Manitoba Photographers: Alexander Barton Thom [A. B. Thom] (1849-1926)

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Thom’s photographic achievements throughout western Canada in the 1880s and 1890s have been described as “among the most artistic and professional in the West for that period,” [1] but biographical information about him has proven difficult to find. Dempsey [1] and Maurice [2] identified him as Adam Bissett Thom, the son of Adam Thom, born at the Red River Settlement [now Winnipeg] in August 1843. However, research now indicates that the photographer A. B. Thom was, in fact, Alexander Barton Thom. [3]

Thom was born at Stratford, Ontario in February 1849, the oldest of six children born to Scottish immigrants John Strathearn Thom (1823-1879) and Elizabeth Barton (1828-1885). His younger brother, John S. Thom Jr., established a general store at Lucan, Ontario where he also dabbled in photography. Perhaps this is where Alexander got his start in the craft. His sister, Mary Gowanlock Thom, was married to Andrew Crawford at Winnipeg in August 1880. Thom arrived in Manitoba sometime in 1880 and in October purchased a lot at Nelsonville, where he intended to open a photography studio in the spring of the following year. [15]

It is unequivocal that, by May 1883, Thom had formed a photographic partnership at Winnipeg with Fred V. Bingham which lasted until 1886. During this period, Thom was primarily an itinerant who spent much of his time travelling in western Canada, taking numerous photographs in the spectacular mountain ranges west of Calgary. During 1886, for example, he took over 2,000 views along the Canadian Pacific Railway route through the Rockies. [5] In December of that year, the results of his latest foray were described thusly:

A. B. Thom, the photographer of the C.P.R. has returned to the city [Winnipeg] from the West and is staying at the New Douglas House. He has been engaged for the past six months in taking views along the track through the mountains ... Only a small number have been completed, but there are enough to give one an idea of the wildness and romantic picturesqueness of the country through which our national highway runs. There are a number of views of snowsheds erected during the past summer, and they show them to be built in the most substantial manner. The roofs of some of the sheds are level, in place of slanting, as they are popularly supposed to be; but the impetus with which the avalanches come down the Mountain side carries them over the sheds, even when they are level. One of the views gives a sight of a long tea train doubling one of the loops in the Selkirk. In front of the trainload there is an ordinary engine; but behind there is one of the immense Baldwin consolidated mountain engines forcing the train up the grades. The track runs at the base of a high embankment and disappears; but at the top of the embankment a railway track is seen. It is really a part of the same line, which after two miles had doubled back to within a few yards of itself. This loop is in the Selkirk. There are also views of the town of Rogers Pass, consisting of one street with one storey wooden structures ranged along it; of the Glacier Hotel in the heart of the Selkirks with an impenetrable wall of fleecy ice immediately behind it stretching up into cloudland; of Banff; and of many other points of interest along the route. [6]

Thom visited England briefly in early 1887 to obtain a special lens designed for taking mountain views [7], which he used from 1887 to at least 1889. During the winters of 1885 through 1889, and possibly later, he spent his winters travelling through the USA and England, giving presentations illustrated with his images. Thom believed the presentations benefitted the Canadian Pacific Railway and immigration to western Canada, and he used this argument to support his request that the railway provide a railway car as a portable photographic studio:

During the winter months of the last four years, I have traveled through the Eastern, Southern and Pacific Coast States. Also in England with a large collection of my views and in nearly every place I visited, they were more then [sic] surprised at the fine scenery of this country compaired [sic] with what their imagination led them to think it was. Nothing but mountains of rocks and ice. And by what I have seen and heard I am certain that the passenger business of your company could be greatly increased by liberal system of photo advertisement. One instance of many. I met with an agent of the Burlington and Quincy in Banff last summer. He bought a lot of my views to have framed and put up in his office. In answer to my question, he said if our people knew what this country possessed in scenic beauty or saw my views of it they would certainly include it in their summer tours. If I get as good a chance as other photographers have had by having the use of a car over the road. I would like very much to make a collection of large views 21 in x 25 inches in consideration of my getting that privilege for every year I have the use of a car, I will have framed and place one thousand dollars worth of my views in Great Britain, California, the Eastern provinces and States. Similar to the plan adopted by the Southern Pacific where they have all available space in Stations and Hotels covered with views if it pays American roads to run a photographic car for ten years or more, it would more than do so on the C.P.R. In another year I will have enough of negatives to make a large collection of slides for a stereopticon exhibition. You can see a few of my views in book form in Mr. Whyte’s office if you should visit Winnipeg soon. [8]

Thom’s request seems to have been considered negatively by the CPR, as there is no record of a response in its archival files.

Unlike his former partner Fred Bingham, who had made a permanent move west by the late 1880s, Thom maintained his base of operations in Manitoba. In 1890, he resided at Stonewall (perhaps to be near his widowed sister and widowed mother who lived on a farm in the RM of Rockwood) then at Winnipeg from 1891 to 1894. In 1892, he opened a studio at Carman with a Mr. Pontreath in charge. [9] He had a studio at Regina (Saskatchewan) from 1894 to 1897, [10] and one at Brandon from 1896 to 1900 with a satellite studio on Fourth Street at Wawanesa from 1897. [11]

It appears that, after closing his Wawanesa photography studio in 1904, Thom settled down to the life of a bachelor farmer on a homestead southwest of St. Claude. [12] By 1923, he was living in the Odd Fellows Home, a retirement facility, in Charleswood. He died there on 22 April 1926 and was buried at Stratford, Ontario. [13]

Work locations




Winnipeg (itinerant)






395 Jemima [Fourth Avenue North], Winnipeg




Regina, NWT [now Saskatchewan]






The following catalogue of photographs by A. B. Thom is incomplete but gives some indication of the scope of his work. The series number that appears along the bottom of some Thom photos should be used with caution, as it appears that Thom used the same number more than once. For example, an album of Thom photographs at the McCord Museum in Montreal [14] contains over 90 photos of western Canada, numbered mostly between 2010 and 2182 below, at least ten of which bear duplicate numbers.

Photo No.


Photo Caption



Part of city from Ogilvie’s Mill



Track laying on the C.P.R.



Saskatchewan Valley at Medicine Hat



Part of Calgary from Elbow River



Bow River near Calgary



Fill on C.P.R. near Calgary



View of Bear Creek Falls, Selkirk Mountains



Source of Kicking Horse River



Silver Cascade, Kicking Horse Pass



Kicking Horse Falls



Part Owen Sound and High School - East Hill



C.P.R. steamers, Owen Sound



From east bank of Elbow River looking northwest (Calgary)



Blackfoot camp after a day’s hunt



Columbia and Blue Water Valley



Bow River Valley, From C.P.R. Hotel, Banff Park



Bird's Eye View Rapids and Meeting of the Waters, Banff



Bird's Eye View Banff, From Tunnell & Castle Mountains



Pleasure Party Viewing Bow River Rapids, Banff



East View of Bow Rapids and Saw Back Mountain, Banff



Mount Stephen, 10,523 ft. above the Sea and C.P.R. Hotel, Field



Kicking Horse Canyon, East of Muir's Tunnell [sic]



Cathedral Mountain, Summit of the Rockies



Mount Stephen Tunnel, Summit Rockies



Heavy Grade Engine 314, Summit Rockies



Heavy Grade Engine 315, Summit Rockies



Kicking Horse Canyon, Looking West From Muir's Tunnel



Rustic Buildings of Cave and Basin, Banff



View Golden City, Junction Columbia & Kicking Horse Rivers



Columbia Valley, Between Moberly and Donald



Gateway Beaver Canyon and Swett's Peak in the Distance



Stony Creek Bridge, Highest Wooden Bridge in World - 275 Ft. High



West View Stony Creek Bridge, with Passenger Train



McMillan's Peaks, Selkirks, 9,468 Ft. Above Sea Level



Glacier Snow Shed, Summit of Selkirks



At the Foot of the Glacier, 600 Ft. Deep



Kananaskis Falls on the Bow River



Bow River Valley, From Kananaskis Falls



Cascade Mountains, From Devil's Head Creek



Saw Back Mountain, From Pontoon Bridge, Banff



Interior of Snow Shed, Summit of Selkirks



Tenth Crossing of the Kicking Horse River



Natural Monuments, National Park, Banff



At the Hot Springs, National Park, Banff



At the Hot Springs, National Park, Banff [different view]



Tunnel Mountain, From Junction Bow and Spray Rivers, Banff



Albert Canyon, Illecillewaet River, B.C.



Kamloops, From the East, B.C.



General View of Vancouver From the West



Three Sisters, Canmore, Alt. 4,230 Ft.



Birds Eye View of Banff From Tunnel Mountain, Castle Mountain in the Distance



View Sulphur Mt. and C.P.R. Hotel from Bow Valley, Banff



Bow Valley from the Monuments, C.P.R. Hotel in Distance, Banff



Rustic Buildings of Cave and Basin, Banff.



Monuments at the Foot of Twin Peaks, Banff



View of C.P.R. Hotel From Sulphur Mountain, Banff



Birds Eye View of C.P.R. Hotel Above Bow Rapids, Banff.



Theatre and Part of Cascade Mountain from the Bridge, Banff



General View of Banff and Surrounding Mts. from the Hot Springs



C.P.R. Hotel and Hot Springs in the Distance Above Banff



View of the Hot Springs Basin, Banff



Crossing the Kicking Horse Canyon, Mt. Field in the Distance



Passenger Train in the Kicking Horse at Mount Stephen



Glacier on the East Side of Mount Stephen 10,500 Feet High



Sanitarium and Bow River Bridge, Banff



Mount McDonald, Alt. above the Sea, 9440 ft.



Kicking Horse Valley at Field and Engine 314, Alt. 5,296 Feet



Seventh and Eighth Crossing Kicking Horse Canyon



Kicking Horse Canyon. Mount Field in the Distance



Traffic Bridge at Golden on the Kootenay Road



Medicine Hat Bridge Across the South Saskatchewan



Beaver Mouth Canyon, Mount Swett's in the Distance



Banff, from the Sanitarium, and Cloud Effects, Cascade Mountains



Mount Hector and Kicking Horse Lake



Consolidated Engine No. 403, Pacific Division



Banks of the Columbia River, Six Miles West of Donald



Banff and Surrounding Mountains from Sulphur Mountain



Sir Donald and the Little Glacier, 10,523 ft. High



Sir Donald from the Glacier, 10,523 ft. High



View of the Glacier Peak from the Long Shed



Hermit Range from the Glacier Station



New Rotary Snow Plow in the Mountains



Sir Donald and Summit Range from the Loop



Passenger Train at Donald Station



Albert Canyon with C.P.R. Track Overlooking it



Hermit Range from Twenty Shed, Selkirks



Consolidated Engine 406, Pacific Division



The Great Glacier, Selkirks



British Columbia Indians at Ashcroft



Evens' Ranch, Thompson River, Ashcroft



View on Griffin Lake, B.C.



Canadian Pacific Railway Hotel, Vancouver



Vancouver, as Seen from Hotel, Vancouver



View of Vancouver from the S. S. Wharf



Bow River Rapids and Cascade Peak, Banff



Ross Peak, Alt. 3,951 ft., Selkirks



Mount Marpole, as seen from the Glacier



Kicking Horse Canyon, Selkirks in the Distance



Entering the Kicking Horse Canyon from the West



Interior of C.P.R. Hotel, Banff



Rustic Buildings of Cave and Basin, Banff



Interior of Hot Springs Cave, Banff



Cascade Mountain, From Main Street, Banff



Otter Tail Bridge, 108 ft. High


“Stereoscopic Views along the Canadian Pacific Railway
1193. Columbia and Blue Water Valley” (front)
Source: Gordon Goldsborough, 2006-0124.

“Stereoscopic Views along the Canadian Pacific Railway
1099. Blackfoot camp after a day’s hunt” (front)
Source: Gordon Goldsborough, 2005-0012.

“Stereoscopic Views along the Canadian Pacific Railway
186. Part of city [Winnipeg] from Ogilvie’s Mill” (front)
Source: Gordon Goldsborough, 2004-0004.

“Stereoscopic Views along the Canadian Pacific Railway
449. Source of Kicking Horse River” (front)
Source: Gordon Goldsborough, 2005-0086.


1. Hugh Dempsey, Catching the Sunbeams: An Inventory of Canadian Prairie Photographers to 1900. Unpublished manuscript at Glenbow Archives, Calgary, 1993.

2. Philippe Maurice, Catching the Sun: A Catalogue of Photography Studio and Photographica Advertisements and Notices Published in Prairie Canada Between 1850 and 1900, Volume 2. Philmsearch Inc., Calgary, 1998.

3. I thank Randy Rostecki for providing the clues which led me to suspect that A. B. Thom was not Adam Bissett Thom. The Manitoba Free Press stated on 1 June 1891 (page 8) that “Mr. A. B. Thom, of Winnipeg, is taking views about Prince Albert [NWT, now Saskatchewan].” Thom is identified clearly as a resident of Winnipeg. Just three months later, on 3 September 1891, the same newspaper reported (page 6) that “Mr. A. Bissett Thom, of Galt [Ontario], son of the first judge of Rupert’s Land, is on a short visit to his native place after an absence of thirty years. He is staying at the Leland House.” This statement implies that Thom has not visited Manitoba in a long time which, if true, is incompatible with A. B. Thom’s record of photographic work throughout western Canada. The Hendersons Directory for Winnipeg identified Thom in one of its issues as “Alexander Thom.” His Ontario birthplace and approximate year of birth (age 40 in 1891) were obtained from his enumeration in the 1891 Canadian census, where he was shown living in Winnipeg. Definitive proof came when I obtained a death certificate for Alexander Thom from Manitoba Vital Statistics. It confirmed his occupation as a photographer, his birth location in Ontario, and age at death of 77 years.

4. Manitoba Free Press, 3 September 1891, page 6.

5. Manitoba Free Press, 10 February 1887, page 4.

6. Manitoba Free Press, 22 December 1886.

7. Manitoba Free Press, 10 February 1887, page 4.

8. Canadian Pacific Railway Archives, RG1A, File 24730, letter dated 4 June 1889 from A. B. Thom in Winnipeg to W. C. Van Horne. Only a single letter was exchanged between Thom and the Canadian Pacific Railway, and it suggests that any no formal relationship existed between Thom and the railway, contrary to the impression given by the phrase “Official Photographer to the CPR” that appears on many of Thom’s photographs. I thank Bob Kennell and Jo-Anne Colby of the Canadian Pacific Railway Archives in Montreal for providing access to their files, and their interest in the project.

9. Brandon Mail, 3 March 1892, page 5.

10. David Mattison, Camera Workers: The British Columbia, Alaska & Yukon Photographic Directory, 1858-1950.

11. Glen C. Phillips, The Western Canada Photographers List: 1860-1925., 2002. An “A. B. Thorn” reported as a photographer in Wawanesa on page 24 in Sipiweske, Light Through the Trees: 100 Years of Wawanesa and District (Wawanesa & District History Book Committee, 1988) is likely Thom.

12. Canadian census, 1911.

13. Thom’s death certificate filed with Manitoba Vital Statistics (registration number 1926-018100) indicates that he had resided at the Odd Fellows Home for three years prior to his death. The cause of death was given as arteriosclerosis.

14. I thank Nora Hague of the Notman Photographic Archives at the McCord Museum in Montreal for giving me access to their remarkable album of Thom photographs. The album formerly belonged to CPR historian Omer Lavallee, and was donated to the McCord after his death. The album was compiled circa 1888 in Winnipeg, possibly for William Whyte, Western Division Superintendent of the Canadian Pacific Railway. In note 8, Thom refers to a collection of his photos “in book form” in a letter to William C. Van Horne dated 4 June 1889.

15. The Nelsonville Mountaineer, 16 October 1880. I thank Beverly Stow for providing a copy of this reference.

This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.

Page revised: 25 January 2016

Manitoba Photographers: 1858 to Present

A list of professional photographers who have worked in Manitoba, from 1858 to the present, compiled by the Manitoba Historical Society.

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