The Three Cairns of UBC

3 Cairns

The Great Trek Cairn Although intended as a symbol of student initiative, this cairn had its detractors.

The Tuum Est Cairn Dubbed by a student as the “Carin’, Sharin’ Cairn,” this monument was financed by an anonymous donor whose identity remained a mystery for years.

The Engineers’ Cairn Technically a truncated obelisk, this cairn was christened with a bottle of beer smashed over one corner.

The Great Trek Cairn

The story of the Great Trek Cairn is familiar to most UBC students and alumni – however, some interesting but possibly unfamiliar details are worth recounting.

The cairn was built at the conclusion of The Pilgrimage, a parade from downtown Vancouver to Point Grey that took place on October 28, 1922. Now known as the Great Trek, the parade was the climax of a year-long publicity campaign organized and led by UBC students to persuade the provincial government to complete the university’s Point Grey campus. Professor Paul A. Boving suggested the cairn to commemorate the campaign. It would be the first completed structure at the university’s new home.

But not everybody in the university community felt the cairn was a good idea. An editorial in the October 26 edition of The Ubyssey summarized their objections, which were primarily procedural and financial:

The memorial cairn owes its useless life to an unfortunate departure from the ordinary procedure of student administration. The Publicity Committee put the plans of the cairn before the student mass-meeting last week – before it had been considered by the Students’ Council. It was so presented to the meeting that only the romantic glamour and sentiment of the proposal appeared…. When the plan of the memorial cairn was brought up later in the Students’ Council, stripped of its clouds of glory, it was found that the plain facts of the case involved an expenditure of one-third of the total funds of the Student Campaign.

Figure 1
Figure 1

Nevertheless the project went ahead. The university’s official architects, Sharp & Thompson, designed the cairn (with Charles Thompson offering his services free). Professional civil engineer W.H. Powell, assisted by A.H. Finlay of the Applied Science Class of 1924, surveyed and marked its exact position relative to the official campus plan. A local company recommended by the architects was retained for its construction (Figure 1), with a professional mason responsible for the stone work. The total cost was $125.

At the dedication ceremony after the Great Trek, Campaign chairman A.E. “Ab” Richards argued that any procedural and cost considerations had to be considered secondary to the cairn’s symbolic value:

Figure 2
Figure 2

The building of the Cairn to me is full of meaning. It stands for the combined efforts of 1,178 students. Each rock represents a personal contribution in a worthy and just cause. As the mason with his trowel shapes and cements the rocks together into a complete and unified whole so the Campaign has bound the student body together by a bond as strong as the very granite itself.

The base and sides of the cairn, built of stones gathered from around the construction site, were completed before the ceremony. Into its hollow centre the students threw stones they had collected themselves before and during the Great Trek. A written account of the publicity campaign was placed inside, the top was completed, and the monument sealed. The inscription on the north side of the cairn reads: “TO THE GLORY OF OUR ALMA MATER STUDENT CAMPAIGN 1922-23” (Figure 2).

In the years since its construction the Great Trek Cairn has served as the centre of student ceremonial life. It has been the finishing mark of the annual Arts ’20 Relay and, later, the Great Trek Relay. Every September during Homecoming Week a ceremony is held at the cairn commemorating the Great Trek and featuring speeches by student leaders, university officials, and prominent alumni. Sometimes covered in ivy, but in recent years kept clear of overgrowth, the Great Trek Cairn remains as a symbol of student initiative.

The Tuum Est Cairn

As students returned to the UBC campus in September 1949, they discovered a new landmark under construction on East Mall across from Brock Hall. A large boulder originally deposited thousands of years before by the retreat of an Ice Age glacier, which until then had been popular among students as a “kissing rock,” was serving as a base for a new monument.

Referred-to by The Ubyssey as the “memorial to people who build memorials,” this cairn’s origins were a mystery as it was paid for by an anonymous donor. The bronze plaque attached to the base indicated that it was dedicated to those students who had contributed to the construction of several important campus facilities. On top was inscribed “TUUM EST – IT IS YOURS” (Figure 3). Other plaques listed the Gymnasium (1929), the Playing Field (1931), the Stadium (1937), Brock Hall (1940), and the Armouries (1942).

Figure 3
Figure 3

In the years after its completion, plaques for the War Memorial Gymnasium (1951), Student Residences (1956), and the Brock Memorial Hall Extension (1957) were added to the cairn, presumably by the same unknown donor. Construction of each of these facilities had been initiated and paid for, in whole or in part, by the students of UBC. Such “generous actions of student bodies, in providing for their Alma Mater and the citizens of British Columbia,” in the words of its dedication plaque, led one student to refer to it as the “Carin’, Sharin’ Cairn.”

Bracketed by a hedge and flanked by granite benches, the Tuum Est Cairn’s origins mostly remained a mystery for decades. In 1985, however, the Heritage Committee of the Alumni Association confirmed that Professor Frank E. Buck was the person responsible. Buck had been hired as a professor of horticulture in 1920, and in addition to teaching he also supervised the campus’ landscape development until his retirement in 1949. Much of his landscaping work around what is now the core of the campus is still in evidence today.

Figure 4
Figure 4

On October 22, 1985, the Alumni Association and the Alma Mater Society hosted a ceremony (Figure 4) to formally rededicate the Tuum Est Cairn. Professors Alexander Roman and Blythe Eagles of the Alumni Heritage Committee recounted the story of the cairn and Frank Buck’s involvement in its creation, and a new plaque was added to permanently memorialize its origins. Two years later a second ceremony added another plaque with a list of more recent student-initiated projects, including the Winter Sports Centre (1963), the Student Union Building (1969), and the Aquatic Centre (1978), bringing the Tuum Est Cairn up-to-date.

The Engineers’ Cairn

ERTW – Engineers Rule The World – is the motto of engineering students everywhere. On January 26, 1966, UBC’s Engineering Undergraduate Society first attempted to demonstrate the motto in (ahem) concrete fashion.

That day more than 300 engineering students swarmed in front of Main Library. Dressed in academic robes, EUS President Art Stevenson addressed the crowd, condemning the sloppy dress of most UBC students and declaring that from then on, engineers would lead a new trend in being “well-dressed.” They then built a small cairn of rocks and cement, symbolizing their intent to take responsibility for keeping the campus beautiful. The cairn held a marble plaque, dedicating it “in humble appreciation of the diversified and continuing contributions to campus life by the Engineers.”

Two days later, however, the cairn was gone. EUS Vice-president Don Allen claimed that it had been “built only for ceremony and dismantled later” – whether it was removed by the engineers or by UBC Plant Operations remained unclear. Art Stevenson declared that they would build a new and bigger cairn elsewhere on campus. “The engraved plaque needs a resting place,” he told The Ubyssey. “I’m not too sure how big the new cairn will be but no one will be able to move it.”

It would be more than two years before there was a second attempt to build an engineers’ monument. In September 1968 a hole was dug near the centre of campus, in front of what is now Koerner Library on Main Mall. The hole was filled with scrap metal and concrete. The concrete was levelled to form a flat slab with a large “E” stamped into it – thus implicating the EUS, although nobody ever confessed and the individuals were never identified. Like the first one, this monument was promptly removed.

The monument builders struck again in February 1969, during Engineering Week. The new structure was a three-sided monument about five feet high, painted white with a big red “E” embossed on each side and a new memorial plaque bolted to it. Again, it was located on Main Mall, and rumour had it that a car was buried underneath (perhaps even Omar, the mascot car of the Forestry Undergraduate Society), and that it was reinforced with a cage of steel rebar, making it impossible to remove or destroy. So it appeared that the so-called “Engineers’ Cairn” (which technically is a truncated obelisk, as a true cairn is made up of a number of large blocks, while the new structure was a single mass of concrete) would remain.

However, when plans were announced later that year for the new Sedgewick Undergraduate Library, to be built beneath Main Mall, the new cairn was found to be right in the middle of the proposed site. Rather than see another engineering monument destroyed, the EUS arranged to move it. A crane was hired to lift the cairn and transport it to the south end of Main Mall, between the Barn Coffee Shop and the MacLeod (Electrical Engineering) Building.

Figure 5
Figure 5

The Engineers’ Cairn remained in place and intact (Figure 5) for almost two decades, even as it became a target of vandalism by other student groups. It became tradition for clubs, fraternities, and undergraduate societies to scrawl graffiti on the monument or repaint it in their own colours. Bonfires were built around it. A forklift was used in an attempt to tip it over. Still the cairn remained, with the bronze plaque removed for safe-keeping and a fresh coat of red and white paint applied after every vandalism attempt.

On March 4, 1988, a group of forestry students rented a back-hoe with a heavy-duty pneumatic drill. They set to work destroying the cairn, partly as a stunt and also to avenge the many incarnations of Omar, the Forestry mascot car the engineers had trashed over the years. They found no rebar and no remains of the first Omar. Within a few hours all that was left was a pile of rubble, which they used to spell the word FORESTRY on the lawn beside the cairn site.

Ironically, according to The Ubyssey an independent contractor had received an inquiry into the cost of demolishing the cairn and alerted the EUS. For reasons unknown, however, the engineers opted not to investigate and left the cairn unguarded. Their response to the loss of the cairn was surprisingly subdued: “We are rather disappointed in what they did,” EUS Treasurer Peter Gwalick told The Ubyssey, voicing the opinion of most engineering students. “I mean if they had stolen it, it would have been an impressive stunt, but anyone can demolish a concrete cairn.”

Figure 6
Figure 6

Legal action was threatened, but instead the EUS proceeded to replace the cairn. With the support of engineering alumni, this time they would make it bigger and better than before – as indestructible as the old cairn supposedly had been (Figure 6). A deep hole was dug and a foundation poured with rebar extending upwards, and a wooden form was built around it. As a ready-mix truck poured the concrete, the work crew had to brace the sides of the form with their trucks to prevent its collapse from the weight. In the end, the poured concrete was still four inches short of the top of the form, so the eight-foot structure was finished using bags of concrete mix “liberated” from a civil engineering lab.

The new Engineers’ Cairn was dedicated on February 11, 1989, during Engineering Week. The EUS and the Engineering Alumni Division hosted a dedication ceremony, during which the cairn was christened with a bottle of beer smashed over one corner.

(Sources: The Ubyssey, Alumni Chronicle, Tuum Est, University Archives website, “hEUStory” website.)

All images: UBC Historical Photographs



  1. John Peebles says:

    The Engineers stole enough of our forestry cars to fill a used car lot, except for the fact they were usually compacted into a 1 foot cube. Each year we had to pony up $200 to buy another beater and paint it green.

    Another favourite tactic of the gears was to drive a volkswagen bug up the steps and into the old MacMillan Building – at least that was entertaining.

    I will always remember the Cairn as having a nice green F on a white background or in alternating years a green F on the white background!

  2. Brian Teghtsoonian says:

    Thanks for the walk down memory lane. Three great stories of UBC lore.

    1. Martha Kertesz says:

      Nice to know Brian Teghtsoonian is still around. He wrote “Thanks for the walk down memory lane” in regards to the Cairns article. Seeing his name, was a memory lane jog for me. He worked so hard and so well for UBC in the Awards Office, I had to smile seeing his name. Hope he is doing well – wherever he is.
      Martha – formerly a part of the Exchange Programs and Graduate Student Awards offices

  3. The 1988 destruction of the Cairn is a little inaccurate. I knew several of the students involved in planning the operation, and they weren’t Forestry students (although it’s possible some Forestry students might have helped, but due to the rivalry they might simply have gotten the blame).

    Like many others the next day, I collected a piece of the original and kept it for several years. ’88 and ’89 were a memorable couple of years.

  4. Ron Louie says:

    Great memories.
    I think it was the ingenuity of the “stunts” of these hard working students that leave the greatest impression of the struggles & joys of university life for me .
    One that comes to mind was during “Art’s Week” at UBC,
    the engineers went on a rampage smashing sculptures, public art work and such around the campus.
    Outpouring of indignation for this group of students was huge. Those engineers, whose rallying call was “we can, we can, demolish 40 beer”.
    As it turns out, the “priceless” artworks, were created, donated, (probably put in place) by these young engineering students is a fun thing.

    1. Chris Kidson says:

      I also recall the smashing of the busts of famous authors and poets in the Buchannon courtyard… yes the masses were enraged – such good memories. Another I recall was when the Gears challenged the Foresters to a tree cutting contest – the enginneers sat in lawn chairs and drank beer while the hapless Foresters beavered at cutting and hauling a large tree from the banks of the bluff – when the time was right the gears approached a large tree near the finish line, fired up the chainsaws and felled the tree across the finish – once again proving superiority. I might add that no living tree was injured in this stunt – the tree was previously cut and planted in this opportune spot…..

  5. Jason Cockroft says:

    On the morning of March 5, 1988, there was a shallow knock upon my door. Upon opening my door in Vanier Place were three distraught looking freshmen. They were holding a great chunk of Cairn and made some jester towards me. “What the Hell?” is all i thought. With their eyes facing the floor, one murmured “It’s been destroyed.” EE was responsible for the upkeep of the Carin and they knew I spent my share of Sunday mornings repainting our symbol. More importantly, they knew I share a particular pride in Engineering and I am never ashamed to share. They handed me a chunk of the top right hand corner of the Cairn. It included part of 3 outer surfaces and part of the legendary E. I did not know how to react. I accepted their token. To this day, part of this Cairn is with me, kept with some dignity in my back yard in Los Altos, California.

  6. Ted Hewlett says:

    The stunt that was best–to my mind–has not yet been mentioned. One day there appeared on campus a variety of sculptures in the usual meaningless style of modern art. How many would-be congnoscenti oo’ed and aw’d about it I do not know. But after the sculptures had been up for a few days, one morning students found they had all been smashed, to the presumed horror of the artistic world of U.B.C. But shortly it was revealed that the engineers had smashed the sculptures of their own creation. This happened, I believe, in the 1963-64 academic year.

  7. William Gallego says:

    The above link leads to a video I made, “Old Red New Red, the Statue Stunt”. It shows a presentation done by Steve Whitehall(one of the people who were apart of the team that did the EUS statue stunt that is referred to above) at Old Red New Red 2011. Due to it being a powerpoint presentation, the lights were turned off, making it difficult to see Steve, however the audio quality is top notch, so feel free to take a look and see an amazing presentation on one of UBC Engineering’s best stunt.

    Also, due to the time restraint on youtube, the presentation is split into two parts; check out the column to the right for the 2nd half.

    1. Pat Meehan, Civil '67 says:

      Shame on you, Will. You were at Old Red New Red last year and if you weren’t sure of someone’s name, you should have asked: it is Steve Whitelaw, not Whitehall.

      The Engineers’ Cairn was on Steve’s list of ‘things I won’t finish before I graduate’, and as that loomed closer, he went about telling people what those ideas were, in the hope that someone would pick up the torch(es).
      I did it for the cairn. The plaque was not marble but red Nelson Island granite, and it cost me $9 from a mason on Hemlock between Broadway and Tenth Ave; interestingly, this mason had carved the date above the main entrance to the Library in 1925, and was pleased, in 1965, to get another UBC commission.

      Steve had progressed through the EUS, starting as a Class Rep in First Year, Class President in Second Year, EUS Vice-President in Third Year and EUS President in his final year. He was the originator of the famous Statue Stunt, whuich did not occur in Arts Week, unless Arts Week was in September in 1963. He is fondly remembered as the best EUS leader of the Sixties. One of his catch phrases was “Don’t Miss It If You Can”, which he used several times to promote better attendance at events(stunts).

      What’s the point of citing history if you don’t get it right?

      1. Will Gallego says:

        I apologize Mr. Meehan, that was my mistake. Thankfully i got his name correct in the video.

  8. Alan says:

    The Great Trek Cairn is located on the Main Mall, in front of the old Chemistry Building.
    However the site shows it in a different location, suspiciously with a red arrow.

  9. Johan Thornton says:

    On the morning of March 5 1988, there was a crazy loud bang on the door of the Cheeze (where I had crashed the previous Friday night) and from the engine sounds outside, I thought I was in the middle of a construction site.

    They had rolled a 3-foot concrete chunk from the Cairn against the front door with their tractor, after having spent all night pounding it with the jack-hammer. (We slept through it.)

    Rude awakening.

    We called the Fwat, and then the RCMP for backup.

    The cops got there first. While we explained what had gone on, the perpetrators initially milled around on the scene. Eventually the sweat started being too much and they slowly started leaving.

    With a good lead, they started running, and the cops gave chase. I was really impressed by the shape of the older RCMP officer; they do good training. They were caught and taken in.

    Yeah, they called us on our bluff that the cairn was indestructible. That’s why the present one actually is indestructible,

  10. Ron Drozdiak says:

    In retaliation for the thefts of Omar, a well planned and executed operation with the help of the cloak and dagger crew of the third year class, an EUS vehicle mysteriously disappeared from under the noses of the guards at the Civil Engineering building at around 8 PM on a weekday night only to be returned 2 days later to prove that the EUS was fallible and engineers do not necessarily rule the world.

  11. Valiant Cairn Painter says:

    Good to see that the EUS/Forestry rivalry is still alive and well. This is the lifeblood of UBC spirit. I call upon current UBC Engineering students (and their rivals) to keep this part of campus life alive. The challenge we face is to come up with something as controversial and publicized as the Godiva Ride.

    nice to hear your stories, especially Yohan & Jason

    Troy (‘EE 89)

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