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‘I wish these annual reports were at the devil’: William E. Logan and the publications of the Geological Survey of Canada

Paper Presented to the History of the Book in Canada’ Open Conference
for Volume II (1840-1918) by Brian C. Shipley
Department of History, Dalhousie University

In 1841, when the Legislative Assembly of the newly-created Province of Canada approved the funds for a geological survey, they had every reason to believe that the project would be completed within in a fixed amount of time, on a fixed budget. After all, many of the American states had conducted their own geological and natural history surveys in the 1830s, and had seen results produced with a reasonable degree of expediency. (1) Canadian legislators could not have foreseen that they were initiating a national institution that would continue to the present day. What had worked in the United States should work in Canada, too. In order to reassure those who were skeptical about the utility of geological science, and to ensure accountability for the expenditure of public funds, it was standard practice in the U.S. for legislatures to demand annual reports from their state geologists. Naturally, then, the Canadian government felt that it had a right to expect regular accounts of progress from their newly-appointed provincial geologist, William E. Logan (1798-1875). (2)

Although he had been born in Canada, in Montreal, Logan had lived all his adult life in Great Britain up until 1840, when he undertook a tour of Canada and the U.S., during which came into contact with numerous American geologists, and first conceived the notion of conducting a geological survey of Canada. Logan’s previous experience had been with the Geological Survey of Great Britain, a project that differed in several important ways from American surveys. Because the science of geology was more highly developed in Britain, and because more precise topographical maps were available there, the work of the British survey was slower and more painstaking than U.S. work, which often had the character of a rapid reconnaissance. A lover of fine details, Logan had established his scientific reputation by making very sophisticated and exact maps of the coal fields near his home in Swansea, South Wales. One of the main challenges that he would face in his new position was the reconciliation of this time-consuming style of British geological mapping with the practical conditions of doing geology in Canada, where scientific resources were few, accurate maps scarce, and the public impatient for useful results. The use of annual reports, which would require Logan to state his conclusions very early on in his investigations, was completely at odds with the British style of science, in which results were made public only after an extensive process of data collection and analysis.

Upon taking up his position as director of the Canadian geological survey, Logan wrote officially to his British counterpart and mentor, H. T. De la Beche. In the hopes of convincing the Canadian government to adopt the British rather than the American perspective on scientific publications, Logan asked De la Beche to comment on why it was inappropriate to expect annual reports from a properly-conducted geological survey. Logan explained that he was “especially anxious to bring the investigations to a conclusion in as short a time as a due regard to Geological truth ... will permit,” but that “the main object of the investigation is no doubt to determine [the Province of Canada’s] mineral riches, and it is not unlikely that a wish may be felt to know the result or the probabilities of the Survey long before it can possibly be completed. To meet a desire of this description in those states of the American union in which geological surveys have been undertaken, resort has been had to a system of Annual Reports. The example thus given may by some be considered to afford the best mode of making known the progress of the work. But the system appears to me objectionable for many reasons.” (3)

Nevertheless, Logan found the need to report to his political masters inescapable. He soon realized that his observations would be published, whether he liked it or not: in 1845, he was alarmed to find that his preliminary correspondence with the Civil Secretary (dating back three years) had been forwarded by Governor-General Metcalfe to the Legislative Assembly, and printed as a government publication, in both official languages, for all to see. (4) By default, the Geological Survey of Canada had just published its first Report of Progress, much to Logan’s chagrin. In forwarding a copy to De la Beche (Director of the Geological Survey of Great Britain), Logan apologized for the disorganized nature of the document, explaining that it really consisted of three separate reports, some written “before I knew anything of the subject,” and with a substantial degree of internal repetition. “In my mind they have a very awkward appearance,” he moaned, proclaiming, “I wish these annual reports were at the devil. But it is the fashion on this side of the Atlantic and I cannot help myself.” (5)

Indeed, Logan had already discovered that annual reports of progress were inevitable if funding for the survey was to continue. After two years of field work, he and his assistant (Alexander Murray) had only established the broadest outlines of Canadian geology, and even to accomplish that had cost Logan £800 of his own money over and above the £1500 initially granted. Logan was encouraged by legislators to draw up an Act for the continuation of the survey, which he did, but one of the conditions was that progress had to be reported annually. “I should have liked very much to have left out the annual report, but I found it would not do. So I must be as cautious as I can on that score,” Logan wrote. (6) Given this imperative to publish his findings every year, Logan had to devise a genre of report that would satisfy both his own scientific standards and the public desire for immediate, visible results.

In his first report, Logan had erred too much on the side of caution, giving only the briefest hints about his four months of fieldwork in the summer of 1843. The problem was that Canadian geology was largely unknown, and a great deal of work was required to reach conclusions about how rock formations in complicated areas like the Gaspé peninsula matched up with the already established stratigraphy of Britain and the U.S. To do this required more than merely glancing at the Canadian rocks: their extent had to be correlated over exceeding large areas of uncharted wilderness, their fossils needed to be identified, and their minerals required chemical analysis. Many American state surveys had solved such problems by devising their own classifications of rock formations, caring little how these corresponded to European systems. Such parochialism was unacceptable to Logan however, and in any case was gradually disappearing in the U.S. as geology became more sophisticated in its second generation. After his second season in the field, Logan avowed to De la Beche, director of the British survey: “In whatever I do here, you may be sure of this, that I will come to nobody’s system in coming to conclusions. Or perhaps I shall come to no conclusions at all but this one, that there run certain rocks of which the distribution is as per map and here are their contents, mineralogical and fossiliferous, as per specimens. Let those who can, make what they like of them.” (7)

In his quest to develop a suitable genre of scientific publication for his annual reports, Logan could only learn a limited amount from his British and American peers. The memoirs of the Geological Survey of Great Britain emerged slowly and infrequently, as massive monographs replete with extensive, fully-digested observations. (8) And while U.S. surveys did, of course, make use of annual reports, these were generally designed as merely temporary documents, to be replaced by a final report when the survey was complete after a period of three to five years. (This approach was best exemplified by the four-man team responsible for surveying the state of New York, the geology of which was very similar to that of Canada West [southern Ontario]). (9) Although Logan consulted such works while forming his own ideas of what the Canadian survey should be, he ultimately he had to find a structure that reflected his own priorities, and the needs and limitations of the Canadian context. (10)

In my view, Logan was able to reach a satisfactory solution relatively quickly, beginning with his third annual Report of Progress, which covered his 1845 expedition up the Ottawa River; written by Logan in 1846, it was printed by the Legislature in 1847. (11) In this report, Logan pioneered a three-part descriptive structure that was to serve him well for many years to come. The first section dealt with geography and topography, and was essentially a narrative account of the field exploration undertaken by Logan and his party (which on this occasion included an actual Crown Lands surveyor). Told from the point of view of the explorers, this section introduced the general structure of the terrain, and commented on important natural features such as timber, waterways, and land potentially fit for agriculture. Logan took pains to emphasize the topographical value of his surveying, in helping to make the country more accessible for development, even in those cases where no valuable minerals were found.

In the second section of his report, Logan addressed the stratigraphical sequence of rock formations encountered, from oldest (lowest) to youngest (highest). This was the main object of geological surveying: the elucidation of age, structure, and history of a region, and the correlation of its strata with their counterparts of the same era worldwide. (E.g., Cambrian, Silurian, Devonian, etc - these were major concerns of British geologists at the time). Here, Logan put his highly-developed descriptive skills to work, providing extensive details of the exact composition and location of each formation. At this early stage in the Survey’s work, however, he did not commit himself to a firm interpretation of their exact place in a comprehensive system.

Finally, in the third section, Logan devoted considerable attention to “materials capable of economic application.” He was equally meticulous and exhaustive in listing these, and he made good use of his previous industrial experience as manager of a copper smelting works in South Wales, explaining not only where these valuable rocks and minerals could be found, but how they were processed, the uses to which they were put, and the potential domestic and international markets for them. Logan went one step beyond his American models such as the reports of the New York geological survey. These had approached their subject geographically, on a county by county basis, which led to a great deal of repetition and made it difficult to see the larger picture. (12) Logan, however, invariably arranged the economic section of his reports according to a technical classification of rocks and minerals. This included various metals and their ores; minerals used in chemical manufacturing, in agriculture, and as pigments; combustible and carbonaceous minerals; refractory materials, and materials used to make bricks, pottery, glass, cements, and mortars; grinding and polishing stones; building materials and materials for ornamental purposes; and lithographic stones. (13) In this manner, Logan was able to suggest not only the geological but also the industrial potential of the colony.

Using this tripartite style of annual report, Logan was able to convince readers that significant work was being undertaken, while laying the groundwork for his own future scientific conclusions about the true identity of the formations he had so carefully mapped. I think that it is significant that each of Logan’s three descriptive sections approached the land from a fundamentally different perspective. The first, geographical, saw the environment as a traveller in the present would, moving from point to point along the surface. The second, stratigraphical, understood the landscape as a fundamentally historical phenomenon, created over long periods of time by the deposition, contortion, and erosion of successive layers of rock. While necessarily more abstract, this view held out the prospect of integrating Canadian formations into international geological systems. Finally, the third perspective looked not to the distant past, or to the present, but to the future, to Canada’s economic potential and the wide range of industries it would one day sustain.

There is no question that Logan’s strategic use of annual Reports of Progress was in some respects successful as the Survey progressed. Their average length doubled from thirty or forty pages a year in the mid-1840s, to a 280-page omnibus edition for the years 1853-56. (14) In addition to Logan’s own reports, they contained increasingly sophisticated contributions from other Survey officers, such as assistant geologist Alexander Murray and chemist T. Sterry Hunt. Now that the Geological Survey of Canada’s work was becoming more substantial, more professional in appearance, and better known, a new problem dawned: the Appendices of the Journals of the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada were simply not the place that anyone expected to find major scientific publications. And, even if one knew to look there, it could be very difficult actually to obtain a copy of a desired report, while those who did receive them were not necessarily the intended audience, and did not read them. As early as 1846, Logan complained that his work was being overlooked by the Provincial authorities in their handling of the copper mining fever on the north shore of Lake Superior. “A hint had been given to the Government in my first year’s report of the possible existence of this mineral region,” he sniffed. “But who the devil ever reads a report[?]” (15)

An even more embarrassing incident occurred in 1852 when Charles Lyell, the most eminent living geologist, wrote to Logan asking for a copy of a lengthy and important geological study which Logan had conducted at the outset of his work in Canada, ten years earlier. Neither Lyell nor his Nova Scotian collaborator, John William Dawson (still three years away from becoming Principal of McGill College), could find any trace of the document in print. In reply, Logan could only explain that it had been printed, in his first Report, and that he had sent copies at the time to the Geological Society of London, to the British Geological Survey, and even to Lyell himself. (16) The point had been made clear, though: even Dawson, a fellow British North American geologist, was unsure where to look for publications of the Geological Survey of Canada.

In the case of U.S. surveys, it had been acceptable for annual reports to be delivered to the state Legislature, because the project had a finite lifespan and a final report, published as a stand-alone monograph, would soon be forthcoming. In the Canadian case, though, it was quickly becoming clear that the geological survey would not be finished in the near future, and that a general volume would be many years in the making. Logan’s 1845 Act had funded his project for five years, and in 1850 this was extended for another five. As 1855 loomed, however, with neither end nor formal publication in sight, the government intervened by convoking a Select Committee, a primary mandate of which was “to report upon the best means of making public the valuable information already obtained by the Geological Survey.” (17)

After interviewing witnesses including Logan himself, the printer John Lovell, and several well-established North American geologists, the Select Committee’s verdict came back: “It is mortifying to your committee to have to report, that results of so much value are almost inaccessible to the public, and that a great proportion of the inhabitants of Canada, if not ignorant of the existence of the survey, are at least unacquainted with what it has achieved. The annual reports are presented to Parliament, and buried in the Journals of the House, except a few hundred copies, which are distributed by Members amongst their friends, so that the reports of two consecutive years rarely fall into the same hands.” Virtually all of the witnesses were in agreement that Logan needed more money, not so much for general purposes but to help put his work before the public properly, through maps, a better museum, and, most importantly, through the republication of the survey’s reports in a revised volume. John Lovell, a close friend of Logan’s, and printer to the Assembly, testified that he currently printed an extra three hundred copies of each report (at his and Logan’s own expense) for private distribution. (18) But he agreed with the other witnesses in estimating that, for a new general volume on Canadian geology, which would collect and distill the data previously published in the annual reports, at least ten thousand copies should be printed.

Despite its outward appearance, the Select Committee was not really an investigation of Logan’s efficiency, or of the value of his work: in my view, it was an opportunity for him to demonstrate to the provincial government the wide and deep support for his project, and the demand for his published results. More than anything, it was a reaction to the communications crisis faced by the GSC, to the scarcity and poor distribution of their works. The Select Committee responded to this challenge by devoting its first three recommendations to laying out an ambitious publishing program for the survey, advocating: “the republication of not less than 20,000 copies of the revised reports, with a coloured map ... the publication of the same number of the annual reports at future years [and] the periodical publication of 3,000 copies of plates and description of fossils.” A proper dissemination of the reports was no less important: “four copies [were to go] to each Member of the Legislature, [as well as] copies to the Governments of all British Colonies, and the East India Company, for distribution by them to public libraries and scientific institutions, and one copy to every University, College, Literary and scientific Society, Mechanics’ Institute, Library Association, Grammar, Normal and Model School, Municipal and Common School Library in this Province ... and to the principal learned Societies in the United States and Europe.” This scheme reflects Logan’s grasp of colonial information networks, and his skill in harnessing the ability of local bodies to transmit scientific knowledge efficiently, and in response to local conditions. (19)

In providing the funds and mandate for this expanded publishing program, the Select Committee mapped out many of the GSC’s activities for the next decade. Unfortunately, there is not space here for a proper discussion of their specialized paleontological monographs, depicting new species of Canadian fossils, or of Logan’s groundbreaking geological maps of northeastern North America. Both of these projects required some degree of international assistance, as they drew on expertise and technology not yet available in Canada. (20) It was the 1863 compilation volume, entitled Geology of Canada, that made the largest impact, reached by far the broadest audience, and left the longest-lasting impression. This work emerged partly despite, and partly because of, repeated financial crises - Logan had to purchase $3,000 worth of type for the volume himself. Interestingly, it appeared as one more in the series of annual reports, bearing the corporate subtitle “Geological Survey of Canada: Report of Progress from its Commencement to 1863.” Published by Dawson Brothers, however, rather than Lovell, it ran 983 pages, and was illustrated by 498 woodcuts. (21) The Geology of Canada was not only Logan’s magnum opus, but arguably the pinnacle of Canadian scientific publishing in the nineteenth century.

If it was the peak, though, it did not mark the end of the Geological Survey of Canada and its publications. Contrary to the expectations of the provincial government in 1842, and to the experiences of the American state surveys, the GSC eventually became a permanent institution. This unlikely achievement has often been seen as Logan’s surpassing accomplishment in his role as Survey director, and has been attributed to his ability to convince both ordinary Canadians and politicians of the value of the Survey’s work. But how exactly was he able to do this? The main challenge that Logan faced in educating Canadians about their geology was in making the rocks of their country “visible” to them. In addition to his maps, and his acclaimed international exhibits, it seems to me that print was a crucial tool in Logan’s campaign to uncover the scientific and economic secrets that lay buried in the Canadian wilderness.

The system of annual reports, which he initially dreaded as a hindrance to his work, ironically turned out to be one of his most powerful instruments in this task. (22) By describing separately the geological, topographical, and economic features of the landscape, Logan was able to display to Canadians the past, present, and future of their land. Though they were intended to fulfill only a temporary, bureaucratic role, Logan insisted on putting so much effort into these Reports of Progress that they became important and desirable in their own right. This issue was resolved by the Select Committee’s call for a separate volume of wide distribution. Thus, it was not only Logan’s use of print, in the development of a new genre of practical geological writing, that contributed to his success: it was also his use of print culture, in taking advantage of schools, libraries, and scientific institutions to disseminate the Geology of Canada to its intended audience, both within the colony and abroad.

After all, the reception of Logan’s work in the motherland was also important to his aims. As one British review of the Geology of Canada noted, the physical form of a geological publication was a key component in establishing its validity as a national emblem: “The style in which the work has been got up, the precision of the drawing, and the accuracy of the woodcuts, may almost challenge comparison with the execution of similar productions on this side of the Atlantic. There has been a steady persistence in the conduct of this remarkable Survey .... No other Colonial Survey has ever yet assumed the same truly national character; and the day may come - if ever the ‘Imperial Colony’ shall claim and obtain independence - when the scientific public of a great land, shall regard the name of Logan ... with the same affectionate interest with which English geologists now regard the names of our great geological map-makers.” (23) By enabling Logan to spread his message effectively, to reveal the Survey’s findings in a powerful and persuasive form, and to establish his international authority and credibility, print was central to everything that Logan achieved as a geologist in Canada.


1. A guide to these projects is W. Stanton, American Scientific Exploration, 1803-1860 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society Publication 15, 1991). Available online at:

2. The only monograph biography is B. J. Harrington, Life of Sir William E. Logan (Montreal, 1883). However, there are several good studies of the GSC which contain important assessments of Logan, especially M. Zaslow, Reading the Rocks (Ottawa, 1975), and S. Zeller, Inventing Canada (Toronto, 1987).

3. Logan to De la Beche, 24 April 1843, De la Beche Collection, Department of Geology, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff.

4. W. Logan, “Reports on Geological Survey [1843],” Journals of the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada, 1844-45, Appendix W.

5. Logan to De la Beche, 27 December 1845, De la Beche Collection.

6. Logan to De la Beche, 12 May 1845, De la Beche Collection.

7. Logan to De la Beche, 11 November 1844, De la Beche Collection.

8. De la Beche’s first formal publication as Director of the British Survey took almost ten years to appear, and was nearly 300 pages long: H. De la Beche, “On the formation of the rocks of South Wales and South Western England,” Memoirs of the Geological Survey of Great Britain 1 (1846): 1-296.

9. The Natural History Survey of New York, 1836-40, published the four-volume Geology of New York (Albany, 1842-43), running over two thousand pages, not including plates and maps. James Hall’s contribution to this series, vol. IV, is usually seen as the highest accomplishment in U.S. state geological surveys in this era, and Hall eventually became Logan’s principal American collaborator.

10. Logan’s notes on some of the early annual reports of the N.Y. survey can be found in the back of his field notebook for his first year: W. Logan, Fieldbook 1964, “Gaspé 1843,” RG 45, vol. 177, National Archives of Canada. For the contents of WEL’s personal library, including the publications of various North American and European surveys, see

11. W. Logan, “Report of Progress for the Year 1845-6,” Journals of the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada, 1847, Appendix C. (Appendices in this format were unpaginated.)

12. See, for the clearest example, J. Hall, Geology of New York, vol. IV (Albany, 1843), chap. XXII, “Local geology and economic products,” 414-499. Hall mentions that this information was largely compiled from the Annual Reports of the N.Y. survey.

13. Adapted from the list given in Geological Survey of Canada, Geology of Canada, Report of Progress from its commencement to 1863 (Montreal, 1863), chap. 21.

14. A helpful overview of all GSC publications to 1865 is given in the appendix to: Geological Survey of Canada, Atlas of Maps and Sections (Montreal, 1865) published as a companion to the Geology of Canada.

15. Logan to De la Beche, 10 December 1846, De la Beche Collection.

16. Lyell to Logan, 16 December 1852, Logan Papers, McGill University Archives; Logan to Lyell, 10 January 1853, Edinburgh University Library, Gen. 113/3500-01.

17. J. Langton, Report of Select Committee, Journals of the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada, 1854-5, Appendix L. In addition to the 9 pp. report itself, this document reprints the responses of twelve witnesses to a total of over 170 questions.

18. For the relationship between Logan and Lovell, and Logan’s long hours recopying his reports by hand, see R. Bell, Sir William E. Logan and the Geological Survey of Canada (n.p., 1907), 4, 18.

19. Colonial correspondence preserved in the British Public Record Office shows, however, that Canadian administrators were not as adept at effecting imperial distribution: in sending a large number of copies of the Geology of Canada to Britain, they managed to incur the wrath of the Colonial Office. See PRO, CO 42/640, Despatch 3, Monck to Newcastle, 20 January 1864; CO 42/641, Despatch 58, 18 April 1864.

20. See: P. von Bitter, “Sir William Logan’s geological maps of Canada,” Map Collector 68 (1994): 12-18; and R. Cleevely, “John W. Salter, Sir William Logan, and Elkanah Billings: a brief British involvement in the first Decade of ‘Canadian Organic Remains’ (1859),” Earth Sciences History 12 (1993): 142-159.

21. The switch from Lovell to Dawson Bros. may have been due to the complexity and scientific demands of the work; for example, the illustrations were closely integrated with the text, rather than printed separately. It should also be noted that although Logan served as general editor and was the chief contributor, substantial parts of the work were written by other officers of the Survey, most notably T. S. Hunt.

22. “Reading the rocks” is a common metaphor for geological fieldwork. I suggest that “writing the rocks” is an equally important element of successful surveying practice.

23. Quoted in Harrington, 351-2, and repeated in Zaslow, 81. The point is two-fold: that geological knowledge underlay national identity, and that Logan’s efforts sufficiently fulfilled this role in Canada.

Brian C. Shipley