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Past Times: Pictou’s mountaineering minister

The founding members of the Alpine Club of Canada. Pictou’s Rev. James Herdman, front row, hand on watch pocket.
The founding members of the Alpine Club of Canada. Pictou’s Rev. James Herdman, front row, hand on watch pocket. - Contributed

This Pictou-born Presbyterian minister was called “one of the most enthusiastic mountain climbers in Canada” and was instrumental in forming one of the first amateur mountaineering organizations in our nation. 

The Alpine Club of Canada today, “is the leading organization in Canada devoted to climbing, mountain culture, and issues related to alpine pursuits and ecology. It is also the Canadian regulatory organization for climbing competitions, sanctioning local, regional and national events, and assembling, coaching and supporting the national team.” 

Rev. James Chalmers Herdman was born in the manse of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church to parents Rev. Andrew W. Herdman and Elizabeth Walker of Scotland in the year 1855. The young James was heavily influenced by his father to become a minister. 

“His desire to follow religion was formed early in childhood and strengthened with years. Stories of his youthful piety and sensitive moral nature were plentiful in those days in Pictou. His parents frequently found him alone in his room in the dark, knelling beside his bed speaking to God in prayer. Fond of outdoor games, he would only engage in clean sport and would refuse to play if bad language was used by any of his companions. This early, principled belief would carry on through his entire life and would benefit any person, group or congregation that the Rev. Dr. James Herdman was involved with.

“Because of a slight speech impediment, his father tried to dissuade” James from continuing in a ministry career and encouraged him to entre on a business vocation. James’s “heart was set on being a minister and pleaded with his father to give consent. Rev. Andrew Herdman stated, “only if you gain a bursary within a reasonable time period.” This task seemed impossible, but through sheer determination and obedience “set himself to work to this end, and with great joy when, to the surprise of all, he stood first in the list of competitors.” 

And off to Dalhousie University for his bachelor of srts and then unto Edinburgh University in Scotland where he obtained his master of arts and bachelor of divinity. “He was a favorite with his fellow students and when he was leaving for home, they gave a dinner in his honour.” 

“On his return to Pictou he preached for his father at St. Andrew’s Church, was less than 21, together with the maturity of him, made a deep impression in his native town.” 

In 1878 James Herdman was called to Campbellton, N.B., where he was ordained and married Wilmina Louden of Bathurst. While in New Brunswick, Rev. Herdman was known to regularly visit back woods lumber camps “in order to preach and administer ordnances to those out of the way.” In 1885 he and his beginning family moved to Calgary, Alberta, where Rev. Herdman became minister of the newly formed Presbytery and help organize the fledgling Knox Presbyterian Church “just after the turmoil of the Northwest Rebellion.” He would remain at this post for 30 years. 

Because of his well-liked disposition and hard work ethic, Rev. James Herdman would have great influence on Western Canada. He helped found and organize the Western Canada Historical Society. In 1901 “under the leadership of Rev. Herdman, lay men and women turned their attention to the under-privileged and often misunderstood members of the early Chinese community. The result was the establishment of the Chinese Presbyterian Church (later the Chinese United Church). He also helped create and establish Western Canada College, Calgary.  

Rev. Herdman would also have a brush with the famed outlaw The Sundance Kid (Harry Longabaugh) and an eventual member of the notorious Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch. In the early 1890s, The Sundance Kid was on the run from authorities in United States and ended up in Alberta, where he stood as best man at a wedding. The young couple were married by Rev. Herdman.

His leadership efforts did not go unnoticed and in 1902 “he was appointed to the position of superintendent of Home Missions for Alberta and British Columbia. Having the opportunity to travel the Rocky Mountains afforded Rev. Herdman to hone his passion of mountain climbing.  

The Canadian Rocky Mountains have always challenged the adventurous side of men and women for centuries. It was an obstacle that had to be mastered in order to join Canada as a nation in 1867. In the 1870s surveys of the Rockies began to find the most affordable and best route to develop the Canadian Pacific Railroad to British Columbia, a gesture promised by the Sir John A. MacDonald government. With the continuous work of the Geological Survey of Canada the Rockies would be mapped and photographed. Encouraging great interest for mountain climbing tourism in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Rev. Herdman was hooked.

A group of avid mountaineers formed the Alpine Club of Canada (ACC) in 1906. Arthur Wheeler had been trying to organize a mountain climbing club in Western Canada since 1901. With the encouragement of Rev. Herdman and journalist, Elizabeth Parker. The founding ACC meeting took place in Winnipeg on March 27 and 28, 1906. Other clubs had been formed in Europe and United States. Unlike organized clubs at that time period, the Canadian association would permit women to become members. Mr. Wheeler became ACC president, Elizabeth Parker, secretary, Rev. Herdman became vice-president with Sir Sanford Fleming as ACC’s first patron and honourary president. 

Interest in the new group quickly grew with membership. In 1907 The ACC produced the first of a continuing newsletter called the Canadian Alpine Journal. In its inaugural issue was an article penned by Rev. James Herdman called The Ascent of Mt. Macoun. Today the journal is distributed all over the world and reports on achievements in climbing, mountaineering and exploration of mountains. 

Rev. Herdman is mentioned in the journal many times, as well several books published on the topic of the Canadian Rockies and mountain climbing. Mention is also made of the mountaineering Minister on several occasions as was one of the first individuals to conquer several of the Rocky Mountains. 

“August 14, the Rev. J.C. Herdman made the first ascent of Mt. Macoun (9,988 feet) and was accompanied by the guide Rdouard Feuz. The trip was made in 13 hours.” 

And in 1907 a report was given on the first ascent of Mt. Begbie and “was achieved by Rev. Dr. Herdman, Rev. J.R. Robertson, Rupert Haggen and guide Edouard Feuz.” 

Sadly, in 1909 Rev. Herdman would have to curtail his mountain climbing, as well his religious duties because of sickness and passed away on June 7, 1910, at the age of 55 years. Tributes poured in all across Canada and James Short of Knox Church wrote: “Unfailing courtesy was one of Rev. Dr. Herdman’s outstanding qualities. His ripe scholarship, well-balanced judgement, his wisdom and knowledge of people and affairs and his modesty all combined to make him an ideal counsellor of people. His was a life that did much to mould the West.” 

Rev. James Chalmers Herdman was buried at the Old Banff Cemetery, nicely nestled in the Rocky Mountains.

Historical Research

Alpine Club of Canada
Glenbow Museum, Calgary

Whyte Museum, Banff

Presbyterian Pioneer Missionaries, Hugh McKellar

Lethbridge Herald, 1910

Pictonians at Home and Abroad, Rev J.P. MacPhie

The Guiding Spirit, William Lowell Putnam, Andrew J. Kauffman

Southern Alberta Pioneers 

The Great Glacier and Its House, William Lowell Putnam

University of British Columbia

www.campingcanucks.ca

John Ashton is a 34-year self employed historical author, visual and graphic artist and lives in Bridgeville, Pictou County. He may be reached at ashtondesign@seasidehighspeed.com.

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