The Engineers’ Cairn

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The first Engineers’ Cairn was built in January 1966 as part of the King Arthur stunt. It was just a pile of rocks held together with hand-mixed cement, with an engraved marble plaque anchored to it which read:


It stood where it was built – in front of the Main Library pond – for less than two days, before being removed by the grounds maintenance crew. Art Stevenson, the EUS President of the day, was quoted in the Ubyssey as saying a new cairn would be built, “but no one will be able to move it.”

The first attempt at a more permanent structure was begun more than two years later. In September 1968, a hole was dug at what was then the very centre of campus: in the middle of Main Mall, in front of what is now the Koerner Library (then the UBC President’s Office). The hole was filled with metal scrap, and concrete was poured in to form a flat slab, with the letter ‘E’ embossed in it. This monument was also destroyed a short time later at the behest of the Board of Governors.

This only strengthened the resolve of the monument builders. A new design was drawn up, modeled, legend has it, after a military tank diverter: a truncated pyramid of solid concrete, about five feet high, with the letter ‘E’ embossed on each of its three sides. This was erected in time for Engineering Week 1969, with a new bronze plaque, bearing the same sentiments as the original, bolted onto the South face.

This time the Engineers were careful to spread stories about automobiles buried beneath the cairn, anchored to a cage of steel rebar, with a spacing of only a few inches, reinforcing the mass of concrete. This, combined with the sheer size of the construction convinced the administration that nothing short of a charge of dynamite large enough to level the surrounding buildings could remove it.

So the Engineers’ Cairn remained intact. But this didn’t mean it was left alone. Within the first month, the Ubyssey showed a toilet planted on top. However, it wasn’t long before it faced a much bigger threat; plans were afoot for a new major construction project in the heart of the campus. The new Cairn was smack in the middle of the planned site of the Sedgewick underground library.

In 1970 the University Administration asked for proposals to clear the site. The story goes that the Physical Plant Department quoted $10,000 to demolish and remove the Cairn, but the EUS countered with a $1,000 bid. Needless to say, the EUS was given the nod. They spent the weekend digging around the Cairn, then brought in a crane (hired for $100) to lift the big concrete monument and transport it to the other end of campus. It was dropped into the waiting hole that had been dug at its present location in front of the new Engineering quadrangle.

The Cairn stood at this site for the next ten years. It was not an uneventful tenure. It didn’t take long before painting the Engineers’ Cairn with one’s colours became a traditional part of the celebratory week of every faculty, fraternity, and just about every other campus group. It became the “sacrificial anode” – a target for every vandal with a grudge against the Engineers. The Cairn undoubtedly saved countless thousands of dollars in damage to Engineering buildings.

No matter how much abuse was heaped upon it, the Cairn was always cleaned up and returned to its true colours (all white, with the embossed ‘E’s in red). The thankless job of maintaining the Cairn fell to the Electricals, as their MacLeod Building was closest to the scene of the crime(s). Each year, on the eve of Engineering Week, the many layers of paint were set alight, and in a spectacular blaze the Cairn was burned down to bare concrete.

The attacks on the Cairn increased in intensity until 1980, when the AUS (Arts Undergraduate Society) executive decided that their prime activity would be vandalism against the EUS (in fact, they even produced a t-shirt showing an artsman with a crowbar and a paintbrush, standing on the Engineers’ Cairn). Late one night, this malicious little band obtained a forklift, and drove it to the Cairn, intent on doing as much damage as possible. They chipped away at one bottom corner until the forks were able to gain a purchase and began to lift. They soon discovered that there was nothing under the Cairn, and they were able to tip it right over. However, in the process, a considerable amount of noise was made, and this brought several Engineers out of the nearby buildings. The artsmen fled into the night, and the Engineers, with the help of a truck and a jeep with a winch, were able right the Cairn before the night ended.

This attack, along with along with the accumulated damage of many smaller assaults, had taken its toll on the grand old monolith. A corner was gone, all the faces were pocked with small craters, and the whole thing listed at and angle to the plumb – a constant reminder that it could be tipped again.

So early in 1981, it was decided to renew the Cairn. Forms were prepared and placed around the old structure, and concrete was poured. The Cairn was now a foot taller, and many inches larger all around, with a two foot skirt around the base. The bronze plaque had been removed for safekeeping.

This bigger and better monument stood firm against the continued onslaught of paint, fire, and other assorted indignities. It was once even tarred and feathered. A particularly nasty trick was “necklacing”. This specialty of the foresters involved a ring of flaming tires held together with a cable chocker, which was thrown over the top of the Cairn in freezing weather, in hopes of cracking the concrete.

For almost 20 years, the Engineers’ Cairn defied all comers. The belief in its indestructibility made it the longest running stunt in Engineering history. Its longevity was a testament to the reputation of the UBC Engineers. But its very existence was a challenge to destroy it, and eventually the challenge was taken up.

Late on Friday, March 4, 1988, a group of foresters with a backhoe equipped with a pneumatic hammer reduced the Cairn to rubble. They later told the Ubyssey that they had done it in retaliation for the destruction of Omar.

There was no question that it would be rebuilt. Within days the students had the expert assistance of alumni Nelson Borch (Civil '86) and Jim Cameron (Civil '86). This was a chance to build a new Cairn just like the legend said the old one was built.

First, a hole was dug and a substantial base was poured, with rebar extending upwards into the air. This was allowed to cure until the school year ended. Then, over the summer, the new Cairn was constructed. It is said that before the concrete was poured into the forms a large propane tank was dropped into the rebar cage for extra security. When the ready-mix truck arrived with a special mix for the job, and the concrete was poured into the waiting mold, the sheer weight of the concrete caused the forms to begin to split apart. The crew scrambled to back their trucks up against the walls of the forms to hold them in place. Then it was noticed that the pour was four inches short of the top of the forms. The Cairn builders ran into the Civil Engineering lab and grabbed a couple of bags of concrete, ignoring the protests of the resident grad students. Soon the forms were topped up and the new Cairn was complete.

To celebrate the renewal of UBC’s most infamous monument, the EUS and the Engineering Alumni Division hosted a dedication ceremony during Engineering Week '89. Alumni and students, festively bedecked in formal red attire, watched proudly as a large bottle of frothy brew broke over the flawless corner of the new Cairn. This defiant block of concrete still stands today as the symbol of the permanence of the Engineering spirit.

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