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Remembering Robert Swanson: Rust in Peace

August 07th, 2012

The O Canada airhorn atop Canada Place blew at 3:30 pm on Oct. 13th to coincide with a Shaughnessy memorial service for its inventor, Robert Swanson, BC’s top-selling poet.

Robert Eugene Swanson was born in Reading, England on October 26, 1905 and was brought to Canada as an infant. He earned a steam engineer’s ticket at age 17, worked in the woods and earned an engineering degree without attending university. He commenced a 64-year affiliation with Freemasonry while living on Vancouver Island.

Personally encouraged by Robert Service, Swanson became a poet in the 1940s and ‘50s when he worked as a forestry safety inspector travelling from camp to camp. His four collections (Rhymes of a Western Logger 1942, Rhymes of a Lumberjack 1943, Bunkhouse Ballads 1945, Rhymes of a Haywire Hooker 1953) reportedly sold 80,000 copies and were collectively re-released as Rhymes of a Western Logger (Harbour 1992), introduced by Ken Drushka.

Swanson first begain to make steam whistles in 1929. When new diesel locomotives created safety problems at highway crossings (because motorists didn’t recognize their monotone horns as the sound of an approaching train), Swanson devised a tuned hexatone airhorn that re-created the wail of a steam train whistle. The design was copied around the world.

He founded a company in 1964, Air Chime, which continues to manufacture whistles. Prime Minister Lester Pearson called upon Swanson to provide a whistle to play O Canada for the Centennial train in 1967. Its patriotic blast was heard atop the BC Hydro building for many years until the horns were transferred recently to Canada Place.

Swanson’s historical sound recordings of early logging equipment are widely duplicated and he was instrumental in the revitalization of the Royal Hudson steam locomotive. He also helped his old friend, Gerry Wellburn, establish the working locomotive at the BC Forest Museum. He was the first president of the BC Truck Museum and served as Canada’s representative at the International World Standards Organization. As safety inspector for the Dept. of Transport in BC he devised runaway lanes on steep hills, insisted upon better regulations for bridge designs and invented a fail-safe braking system for logging trucks which was adopted as standard equipment all over North America.

BC’s “bard of the woods” began his literary career via a weekly talk show on CJOR radio. He understood poetry could record a way of life that was quickly vanishing from the woods. Or as he put it: “Without Homer, the Greeks would amount to bugger all.”

He remained an important and popular figure within the lumber industry for more than six decades. Ken Drushka recently remarked that performing with Swanson on a reading tour was “like travelling with an octogenarian rock star.” At the memorial service publisher Howard White said, “We’re here to celebrate a life triumphantly lived. He was like one of those great towering fir trees he loved to write about. He is not going to be easily replaced.”

Essay Date: 1994

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