-Advertiser, 1914). With Noel Robinson.
Reports of Exploration, 1864-1865, to the Government of B.C., Upper Columbia River (reprint, Victoria: Haunted Bookshop, 1968)

ALSO:

Sleigh, Daphne. Walter Moberly and the Northwest Passage by Rail (Hancock House, 2003) 0-88839-510-8

[BCBW 2004] "Early B.C." "1850-1900"