J. S. Dennis, Irrigation Enthusiast

W. A. CRAICK November 1 1915

J. S. Dennis, Irrigation Enthusiast

W. A. CRAICK November 1 1915

J. S. Dennis, Irrigation Enthusiast


A FEW years ago there was held in the city of Calgary a celebration, known to fame as the Stampede. Its purpose was to portray once more some of the fast-dying customs of the old pioneer life of the West and to give to thousands of new-comers an idea of the way people lived, worked and amused themselves in the early years of settlement.

Among the numerous events of the week was one peculiarly fitting to the occasion. It partook of the nature of a pageant. In processional form before the eyes of the spectators there moved past a succession of groups of people, each illustrating an advancing phase in the development of Western civilization.

First came the Redskins, the original inhabitants of the prairies, dressed in all their war-paint and reproducing as exactly as they could both the appearance and antics of their wild forefathers. Then came the explorers, the missionaries and the fur traders, all notable figures in the early history of the West. After them there drove along in a small cart, dressed in serviceable clothes and wearing broadbrimmed hats, two men, who typified in

their persons the next stage in the story. From the instruments that hung strapped to the back of the cart it was easy to perceive that they were the surveyors, those vigorous, undaunted men, who fixed the lines on which the coming civilization was to build.

In most pageants of the kind, the lapse of time has rendered it humanly impossible for the original actors to participate in the reproduction of the experiences of their earlier days. But so rapidly has Western Canada passed from a wilderness into a highly developed country that what might be incredible in other lands is not so extraordinary here. The two surveyors who drove along in the procession were actually two of the men, who in their younger years had penetrated into this vast uncharted region and had carried their lines across a great portion of its length and breadth. In other words these particular actors in the pageant were the life and blood reproduction of the persons they were intended to represent.

The first of the interesting pair was J. S. Dennis, of Calgary; the second was William Pearce. Both are now getting on in years. Both have witnessed with their

own eyes the playing of the actual pageant of the West, that drama so picturesquely portrayed during the progress of the Calgary Stampede. Both are now associated in the great development work that is being carried on by Canada’s premier transcontinental railway.

J. S. Dennis, the younger of the two men, is a real, old-time Westerner. Though he was not born on the prairies, he has spent so many years west of the Great Lakes that he has come to consider himself almost in the light of a native. Few citizens of Alberta or Saskatchewan can ante-date him in their personal recollections of the early days; fewer still can produce as varied experiences of pioneer conditions. He is now approaching the three-score mark but, as he was only a lad of sixteen when he first gazed on the prairies, it follows that his association with Western affairs extends back nearly forty-four years.

Unlike the great majority of the railway magnates of the day, the head of the C.P.R.’s Department of Natural Rej sources did not rise from the ranks in the Í sense of having sprung from an obscure parentage. His father, John Stoughton Dennis, Sr., could attach the letters C.M.G. to his name before he died,

1 which is the next best thing to knight! hood and an indication that he had made some stir in the world. The elder : Dennis was by profession a land surveyor and when his son was born, he ' was living in the village of Weston near j Toronto. A few years later he received the appointment of Surveyor-General of Dot minion Lands and removed himself, his instruments and his family to the capital. Eventually he became Deputy Minister of the Interior, and a person of considerable importance in the civil service.

It is interesting at this point to mention that, when Mr. Dennis, Sr., went to the West in 1869 to lay the foundations for the surveys of Western lands, he was received with much hostility by the Indians and half breeds, who believed that he had been sent to take away their lands. The feeling, thus engendered, grew stronger and stronger and was the direct cause of the first trouble with the half-breeds. In a sense therefore the elder Dennis was the man who precipitated the Red River Rebellion and in consequence is a figure of some historical interest.

As a result of his father’s influence, J. S. Dennis, Jr., enjoyed advantages, which would have been denied to one of humbler birth. In many cases, such advantages would have proved a serious handicap. Not so, in this instance. The younger Dennis made the best of the favorable j conditions in which he was placed and,

! what is better, never abused them. During all the time that he was in the GovernI ment service, working as he did in the I department of which his father was virtu; ally the head, he was never known to presume on the connection to save himself I from trouble or to secure special favors I or extra consideration.

During the summer of his sixteenth j year at his own earnest solicitation the ! boy was attached to a Government survey party detailed for work in Manitoba, j From then until 1879 when he joined the ! service of the Hudson Bay Company,

every summer season saw him engaged on these surveys on the prairies. The winters he spent back East, acquiring from his father the technical knowledge necessary to qualify him for a certificate as a Dominion land surveyor. He is said to have been an apt pupil, for it was not long before he himself was placed in charge of a survey party of his own.

His work with the great company was in connection with the organization of the land department, a project which the late Lord Strathcona, then Donald A. Smith, personally promoted. The association was not of long duration, for in the early eighties the future railroad man left the service of the company to plunge himself into all the excitement of the famous Winnipeg boom. To this episode in his career he often refers with good-humored frankness. The collapse of the boom caught him as it did many others, but there was no senseless recrimination. He took his medicine bravely and went back to work. But if anyone nowadays makes complaints in his hearing about hard times in the West, he will exclaim with a touch of scorn in his voice, that that person hasn’t the slightest idea of what hard times really are.

The North-West Rebellion broke out soon after and the former surveyor volunteered for scout duty. It was a service for which he was admirably fitted because of his extensive acquaintance with the country where the trouble was occurring. He headed a corps of scouts with the rank of maior and did effective work in securing and conveying information to the military authorities.

The revolt quelled, Major Dennis sought and obtained employment once again in the Dominion Survey Branch. He rose to be chief inspector of surveys in the territories. He added to his repertoire of accomplishments, a knowledge of irrigation, and eventually became supervisor of federal irrigation development. He was requisitioned by the Territorial Government to assume control of their public works as deputy commissioner and first under the Hon. Mr. Ross (now Senator Ross) and then under the Hon. A. L. Sifton (now Premier Sifton), he carried out important bridge and road-building projects and gave special attention to the problem of obtaining a water supply for certain dry sections of the prairie.

In 1902 the Deputy Commissioner of Public Works resigned in order to accept a more lucrative position. He was now to be superintendent of irrigation and land commissioner for the C.P.R. The way this change came about is rather interesting. Irrigation was a theme which had been coming steadily into more and more prominence and J. S. Dennis was one of two men who had taken an active personal interest in its promotion. The other was his present-day colleague, William Pearce of Calgary. While there had been two or three diminutive irrigation systems in existence for a good many years, it was not until about 1890 that Pearce began to preach irrigation on a larger scale. He was seconded vigorously by Mr. Dennis, who made a careful study of the subject.

At the time, irrigation was not in favor either with the powers at Ottawa or with the railway officials, the reason advanced

being that if it became known in the old country that C.P.R. lands were not going to be productive without artificial watering, it would “bear” the stock and hamper the sale of the property. Notwithstanding, the erstwhile surveyors were not to be silenced. They continued their campaign and at last about 1894, the force of their arguments began to bear fruit. An irrigation Act was placed on the statute books of the Dominion and J. S. Dennis was appointed supervisor of irrigation.

In this position Mr. Dennis surveyed the lines of the present Galt system, the C.P.R. system and the Southern Alberta Land Company’s system. He also visited all the existing irrigation systems in the United States with a view to procuring practical information to be used n a revision of the Dominion Irrigation Act. His interest in and enthusiasm for irrigation continued while he was Deputy Commissioner of Public Works. He lost no opportunity to promote the cause and did all in his power to bring before the Government its importance.

In 1902 the C.P.R. took over as part of its land grant all the land east of Calgary to be served by the Bow River Canal, on the understanding that it would continue the development work. Mr. Dennis, as a Government official, had already been reauired to report on the practicability of the scheme. He had given a favorable opinion. Who better therefore to carry on the project? The railway management thought there was no one more highly qualified, and so the deputy commissioner was brought from Regina to Calgary to try his hand at the undertaking.

There were many doubters, not to mention unbelievers. J. S. Dennis was described as crazy and his scheme as absurd. Yet he announced confidently that he believed the day would come when the irrigated section east of Calgary would be the most intensely cultivated and populated part of all Western Canada. Only time will tell whether this bold prophecy will be fulfilled, though the indications are that it is quite likely to be. If it is not, it will not be because its promoter has not thrown into it, his very best effort.

From being simply superintendent of irrigation, in charge of the Bow River proleet, Mr. Dennis rose first to be assistant to the second vice-president, with control of all the company’s irrigation interests, and then assistant to the president and head of the new department of natural resources, having supervision of all the timber, mineral and power resources of the company.

It was largely as a result of dissatisfaction created among settlers who had purchased C.P.R. irrigated lands through speculators and had found them not up to specifications, that it was decided to cut free entirely from middlemen. In future there would be direct responsibility on the part of the company. This drastic change, for which Mr. Dennis stood sponsor, has been eminently successful. Settlers now buy direct and have the benefit of assistance in loans, stock, accommodation and agricultural advice. There is no longer the same volume of complaint, except from certain districts settled before this policy was adopted, where agitators continue to harp on the old story.

Every credit must be extended to the Calgary vice-president for having evolved those colonization schemes, associated with the irrigation projects, which are peopling the land with thousands of excellent settlers. He is personally responsible for them. He has sat up nights and thought them out. Last year, they resulted in the establishment in Western Canada of 590 families, each of which was placed on 220 acres of land. Assuming a family to consist on an average of four persons, there is over twenty-three hundred souls added to the population of the Dominion and started on the highway to success within a twelve-month. And the best of it is, they have gone on the land and have become producers.

Here are a few of the things J. S. Dennis has done for these people through the machinery of his department. He has given where necessary to married men with agricultural experience, a loan of two thousand dollars, repayable in twenty years, for the purpose of farm improvement. To those accustomed to the handling of livestock, who have been a year on the company’s lands, he has given livestock to the value of a thousand dollars on easy terms of credit. He has provided, where desired, house and barn, well and pump, which with fencing and partial cultivation of the land, constitute the equipment of a ready-made farm. He has established an agricultural and animal industry branch to give the newcomers aid and advice in methods of cultivation and care of livestock. He has planted several demonstration farms to serve as a guide to proper methods. Through these and kindred media, he has made it easier for the settler to get to his feet and secure returns. Above all he has preached in season and out of season the desirability of mixed farming.

Without much fuss and feathers, “J. S.” has thrown himself into many other departments of development work. If any good cause is mentioned, one may rest assured that he is in it, though never in any conspicuous way. Just now he is active in Red Cross work and on behalf of the Patriotic Fund. He attends committee meetings on the dot and there is never any necessity of asking whether or not he is coming. When he sits at a board table, he attends to business first and leaves the performance of social obligations to a later period.

Apropos of this interest in all sorts of causes bearing on Western progress, he has even gone to the extent of accepting the presidency of a syndicate, having in view the securing of remains of prehistoric monsters from the valley of the Red Deer River. The Calgary Syndicate of Prehistoric Research sounds rather grotesque, but it is quite a live organization, thanks to his activity. He was aware that a New York professor of natural history was digging out specimens for the Metropolitan Museum and it seemed a pity to him that something should not be done to keep some of the remains for exhibition in a Canadian museum. He was ready to extend support to an Englishman, who proposed to go in for the work of discovery, and allied himself with a number of other Calgarians in the formation of the syndicate. After one season’s operations, several excellent specimens have been

brought out, which have been shipped to the British Museum in London.

This keen interest in the West and its advancement has brought Mr. Dennis into constant requisition as a public speaker. His name usually figures on the programme at conventions or dinners. Not that he is an orator or a wit. His utterances are weighty but they contain much useful information and good advice and these things are generally appreciated. He invariably has something worth while to say and says it in a forcible and often novel way. Newspapers always report bis remarks in full, which is a significant feature.

In private life and among his intimates “J.S.” unbends. The stern expression softens, the manner passes from the brusque and business-like to the kindly and affectionate. He becomes the most entertaining of companions, for he is full of personal reminiscences of the early days and these are exceedingly interesting. Many and many a capital story of the old-times is stowed away in his memory and he has been known to sit in the smoking compartment of his private car and reel off his recollections for hours at a time. His hobby, if he may be said to possess one at all, is music. While he used to be quite a singer himself, it has been as a conductor of choirs that he has displayed his fondness for the art—that and listening to others sing. When he was living in Regina at the time King George visited the territorial capital in 1901, he led a large choir which had the honor of singing before the future sovereign. The effort evoked the royal commendation and Mr. Dennis came in for some nice compliments. After he went to reside in Calgary, he took up orchestral work and conducted an orchestra for some years.

Coupled with his love for music, he cherishes a fondness for the theatre, which he visits frequently. He is well posted on the drama and can discuss the capabilities of actors and actresses with considerable insight and discrimination. Once, according to report, he directed a company of amateur players with much success. .■

Of recreation, in the form of sport, he does not take any. He is so immersed in his work that he does not seem to have either the leisure or the inclination to indulge in any pastime. He is the type of man who is so serious-minded and so intent on carrying through the task in hand, that he finds it impossible to drop the thread. Once, so the story goes, he was taking a trip from Calgary to Vancouver. Somehow or other he got into his hands one of those cheap little brain-twisting puzzles that occasionally come into vogue. At first he went at it in a casual way but by degrees, growing interested, he became more and more intent on its solution. With a short interval, when he took to his berth, he worked at that wretched little puzzle all the way to the coast. Whether he solved it or not in the end, is immaterial. The incident simply indicates the tenacity of the man. In precisely the same way he has worried out every business problem that has confronted him, never letting up until he has conque-ed.