From West Chester to Western Canada

Mary Sharpless Schäffer left her mark on Banff and Jasper national parks.

Sometimes, a woman just needs to get away. That’s how it was for Mary Sharpless Schäffer of West Chester who, having recently buried her husband and parents in 1903, looked at what remained of her life and decided: Enough of this. Rather than live as a proper widow, Schäffer escaped to the Canadian wilderness.

“I had entrée in the East to art circles, musical circles,” she wrote. “All of that goes to make a city life adored by those who are willing to endure the black dust of railroads, the clanging of cars 24 hours of the day, the puddles of mud on rainy days, the broiling heat of summer. [But] my heart turned ever to my memory pictures of the Rockies and open spaces.”

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Schäffer and a friend, Molly Adams, were the first two nonnative women to explore what are now Banff and Jasper national parks. In 1908, she and her party were the first to reach the location of Chaba Imne (Maligne Lake), the largest lake in Jasper National Park, more than 800 miles northeast of Vancouver. 

Mary Sharpless was a middle child with four brothers. The family was Quaker, affluent and well-connected. Her father, Alfred, was a brickyard owner, a contractor, a superintendent of transportation for the Schuylkill Navigation Company, a borough auditor, and active in Quaker affairs. A busy man, Alfred Sharpless was often on the road, and his daughter often rode along, meeting family friends like paleontologist Joseph Leidy, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and Swarthmore College. “His language was simple enough for even a child of 6 to understand,” she recalled. “And, though I never grew brainy, I did understand the story of stones, of grasses and so many wee things which most people attach no attention to.”

An early experience came in the form of an 1870s visit by a cousin then serving during the Indian Wars as a military officer in the West. He told of buffalo hunts, vast prairies, and Army forts— and Mary was enthralled. “Young Mary was spellbound by this handsome, uniformed visitor,” wrote biographer Janice Sanford Beck. “His countenance spoke to her of the unknown world beyond her sheltered home. She could not take her eyes off him, nor divert her ears from one word he spoke.”

Eventually, her parents sent her to bed, but she instead hid in the corner and heard a gruesome story in which her cousin turned over the corpse of a dead Indian woman to discover a live infant. Mary cried out in horror and was then marched upstairs. But her fascination with the West—and with Indians—remained.

That curiosity was not satisfied when her father took her west on a business trip. All she saw out of the train windows was ranches, wheat fields and cows. At age 18, she went again—this time on a cruise of the Alaskan coast where, at every port, she tried to make the acquaintance of native people. Most were not receptive. One, however, shared her worries about her husband being gone far too long on a seal-hunting trip. For her sympathetic ear, Mary was rewarded with a pair of homemade moccasins.

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In 1889, Mary wed Charles Schäffer, a twice-widowed physician 23 years her senior. Schäffer was an amateur botanist whose interest in plants and natural history meshed nicely with Mary’s love of travel and the outdoors. One of their early trips together was to a scientific gathering in Toronto, where they came across a series of photographs of Lake Louise in Alberta. “Nothing in all her travels had prepared her for the feast before her eyes,” wrote Beck. “She had no inkling that sights so spellbinding were to be found on the North American continent. She had to see them for herself.”

Schäffer couldn’t say no. After the Toronto meeting ended, the couple boarded a westbound train for Alberta. They bought polished buffalo horns as souvenirs and met a brother of Sitting Bull, who demanded $5 for permission to take a photo. Mary refused, but later wished she hadn’t. 

The high point of the trip was a 4 a.m. railroad stop at tiny Gleichen, Alberta, where they saw a stunning mountain range Mary never forgot. “That one glimpse paid for the whole trip,” she later declared.

They came back again and again, staying at a tourist hotel near the railroad tracks and climbing what Mary later realized were “mediocre mountains” on “very poor trails.” They were dudes, not backcountry explorers.

Things changed in 1903. Within the span of three months, Mary’s parents and husband died. Because they’d all been generous people who had lavished gifts on friends and family—especially on Mary—there was little left. Worse, her social circle resented her refusal to continue spending at former levels. Mary later recalled being “banned from parties, as my clothes were not correct.”

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Always levelheaded, she got some sound financial advice about what she could and couldn’t afford. Then, with some stability restored, Mary began casting about for a new purpose in life. Her husband had talked of writing a field guide to the plants of the Canadian Rockies. Though an amateur, Schäffer was nevertheless respected. He’d already done much of the collecting, though none of the writing. 

Mary decided that she would complete his work. Stewardson Brown, curator of the herbarium at the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, agreed to be her consultant and author. Mary would do the fieldwork, providing photographs and watercolors. Realizing she would need a guide to get deeper into the wilderness, she was steered to Billy Warren. A young, educated veteran of the Boer War, Warren had recently arrived from Britain. Lest she be criticized for heading into the woods accompanied only by men, Mary recruited three women educators to go along.

Between June and October 1904, the four women gathered some 40 new specimens from Moraine Lake and the Yoho and Ptarmigan valleys. They returned the following summer, even venturing to the head of Red Deer River before returning to Philadelphia with collections of shells, worms, skinned birds and native artifacts for the Academy. After her female companions didn’t return in 1906, Mary simply found new companions, including Molly Adams, a geology teacher from New York.

Those summers taught Mary that “work—and hard work at that—is a great panacea for broken threads in life.”


Alpine Flora of the Canadian Rocky Mountains was published in 1907. After that, Mary Schäffer again had to decide: What next? After three years in the wilderness, a traditional life in Philadelphia had little appeal. Schäffer had glimpsed the North Saskatchewan River Valley and wanted to see more.

In the summer of 1907, again led by Warren, they followed the Nashan River into little-traveled territory. Nobody had ever crossed Thompson Pass with packhorses, so they were breaking new trail. (The guides did all the chopping.) 

In September, Schäffer was snow-blinded when the party was caught by an early winter storm. “Branches and twigs snapping in her face,” wrote Beck, “she truly felt the consequences of her decision to push on in wintry weather.” 

In 1908, the goal was Chaba Imne, which they found in July, following a month of climbing peak after peak trying to spy it. To explore the 14-mile lake, the guides built a raft. While afloat, the party came up with many of the names the surrounding peaks have today—Mounts Warren and Unwin (for their guides) and Mount Mary Vaux (a watercolor artist who specialized in wildflowers). 

“How pure and undefiled it was!” Schäffer wrote of the lake. “We searched for some sign that others had been there—not a tepee pole, not a charred stick, not even tracks of game, just masses of flowers, the lap-lap of the waters on the shore, the occasional reverberating roar of an avalanche, and our own voices, stilled by a nameless Presence.”

Schäffer was a bit of a princess. She didn’t lift a finger to help construct the raft and, rather than wade out to it, allowed a guide to carry her. It was often like that when the going got tough. “At this point in camping, I have always resigned my rights as a woman,” she said of living in the wild. “And, what is more, when we travel hundreds of miles, I am willing to follow blindly the man who chooses the best horses.”

The 1907 and 1908 expeditions were described in Schäffer’s 1911 book, Old Indian Trails of the Canadian Rockies. It was instrumental in creating awareness of what is now Banff and Jasper national parks, and it also made Schäffer the region’s unofficial spokesperson. In 1912, she moved to Banff, building a cottage, Tarry-a-while, which is now a museum. Three years later, she married Warren.

In 1911, Schäffer was recruited by D.B. Dowling, the canny director of Canada’s national geological survey, to return and survey Maligne Lake. According to historian I.S. MacLaren, Dowling was quietly battling business interests that wanted to make the future parks smaller, thus leaving more land open to development. Maligne Lake had been cut from preliminary park maps on the grounds that it was (allegedly) not very large. “Me measure a lake?” she protested to Dowling. “Why I couldn’t measure a pond, much less a great lake like that one!” 

That was true enough. Her skills were writing and illustration, not surveying, and the fact that she was a woman opened anything she did to criticism. But Schäffer had a name, which was what Dowling needed. He lent her the surveying instruments and trained her in their use. “Dowling … realized that he was encouraging a well-known explorer to undertake a survey and produce a map that, in all probability, would embarrass the government for its withdrawal of the Maligne region from Jasper park,” wrote MacLaren.

Long story short: Dowling’s little conspiracy worked. Today, Maligne Lake is not only part of Jasper National Park, but smack in the middle of it.

Something to remember if, like Schäffer, you ever need to get away. 

Maligne Lake, a Mary Sharpless Schäffer discovery

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