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When Coal Was King
Industry, People and Challenges
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Dr. George Mercer Dawson

George Mercer Dawson was one of the most remarkable Canadian scientists of the 19th century. The son of Sir John William Dawson (commonly called Principal Dawson when he became principal of McGill University in 1855), young Dawson was born in Pictou, Nova Scotia, on I August 1849 and died in Ottawa on 2 March 1901. He was educated by tutors, attended McGill University for a time, then went to England to study at the Royal School of Mines. He graduated with nearly every honour that the School of Mines could bestow.

Dr. George Mercer Dawson (third from left)In 1873 Dawson accepted the position of geologist-botanist with Her Majesty's North American Boundary Commission and reported on the region along the 49th parallel from Lake of the Woods to the Rockies. It was a first-rate report, an extremely detailed, accurate, critical account of the geology and botany, climate, potential for agriculture, and locust invasions of the western plains. On 1 July 1875 he accepted a position with the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC), to work initially in British Columbia. He was named a charter member of the Royal Society of Canada in 1882. By 1883 he was assistant director of the GSC. In 1887 he surveyed the Alaska boundary at the Yukon River and gave his name to the Klondike town of Dawson, Yukon Territory. In 1892 he became British commissioner on Bering Sea natural resources and, in 1896, a member of the Ethnological Survey of Canada. He was GSC director from 1895 to 1901.

The most remarkable thing about Dawson was his physical appearance. He was much deformed, a slightly-built hunchback who grew no taller than 190 cm and had such weak lungs that his life was threatened by every cold. Yet he remained a Field geologist and explorer until 1895, establishing an almost legendary reputation as a swift, untiring traveller and intrepid climber. He studied the geology and natural history of southern Alberta from 1881 to 1883, when the Canadian Pacific Railway company decided to build, and then built, its line across the southern plains. His main interest was in the coal deposits of the region.

Galt Mine No. 3 as photographed by Dr. George Mercer Dawson about 1893.Dawson was insatiably curious, his work always careful and precise. His results have stood up well to later examination. He seldom reached an incorrect conclusion. His powers of observation were matched by a keen intelligence; his generalizations showed rare clarity, imagination and originality. His ability to form sound and lasting general conclusions from a few reconnaissance observations and distant scannings was unique.

He was very versatile with wide-ranging interests. He wrote scholarly articles on geology, anthropology, botany, zoology, and history, and compiled several handbooks on Canada. He was an excellent public speaker, teacher and popularizer; an above-average sketcher and water-colorist; and the best of several poets in the Survey's history. And finally he was a diplomat, who served Canada well on various missions.Lethbridge Its Coal Industry

This article is extracted from Alex Johnston, Keith G. Gladwyn and L. Gregory Ellis. Lethbridge: Its Coal Industry (Lethbridge, Lethbridge: City of Lethbridge, 1989), Occasional Paper No. 20, The Lethbridge Historical Society. The Heritage Community Foundation and the Year of the Coal Miner Consortium (of which the City of Lethbridge is the lead partner) would like to thank the authors for permission to reprint this material.

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