#89 Robert Swanson
January 28th, 2016
LOCATION: Pan Pacific Vancouver Hotel, 999 Canada Place, Vancouver
Millions have heard the ten horns atop the Pan Pacific Hotel at Canada Place that blare the first four notes of O Canada every day at 115 Decibels, but few know the patriotic bleat was designed and built by B.C.’s bestselling poet, Robert Swanson. He was a renaissance man who was also known for decades as the ‘bard of the woods.’ After a meeting with Robert Service in a Vancouver bookstore run by Service’s brother, Swanson took the advice of Robert Service and mimicked his Klondike balladeering style to generate four books of verse about B.C. logging that reputedly sold 82,000 copies.
Among Swanson’s many other achievements, the ingenious engineer also gave the world fail-safe air brakes for trucks, the hexatone air horn for railway crossings (created by Swanson to simulate the wail of a steam train whistle) and he was the driving force behind the restoration of the Royal Hudson train engine. The multiple horns atop Canada Place were originally built at the request of Prime Minister Lester Pearson for the Centennial train that crossed the country in 1967. They blared for many years atop of the old BC Hydro Building, but were silenced and kept in storage after the Hyrdo building was transformed into condominiums in the early 1990s. They blared anew atop Canada Place on November 8, 1994–and have been heard every day since.
Robert Swanson, the “Bard of the Woods,” travelled extensively in B.C. logging camps and also broadcast his poems via his weekly talk show on CJOR. Although his chapbooks were never accepted by the literary establishment, his books easily outsold the better-known poets of the 1940s, starting with Rhymes of a Western Logger: A Book of Verse (1942).
It was Robert Service who advised replicating his approach to writing poetry about the Yukon to B.C.’s logging industry. The extent of Swanson’s popularity as a versifier for B.C.’s main industry is rarely appreciated today, but, in the late 1980s, B.C. forestry authority Ken Drushka once remarked that being on a reading tour with Robert Swanson was “like travelling with an octogenarian rock star.”
Born in Reading, England, in 1905, Swanson worked as a logger, then gained his degree as a professional engineer. When new diesel locomotives created safety problems at highway crossings (because motorists could not recognize their monotone horns as an approaching train), Swanson invented a tuned hexatone airhorn that recreates the wail of a steam train whistle. It was adapted for use all over the world.
Swanson also invented a fail-safe braking system for logging trucks that was adopted as standard equipment all over North America. As the inspector for the Department of Transport, he devised runaway lanes on steep hills and insisted on better regulations for bridge designs. His expertise on steam trains and their whistles was central to the restoration of B.C.’s Royal Hudson excursion train. Air Chime, a company he founded in 1964, provided the “O Canada” air chimes for the Centennial train in 1967. Actually a combination of ten horns made to sound like one, the horn now blasts the first four notes of “O Canada” from the roof of Canada Place every day at noon. Swanson’s handiwork can also be seen and heard in Gastown’s steam clock.
Swanson once represented Canada at the World Standards Organization. He was also the first president of the B.C. Truck Museum and helped his friend Gerry Wellburn establish the working locomotive at the B.C. Forest Museum. A Freemason for 64 years, B.C.’s bestselling poet was also one of the most ingenious of British Columbians. He died in 1994.
“Without Homer, the Greeks would amount to bugger all.” — Robert Swanson
Robert E. Swanson was the Robert W. Service of B.C. He was also one of the most ingenious British Columbians. Born in Reading, England on October 26, 1905, he immigrated with his family prior to World War One, earned his steam engineer’s ticket at age 17, worked for years as a logger, then as a forestry safety inspector for the government, and eventually gained his degree as a professional engineer. When new diesel locomotives created safety problems at highway crossings (because motorists could not recognize their monotone horns as an approaching train), Swanson invented a tuned hexatone airhorn that recreated the wail of a steam train whistle. It was adapted for use all over the world. Swanson also invented a fail-safe braking system for logging trucks that was adopted as standard equipment all over North America. His expertise on steam trains and their whistles was central to the restoration of B.C.’s popular Royal Hudson excursion train. He founded a company in 1964, Air Chime, that was called upon to provide a whistle to play O Canada for the Centennial train in 1967. [ABOVE, AT RIGHT, ROBERT SWANSON TESTS HIS O CANADA AIR CHIME IN 1966]
The refurbished horn now blasts the first four notes of O Canada from the roof of Canada Place each day at noon. His handiwork can also been seen and heard in Gastown’s steam clock. In addition, he helped his friend Gerry Wellburn establish the working locomotive at the B.C. Forest Museum and he was the first president of the B.C. Truck Museum. He represented Canada at the World Standards Organization. As the inspector for the Department of Transport, he devised runaway lanes on steep hills and insisted on better regulations for bridge designs. But Swanson is most widely known as the “Bard of the Woods.” His four chapbooks of folksy verses, ballads and stories were enormously popular in the 1930s and 1940s. Swanson travelled extensively in the logging camps and also broadcast his poems via his weekly talk show on CJOR. He took the advice of Robert Service, who advised him to try replicating his approach to writing poetry for and about the Yukon.
Although his work was never accepted by the literary establishment at UBC, his books far outsold the works of Earle Birney and Dorothy Livesay, the better-known poets of his era. He was a Freemason for 64 years. In the 1980s, he was part of a performing troupe that read and sang literature about logging. Forestry authority Ken Drushka recalled that being on a reading tour with Robert Swanson was “like travelling with an octogenarian rock star.” He died on October 4, 1994.
Rhymes of a Western Logger: A Book of Verse (Vancouver: The Lumberman Printing Company, 1942)
Rhymes of a Lumberjack (1943)
Bunkhouse Ballads: A third book of verse concerning the trials and tribulations, lives and ways of that red-blooded, outdoor breed of men who have built the Great Northwest of America. (Toronto: Thomas Allen, 1945)
Alberni District Paul Bunyan Day: [Souvenir Program] (pamphlets). Written by George Hubert Bird and Robert Swanson. Printed by Nelson L. Ball, 1946.
Rhymes of a Haywire Hooker: A book of verse concerning the lives and ways of the old-time loggers, railroadmen and frontiersmen who founded civilization in the Great Northwest (Vancouver: The Lumberman Printing Co., 1953), co-authored with his brother Seattle Red (Dan Swanson).
Rhymes of a Western Logger: The Collected Poems of Robert Swanson (Harbour, 1992)
Whistle Punks and Widow-Makers: Logging Stories. (Harbour, 1997, 2000) With Ken Drushka.
THE POETRY OF ROBERT SWANSON By Howard White, 1992
The easiest way to describe Robert Swanson’s writing is to say he did for the loggers of the B.C. coast what Robert Service did for the goldminers of the Klondike.
When I was a kid growing up in my dad’s logging camp during the 1950s, a signed copy of Service’s Songs of a Sourdough was one of the more thumbworn volumes in our narrow cookhouse bookshelf, but in popularity terms it was a long way back of the little Swanson chapbooks Rhymes of a Western Logger, Rhymes of a Lumberjack, Bunkhouse Ballads and Rhymes of a Haywire Hooker, which were never idle long enough to get put up on the bookshelf at all, and soon began making the rounds of the bunkhouses, never to be seen again in one piece.
Swanson never hit the international bigtime like Service and never had the opportunity of retiring to the French Riviera on his royalties if he’d wanted to—which he wouldn’t have—but in the world of the B.C. coast logger, he achieved legendary status, a status he retains to this day among that dwindling company of snaggle-toothed veterans who were there. By Swanson’s own count his four little books sold 82,000 copies and, at their peak in the 1940s and ’50s, held a place in coastal bunkhouses from Aberdeen to Sandspit as standard reading material alongside True, Argosy and The Hi-Baller. Mostly they were distributed by the old Harry Smith News Agency, and Swanson wants it known that he never stooped to the actual selling of books himself, and most especially never recited for free drinks in beer parlours (although plenty of other people did this on his behalf). Nevertheless, he took an active interest in marketing matters, purposely designing the chapbooks narrow enough to fit the Reader’s Digest racks found in every skid-road smokeshop and camp commissary, but tall enough to stick up where every passing chokerman would spot them.
In this manner, Swanson’s words became part of every logger’s world, and the phases Swanson dreamed up to describe the trials and joys of the logger’s daily round were quickly absorbed into the everyday parlance of the working bush ape. In the ’60s when I found myself back in the camps as an active participant it was still common to hear men on the job quoting a stanza or two from “The Ambitious Whistle Punk” or “The Cat Skinner’s Prayer” to illuminate particularly snarly situations or bolster unlikely arguments. Nor was it uncommon during Saturday bull sessions in the bunkhouse or the Minstrel pub to see some knotty old faller lean back in his bar chair and beller out the full text of “The Death of Rough House Pete” or “The Worthy Bed Bug,” accepting the free rounds that followed with grave condescension.
Robert Eugene Swanson (his bricklayer father named him simply “Bob” but the son elaborated on it later himself) was born in England before the first war, but when his parents shipped out to Vancouver Island during Bob’s infancy, Bob decided to go along. That’s an old line, but in Bob’s care it’s not far off true. He was born precocious. As a young boy in East Wellington he played hookey so he could ride the local logging train, and by 14 he was confident enough around camp to quit school and go to work full time. By 17 he had his third-class steam engineer’s papers and a few years later he upgraded to first class. He spent the shutdowns in Vancouver with all the other bush apes, but instead of blowing his stake on the skid road in the company of Rough House Pete, Johnnie-on-the-Spot, Seattle Red and other rangitangs he would later record in his verse, he took courses from private tutors and eventually earned a professional engineering degree—without ever having attended a university.
In 1936 Swanson jumped from the logging camp circuit to government service as a boiler inspector, and later, Chief Railway Inspector and safety inspector as well, roles in which he probably did more to make B.C.’s woods safe than any other person. When trucks came into use and companies couldn’t find a fail-safe air braking system, Swanson invented one himself, and lived to see it adopted as the standard all over North America. When the new diesel locomotives started creating mayhem at highway crossings because motorists didn’t recognize their newfangled monotone horns as the sound of an approaching train, Swanson drew on his childhood love of train sounds to devise a tuned hexatone air-horn assembly that recreated the sad familiar wail of the steam train whistle—and made the crossings safe once again. That invention too, he lived to see copied all over the industrialized world, to the point he was able to establish himself in private business manufacturing tuned whistle systems when he retired from government service. It was Swanson whom Prime Minister Lester Pearson called upon to fit the Centennial train with a whistle that played O Canada for the country’s 100th birthday in 1967, and whose handiwork is familiar to thousands of Vancouver residents hearing that same patriotic blast from the top of the B.C. Hydro building every day at 12 o’clock noon.
Given his renaissance-style versatility, it isn’t hard to imagine the young Swanson waking up one day with the idea he could lick the odds at writing the same way he had at logging and book larnin’. The example of Robert Service here is more than just a literary reference. It was Service and the immense popularity of his Klondike balladeering Swanson credits with triggering his interest in writing, and his first attempts were verses about the north—which he’d never visited. He sent some of these efforts to Service, and later met the successful writer at the Vancouver book store owned by Service’s brother. Service encouraged Swanson, but advised him to butt out of the north and write about the wild world of the westcoast logger, which nobody else was doing. It was good advice.
Swanson’s first three books are reprinted here unchanged from their original form, except for a bit of minor copy editing. The fourth book, Rhymes of a Haywire Hooker, was largely a collection of poems by other loggers including his older brother Dan (AKA Seattle Red), so we have included only those few which were actually written by Swanson himself. In addition, we have added several poems which didn’t appear in any previous books.
Like Service’s writing, Swanson’s has a breath of authenticity, a spirit of workplace vitality, which lifts it above the common run of folk verse. As such it makes an important contribution to the story of the west coast, and it is high time it was available to contemporary readers in one convenient volume.