DCB/DBC Mobile beta


New Biographies

Minor Corrections

Biography of the Day

MACKINTOSH, KATE – Volume XV (1921-1930)

b. 24 Feb. 1853 in Halifax


Responsible Government

Sir John A. Macdonald

From the Red River Settlement to Manitoba (1812–70)

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier


The Fenians

Women in the DCB/DBC

The Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences of 1864

Introductory Essays of the DCB/DBC

The Acadians

For Educators

The War of 1812 

Canada’s Wartime Prime Ministers

The First World War

STEWART, WILLIAM JAMES, engineer, hydrographic surveyor, and civil servant; b. 23 Jan. 1863 in Ottawa, son of John Stewart and Mary Renney; m. 9 Nov. 1886 Clara Louise Lasher in Cataraqui (Kingston), Ont., and they had two daughters; d. 5 May 1925 in Ottawa.

William J. Stewart was the eldest son of a building contractor and officer in the Ottawa Field Battery. Raised in an Irish Anglican family, he was a gold-medal graduate of both the Ottawa Collegiate Institute (1879) and the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston (1883), which emphasized engineering as well as military training. He initially worked in eastern Ontario as a survey engineer for the Department of Railways and Canals and then, in March 1884, he joined the Department of Marine and Fisheries as an assistant to British Admiralty surveyor John George Boulton, who was conducting a hydrographic survey of Georgian Bay. It had been prompted by a mounting loss of lives and shipping, including the steamship Asia in 1882. Stewart succeeded Boulton as officer in charge in 1893, though by this time Stewart’s fieldwork had extended to the west coast [see William Smith*]; his resurvey of Burrard Inlet in 1891 was the first hydrographic survey conducted in salt water by Canadian authorities. To enhance his ability, in 1897 he secured certification as a ship’s master on inland waters. With no national geodetic survey to use as a base for hydrography, he reported that same year, he and his crews routinely used transit theodolites, sextants, triangular plotting, soundings from whaleboats or small steamers, and floor sampling. In a typical season, from May to November, about 800 square miles could be sounded.

When the maritime survey functions of Marine and Fisheries, Public Works, and Railways and Canals were united to form the Canadian Hydrographic Service within Marine and Fisheries in 1904, Stewart was appointed chief surveyor. During his tenure, the service published charts, sailing directions, and tide tables that facilitated safe navigation; impressively, Stewart was responsible personally or as a supervisor for producing some 170 charts. Between 1910 and 1922 his branch was part of the Department of the Naval Service, along with the dominion’s fledgling navy, fisheries protection, tidal and current survey, and radio-telegraphy.

In 1907 Stewart succeeded William Frederick King* on the International Waterways Commission, later the International Joint Commission [see Sir George Christie Gibbons*]. He was involved in delineating the maritime boundary between Canada and the United States. In a related move, the maintenance of the boundary markers in the St Lawrence River and the Great Lakes was placed under his branch. In 1912, the year responsibility for the automatic water-level gauges on the lakes was also transferred, he was made a consulting engineer to the prime minister and the Department of External Affairs on matters relating to the commission. He would be reconfirmed in this position in 1921. The pinnacle of his career was perhaps reached in 1919, when he was asked to advise the British government on international boundaries arising out of the Treaty of Versailles.

A man of medium height and dark complexion, Stewart enjoyed curling but had few other recorded interests. In 1910 he suffered an ailment that left his right arm crippled. He had the reputation of being a demanding and parsimonious officer and a sound mathematician, and he worked closely with W. F. King and Otto Julius Klotz of the Dominion Observatory on coastal survey problems. Most of his associational memberships were professional: the oceanography section of the National Committee of Canada (within the International Astronomical Union), the International Geodetic and Geophysical Union, the Engineering Institute of Canada, the American Society of Civil Engineers, the Institute of Civil Engineers of Great Britain, the Geographic Board of Canada, and the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. He died in May 1925 at the Ottawa Civic Hospital following an emergency operation for gall-bladder cancer, and was buried in Beechwood Cemetery. The Ottawa Morning Journal believed he would be remembered as a mathematician and authority on hydrography.

Patrick Burden

William James Stewart is the author of “The Canadian Hydrographic Survey,” in British Assoc. for the Advancement of Science, Handbook of Canada, ed. Ramsay Wright and James Mavor (Toronto, 1897), 61-66.

AO, RG 80-5-0-141, no.3298; RG 80-8-0-988, no.9305. LAC, RG 25, A-3-a, 1296: file 1921-426; RG 32, C2, 554: file 1863.01.23; RG 48; RG 51; RG 139, 30-31. Ottawa Morning Journal, 6 May 1925. Can., Parl., Sessional papers, 1892, no.10: 146. Canadian who’s who, 1910. “Friends of hydrography”: www.canfoh.org. (consulted 6 April 2004).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Patrick Burden, “STEWART, WILLIAM JAMES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed February 24, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/stewart_william_james_15E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/stewart_william_james_15E.html
Author of Article:   Patrick Burden
Title of Article:   STEWART, WILLIAM JAMES
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   2005
Year of revision:   2005
Access Date:   February 24, 2024