• Chaplin, Saskatchewan on July 13, 1890. (Photo: Joseph Heckman/CPR)

Thousands of photographs taken by one man captured Canadian life around the railway between 1898 and 1915. The photos weren’t just of trains and stations. They showed hotels, steamships and people.

Joseph Heckman, an engineer turned photographer, was tasked with creating an inventory of the railway and took almost 5,000 photos in the process. A book released this month, Heckman’s Canadian Pacific: A Photographic Journey, brings together 380 of his photos.

“His images offered an unparalleled glimpse of the land and the people – in short, Canada’s geography,” wrote Royal Canadian Geographical Society CEO John Geiger in the book’s foreword.

Author Ralph Beaumount spoke with Canadian Geographic about his book and the photographer it celebrates.

Who was Heckman?
He was a young photographer. But he started as a civil engineer. He was born in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, and he got his civil engineering degree from King’s College. His first real job was working out west as an assistant engineer on the building of the railway through the Fraser and Thompson River Canyons. Eventually he came into the employment of the CPR but he never caught on in the engineering department. However while he was out west he essentially taught himself photography and the CPR were looking for an inventory of the railway in the late 1890s. Being a civil engineer and being interested in photography, he was the perfect man for the job. That’s why we have such a great collection today from coast to coast. Over 4,000 of them are still with us so it’s a fantastic record of the period.

Why focus on this rail photographer?
The building of the railway was the first great national project. It brought Canada together and there were a lot of photographers clamouring to record that. By Heckman’s era, however, there weren’t as many photos taken. This is a record of a period that, as far as railway photography, isn’t well documented. What I like from the geography point of view is that it spans the country. If it was on the railway, Heckman’s camera took a photo of it. As well, every picture in this book has the exact day it was taken, the compass direction and the exact mileage on the railway. Heckman’s field notes make this collection really special.

What did his photos show you about this period?
I like how the photographs are candid. A lot of the really famous photographers, they would have all day to set up a scene, or maybe wait for the perfect weather and the perfect time of day. His was a photographic inventory – he had what was presented before his camera so he made very good use of what was available to him. As far as the candid element, there’s a lot of activity in progress, such as the re-shingling of a station. A lot of that activity wouldn’t be in a normal photograph and there are subjects that are photographed but from unusual angles. For instance, the Banff Springs Hotel – one of the first versions of it – his pictures are on all sides. Not your typical tourism shot.

What has this process taught you about Canadian geography?
There’s a section in the book about place names of Canada. In the west, you had unsettled territory and all of a sudden, with the railway, you had towns and every peak had to be named and every stream had to have a name. Quite often the CPR are the ones who gave communities their names. The background for some of the photographs deals with how that town or stream received its name.

How did you come across Heckman’s work?
I had done a book on Ontario’s railway about 30 years ago and there were some pictures that had a unique style. The photographer wasn’t known but you could tell they were by the same person. Then I found out, in a subsequent book, the pictures I was interested in were taken by Joseph Heckman. It wasn’t until a couple years ago that I realized the extent of the collection. I went to Montreal to see the CPR archives and one of the things that struck me is that it wasn’t just three-quarter views of buildings, it’s the people in every photograph that are just fantastic. It’s a little glimpse at Canadian life during that period.

Click the photo below for a slideshow.