August 13, 2019 Together they set out to chart wildest Canada: a management consultant, a dental student, a Hollywood cinematographer, an ex-sniper, a mysterious treasure hunter, and a cowboy. Nobody believed in their expedition, saying things like, “You don't have the experience” and, “Your horses are diseased.” But Charles E. Bedaux was determined. For him this trip wasn’t about making maps, but the measure of a man.
Read a full transcript of this episode on the Something True website.
Follow Something True on Twitter @atruepodcast. (Or just follow Duncan and Alex.)
Music on this week’s episode:
Lloyd Rogers – Draw Me A Sheep (Act I)*
lo-fi is sci-fi – Phase IV*
Gablé – grate ok*
Jason Shaw – Plantation*
Kai Engel – Puddles and Bars*
Jahzzar – Dummy*
Josh Woodward – Hollow Grove (instrumental Version)*
*modified for the podcast.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, members of the press: The date is May 25th, 1934, and I am Charles E. Bedaux. I am announcing an adventure, on which I shall embark this summer. I am to venture into wildest Canada. I shall journey by motorcar from Edmonton, Alberta west to Telegraph Creek, British Columbia: eleven hundred miles of uncharted territory—right through the Rocky Mountains and the great Stikine River. I shall cut a path through this roadless land to the Pacific Coast, opening this mysterious country to the crucible of economic development.
‘I travel with a crew of thirty men and some women: My wife Fern, who will be bringing books in case she gets bored, and Fern’s friend Bilonha, who may or may not be my mistress. We shall be taking 100 pack horses, and my friend André Citroën has donated five of his state-of-the-art half-track vehicles to the mission.
‘A country drive through the Rocky Mountains? They say it is impossible—but it’s fun to do things that other people say are impossible. If I succeed, it will open up the whole of this country, which has not been explored before. The government will be able to put a road through it. Now, they haven’t much faith in me, but I have done so-called “impossible things” before.
‘Now, you might ask: He claims to have done the impossible? Who is this man? Is he a surveyor? A professional adventurer? A conquistador? No—I am Charles E. Bedaux, and I am a management consultant!’
You’re listening to Something True – stories from the footnotes of history. Written by Duncan Fyfe and read by Alex Corbett Ashby. This week’s episode: The Trip to Telegraph Creek.
When word of Charles Bedaux’s expedition reached the British Columbia Department of Lands, they couldn’t quite believe it. They dearly wanted to map that route, but didn’t have the budget—it was the Great Depression! And here came this guy, who said he was just going to do it for fun? Because somebody told him it was impossible? Well, if he was going to do it on his own dime (which would be one dollar and eighty eight cents today) then why not take advantage of the opportunity? The Department put six hundred dollars towards Mr Bedaux’s adventure and assigned two geographers to his team: Ernest Lamarque and Frank Swannell. Mr Bedaux would have his wild ride, but they’d chart the territory for the Canadian government.
Lamarque and Swannell met up with Bedaux in Edmonton, shortly before the expedition was to begin. The party was already pretty full: There was Bedaux, his wife Fern, Fern’s friend, Fern’s maid, Bedaux’s ex-sniper valet, an official Citroën mechanic, a radio operator, various cowboys, guides and assistants—and a professional film crew, headed up by Hollywood cinematographer Floyd Crosby, still riding high off an Academy Award. Bedaux was also planning to make a movie of the trip.
Bedaux welcomed the Canadian surveyors, and deputised Mr. Lamarque to lead an advance team. He was to scout out the route to Telegraph Creek and send back detailed directions for the Bedaux expedition to follow. Lamarque headed out right away, while the rest of the party decamped for a little sojourn in Jasper—an alpine park a short drive to the west of Edmonton—where they would endure two weeks of physical training. ‘There's nothing like being fit when tackling something hard,’ Bedaux told the press. ‘We'll go up there and climb mountains and chase sheep for a few days and that'll take the fat off us.’
Instead, in the mountains of Jasper, Bedaux and his team guzzled champagne, cheered on rodeos, and befriended the locals. In his profligacy, as Bedaux encountered random people, he hired them for the trip—including a young dental student, Bill, whose usefulness was evident to absolutely no-one.
‘Who are you?’ these locals asked of Bedaux. ‘And how did you get all this money?’
‘Well, I am Charles Bedaux,’ said Charles Bedaux, ‘and I am the discoverer of the unit of human energy.’ Piggybacking upon the efficiency movement trendy in 20th century labour theory, Bedaux—a French-born citizen of the United States—had invented something called the Bedaux system. While most people measured their workdays by units of time, could one identify, instead, units of human effort? Bedaux thought he could. A work hour would no longer be measured in minutes, but in units of labour. He called those units Bedauxs. For maximum efficiency, he speculated, management should expect workers to perform at eighty or ninety Bedauxs an hour. But the average grunt managed only forty! The Bedaux system was very popular: adapted by huge corporations like Campbell Soup, General Electric, Eastman Kodak, and Fiat. Bedaux had homes and offices around the world.
‘Oh, wow,’ said the cowboys of Jasper, ‘and how about the workers, do they like your system?’
‘Oh, God no.’
After their “physical training”, Bedaux’s party returned to Edmonton where they could set off on their journey in style: A full parade, and an address by the lieutenant governor. Locals marvelled at the five Citroën cars, decked out with cutting-edge radio gear, electrical generators, tents, cameras, life rafts, and Fern’s bathtub.
And so, on July 6th, 1934, after a champagne brunch, Charles Bedaux and his merry band began their adventure.
And straight away, Charles Bedaux realised: ‘Oh. I have made a mistake.’
Heavy rain thrashed the party from the get-go, and never let up. It would be the wettest summer on record. The ground turned to mud, and the Citroën cars, carrying two tons of gear, sank down into the morass. The expedition had to stop constantly to pull the cars out of the bog. The Citroën mechanic, a bit embarrassed, had to explain: ‘You know, normally these cars are very good.’ But the rest of Bedaux’s men were already realising: ‘Oh. This sucks.’
It was clear to Bedaux that his team were far from putting in eighty Bedauxs an hour. ‘We’ve got to lighten the load of these cars! OK, there’s the cases of champagne… my wife’s bath, and… oh, what the hell’s this? yeah, let’s just get rid of this stuff!’ And he threw all of Frank Swannell’s surveying equipment into the mud, putting an immediate end to the British Canadian government’s dreams of having a map of its own country.
After a quick stop at the village of Grande Prairie, where the villagers turned out to say, ‘we’re so excited to see you and so glad we’re not the ones doing this’, they had to get back on the road. The rain was incessant. The cars: absolutely shitting it.
Bill the dental student, was the first casualty of the party’s frustration. While Bedaux and Swannell were down on their knees scraping mud out of the Citroëns’ tyres, Bill was hanging out with girls.
‘I thought hiring an unqualified dental student would help matters, but it hasn’t at all!’ Bedaux yelled. ‘Get the hell out of here! You're fired!’ The expedition left Bill the dental student in the forest, and he was never heard from again.
Eventually, the party arrived in the small city of Fort St. John—with another 600 miles to go until Telegraph Creek—and a violent storm grounded them for a couple days. To kill time, Bedaux handed out ten dollars to all the locals—making sure, of course, that Floyd Crosby, his cinematographer, filmed the charitable act for his movie. The townspeople were so thrilled they gave Bedaux a dog.
There, in Fort St. John, Bedaux enlisted a new member of his party. Commander Reginald Geake. He was strangely dressed, insisting on wearing a black bandanna and shorts at all times, even in the rain. A pack of dogs followed him obediently, wherever he went, and he owned a farm in Pouce Coupe, to the south, where his neighbours suspected he was a British spy. Bedaux didn’t know what Geake was, but thought he was pretty cool. He put Geake at the head of another advance party, with five men, 56 horses, and some supplies. Geake would chart a course for Bedaux to follow.
Geake accepted his duty sagely. ‘You will see me again when the time is right,’ he said, and disappeared with his dogs.
Then, the Bedaux expedition was on the move again. Through mud. Just pure mud. Dragging cars through mud. Making the horses drag cars through mud. The party had to lay logs in front of one another just to be able to move.
When they reached the Cameron River, Bedaux called for a pause and cracked open a case of whiskey. It was August. A month had passed since they’d set off, and they were already way behind. It was pretty clear to Bedaux that the fancy Citroën cars were trash. But the master of efficiency, saw a way to turn this crisis to his advantage.
‘Mr. Bedaux has parted with his radio operator,’ announced Bedaux’s press agent in New York. ‘The radio equipment was too heavy, as was the radio operator, who ate too much of the group’s food. The expedition will no longer give regular radio updates. Pray for them, for they are entering a dark, difficult and silent part of their journey. Also, their cars exploded.’
Bedaux and his party had been sick of the cars, and it had occurred to them that if they disposed of them in dramatic fashion, it would make for a great scene in the movie. So, Floyd Crosby and his team had thrown two of the Citroëns off a cliff. For the third car, they’d devised an elaborate stunt: to float the car downstream, where it would collide with a riverbank already primed with explosives. Only, it hadn’t worked. The Citroën had floated in the wrong direction, down the river and out of sight, leaving the camera to capture a lonely riverbank exploding for no reason.
The expedition continued on horseback, feeling light and unencumbered. But as they ascended into the Rocky Mountains, the most difficult part of their journey was just beginning.
It was September and everything turned with the weather for the worse. Party members were getting injured, and lost. They had to shoot three grizzly bears and then three of their own horses, which were under-performing. Food supplies were low, but Bedaux was still able to throw a champagne breakfast at camp to lift everyone’s spirits. Maybe it was because of extravagant flourishes like this that cowboys across Canada still actually wanted in on this expedition, despite its frankly dismal twenty-Bedauxs-an-hour progress.
One of them, Tom Granger, searching for Bedaux’s camp so he could ask for a job, got stuck in the Kwadacha River and drowned. Bedaux announced the death via his New York press agent—claiming Granger as a member of the expedition. ‘The going is bitterly hard, with great losses,’ he said. ‘And I think what Tom would have wanted is for everyone out there to go see the movie when it comes out, as it promises to be spectacular.’
On September 13th, the party reached Whitewater, a remote trading post locked between the Finlay and Kwadacha Rivers. Telegraph Creek was still hundreds of miles away through the uncharted wilderness, and Bedaux didn’t know the best route to go. Ernest Lamarque, the government surveyor who had been sent ahead way back in Edmonton, had promised he would get to Telegraph Creek and cable directions to the party at Whitewater. But there was no word from him.
Bedaux wasn’t sure what to do. How long should they wait for Lamarque’s message? Would it even come? Then, suddenly, a mysterious figure stormed into town! Commander Reginald Geake! The leader of the other advance party! He said he’d be back when the time was right and, now, here he was!
‘Geake!’ Bedaux exclaimed, ‘Please, tell me you know the way to Telegraph Creek!’
‘No! I got lost, and I’m grumpy!’ said Geake. A dog yapped, and Geake killed it. Then he left forever.
Being an expert in labour management, Bedaux knew what effect a strange man striding into the workplace and killing a dog in front of bewildered employees would have on organisational morale. ‘This is bad,’ he said.
Bedaux decided that the expedition couldn’t wait any longer. They’d have to make a move. Which way? Well, they’d figure it out. For the next three weeks, the expedition continued westward through the wilderness. Grass was thinner and scarcer the further out they went. Then, snow fell. Eighteen inches of snow. The horses could barely walk. Then, some of them came down with hoof rot, and had to be shot. But hoof rot was contagious, and every morning they had to shoot more horses.
It was hard to look at a trail of dead horses winding all the way back to Whitewater and conclude that things were going well. They had no idea where to go, and even if they did, they didn’t have enough horses left to take them there. Charles Bedaux hated to hear the word “No”. He didn’t believe in it. You could always do more: Make more money, make things better, extract more labour. That philosophy had made him millions. But all the efficiency improvements and labour theories in the world couldn’t make the rain stop, or get those horses to rise from their shallow graves.
‘Tomorrow, we will turn back,’ he told everyone. ‘We have failed.’
When the Bedaux expedition returned to Whitewater, at the end of September, Ernest Lamarque was there. He said, he’d made it to Telegraph Creek and insisted that he had sent directions. He couldn’t understand why they hadn’t come through. If only... but, it was too late to wonder what could have been.
Throughout October, the party travelled on their remaining horses back toward Fort St. John, and as soon as the opportunity came up to ditch the horses, and hire some cars, they took it and drove back to the starting line in stylish shame.
The members of the expedition bade each other an emotional goodbye, and Charles Bedaux arranged for another press conference.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, members of the press: The date is October 29th, 1934, I am Charles E. Bedaux, and you may think me a failure. But, first of all, it’s not my fault, because it rained almost constantly, and that was what gave us all the trouble. Secondly, I am not a failure, because this journey gave me occasion to cross paths with some of the finest fellows you should ever have the pleasure to meet. What we have gone through has forged a bond between us whose wealth is without compare.
‘If, by chance, you should ever meet in your life an Academy Award-winning cinematographer… or a world-class government surveyor… or a dental student… then count your blessings and hold them tight, for friends like them don’t come around often enough. And—you know what—we’re going to do it again! Same people, next year, we’re going get back together and try this trip again! And next time we will succeed! Do you hear me? We will succeed! I never give up! Mark my words: History will remember us as the men, and some women, who made the trip to Telegraph Creek!’
Commander Reginald Geake, the suspected British spy, stalked strange corners for the remainder of his life, which was not that long. He met a blind man, whom he believed had the supernatural power to divine the presence of gold. Geake followed him into the mountains of the Sierra Madre in a quest for treasure, where both men were shot to death by bandits.
Ernest Lamarque always wondered why his message to Whitewater never got through. That is, he wondered until November 1934, when he learned that his message had gone through to a clerk in the Vancouver surveyor’s office to be passed on, but the clerk, deciding that the Bedaux expedition was actually a commercial venture, and therefore not entitled to government assistance, had thrown it in the trash.
Floyd Crosby’s movie of the journey was never produced. He returned to Hollywood, and won a Golden Globe for the 1952 western High Noon. Floyd’s son David, a musician, would go on to found the bands The Byrds, and Crosby, Stills and Nash.
The Citroën Car that Floyd Crosby let float down a river was eventually found by a garage owner named Bert, who loved it very much.
Charles Bedaux never attempted a second trip to Telegraph Creek. In the same year of the expedition, the Nazi government outlawed the practice of the Bedaux system in Germany, deeming it incompatible with their preferred philosophy. If he’d let it go, in a few years time Bedaux could actually have bragged about not being good enough for the Nazis. Instead, he returned with his wife to Europe, where he spent much time and money networking with them so he could get back in business. His efforts came to naught until he hosted, at his French chateau, the wedding of his infamous friends Edward, Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson.
‘You know who I simply must introduce you to,’ Bedaux told Edward—the former King of England, ‘is the Nazis.’
With that, Bedaux wormed his way into the Nazis’ good graces, and when the Reich invaded Paris and installed the Vichy government, he worked happily with the new regime. ‘The Germans are the only ones left in Paris to do business with,’ he explained. He kept busy, tinkering with improvements to the Bedaux system and seeking permission to test them on local communes.
Until he was arrested, in North Africa, while attempting to construct an oil pipeline for the Germans. He was remanded in Miami, and informed by the FBI that he would be charged with treason. On February 18th, 1944, Charles Bedaux overdosed on barbiturates in his cell. His treasured Bedaux system, which at this point certainly looked to be fascist-adjacent at best, gradually faded from use.
Charles Bedaux never made it to Telegraph Creek. Its map would be charted, and its roads built by others—others who actually succeeded in their mission, but would never enjoy Charles Bedaux’s fame or wealth. On the other hand, they never had to commit suicide to avoid being tried for war crimes, so, on balance, they probably felt OK about it.
That was Something True, a podcast on the Idle Thumbs network, written by Duncan Fyfe and read by Alex Corbett Ashby. Music credits can be found in the description and on our website at somethingtrue.net where you can also find a full transcript of this story. Follow us on Twitter @atruepodcast, and join us again for the next episode: L’Arme X.