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History of Nelson

By Michael Jessen

Although Nelson did not exist until the late 1880s, the history of man in this area dates back to when the great pyramids were being constructed in Egypt. The latest archeological carbon dating provides evidence that a race of men and women lived, hunt ed and fished along the shores of Kootenay Lake two thousand years before the time of the advanced cultures of the Aztecs and the Incas of Central and South America. These earliest inhabitants of the area were later to be called the Kootenay Indians, and their names were adopted to designate the land that they roamed. Kootenay is an Indian word meaning "water people". In the original spelling "Co" means water and "Tinneh" means people. An abundance of fish in the lakes and rivers, as well as berries, fruits, bulbs, roots, nuts, seeds, and grains provided the Indians with a varied and adequate diet. Animals such as deer, moose, elk, bear and numerous smaller fur-bearing creatures supplied meat for food, hides for clothing and bones for tools. These early citizens lived in airy, tule mat-covered teepees during the summer months, while spending the cooler months and winter in cozy, subterranean dwellings with a timber superstructure, covers with branches and topped with sods and soil. A square hole at the apex of the house allowed smoke from cooking fires


Gunpowder Gertie
"Pirate Queen of the Kootenays"

Historical Photographs
Sternwheelers of Kootenay Lake
to escape and also provided the only means of entry - a notched log set up like a ladder. A large flat stone was used as a kind of shield to keep the fire from burning the ladder.

The many large groups of these pits, which are still visible today, are reminders of the good-sized villages that once existed along the lakes and rivers.

Indian artifacts have been found in abundance along the shores of the West Arm of the Kootenay River. Just above lake-level on Granite (Elephant) Mountain opposite Nelson, carvings were found of human beings and animals cut boldly in the rock found on the shores of the Arrow Lakes.

But after extensive harvesting of the salmon in the Columbia River, food became scarce and a few natives remained when the settlers arrived in the Kootenays. Explorers and adventures, employed by the rival North West Trading Company and the Hudson Bay Company, were the first to enter the practically inaccessible Kootenay and Columbia River valleys while searching for fur trade routes. David Thompson travelled to the Kootenay River as well as the full length of the Columbia between the years 1807 and 1811, but did not come up the main lakes or down the West Arm which flows past Nelson. Other explorers, among them Captain John Palliser, recorded nothing in their notebooks of what they saw. In September 1876, gold was discovered at Forty-nine Creek, nine miles west of Nelson, resulting in a minor rush of prospectors from the United States to the site of the find. In the years 1876 to 1869, miners wages were $4 to $5 a day. Gold dust was worth $18 an ounce. Mining was carried on around Hall Creek, Forty-nine Creek and the Pend d'Oreille. In an item in the December 2nd, 1893, edition of the Nelson Miner, Richard Fry of Bonners Ferry, Idaho, stated that two men made $1900 each in two weeks.

After this mineral find was exploited, quiet again returned to the forested valleys and 15 years went by before another rush of people came to the area.

Although precious metals were a part of the lure that attracted the next group of men to this area, large land development schemes were also a part of their plans. When the British Columbia Legislature assembled in Victoria for the session of 1882-1883, a private bill was read in the House that would grant 750,000 free acres to a group headed by Captain George Ainsworth of San Francisco. In return for the land, the Ainsworth party was to build a narrow gauge railway over the 21-mile distance between the Columbia River and Kootenay Lake. Part of the land that this group sought included the best alluvial, the bottom land at the southern end of the lake. Before this grant could be voted on, an offer form W. A. Baille-Groham, representing British interests and backed by influential letters, was made to the provincial government. Baille-Grohman's objective was to obtain a concession for an extensive tract of land lying on both sides of the river. Although subject to flooding every summer when the river was swollen from melting snow, the land was recognized for its high agricultural value. Baille-Grohman offered to drain the land, construct dikes to permanently reclaim it, and pay $1 an acre for it within 10 years. This scheme was accepted by the Government and resulted in the Ainsworth party failing to get the concession in the form that they wanted. In 1885, however, Ainsworth and Gustavus Blinn Wright made a deposit of $25, 000 and secured from Victoria a charter to construct a railway from Columbia River to Kootenay Lake. The railway was not built and their charter expired in 1887, although a government reserve on the land was not lifted, a fact which had interesting consequences later on.

Baille-Grohman and Ainsworth were also involved in another famous incident in the years immediately preceding settlement at Nelson. The legendary Bluebell mine at Riondel, which finally ceased operations in 1971, was the issue over which these two Kootenay area pioneers next became embroiled. Natives and Hudsonâs Bay Company trappers had long known about the galena ledge on a cliff on the eastern side of Kootenay Lake. It is speculated that David Douglas, the botanist for whom the Douglas fir tree is named, visited the site. In the spring of 1882, Robert Evan Sproule set out from Dick Fry's ranch at Bonners Ferry and after inspecting the rusty iron stain on the cliff and finding a 50-foot vein of silver, staked his claim. He was unable to register the claim in the manner required by law, however, since 480 miles of rugged territory lay between him and the nearest claims office, a distance he could not hope to cover in the 72 hours that he was allowed to be absent from his claim.

During Sproule's absence, Thomas Hammill was sent by Ainsworth to investigate the galena ledge. Hammill, who was accompanied by the gold commissioner, promptly staked claims to the rich ore. Thus began a lengthy legal battle, which culminated in murder. Sproule enlisted the aid of Grohman, who was called upon to defend the case in court when at the last moment a Victoria lawyer could not attend the trial, being held in shanties in the two mining camps near the claims. According to Baille-Grohman, the judge, a genial old man named Kelly, ate his meals in the Hammill camp because of its higher quality food and slept in the Sproule camp to show no prejudice in the case. The court opened on August 31, 1883, and continued for six weeks. The litigation had resolved itself into four distinct cases, for each of the two parties had taken up the same claims on the big ledge. The discoverer of a new mine had the right to take up, besides the one claim to which every miner was then entitled, a second location known as the discovery claim.

On October 16th, after two or three short adjournments to round up witnesses, judge Kelly rendered his judgements. All four claims were decided in favour of Sproule's party. Baille-Grohman was now a partner with Sproule and two others for he had stipulated he was to become part owner if he was able to win the suit. But Ainsworth and Hammill were not quick to give up and they appealled the case to the Supreme Court of British Columbia sitting at Victoria. Business in England prevented Baille-Grohman from defending again and he entrusted the case to the same lawyer whom he had attempted to secure for the lower court trial. A case before the Supreme Court of Canada, however, for the second time prevented this lawyer from attending and the case was taken over by another counsellor who had little knowledge of the circumstances. The appeals were heard by Chief Justice Begbie, who decided three of the four cases in Hamill's favour. The strain of losing was toughest on Sproule. He could not settle the large amount claimed by Ainsworth and Hammill, and the one claim he had left was attached and sold by the sheriff. His mind unsettled, Sproule was determined to murder both Baille-Grohman and Hammill. The former managed to escape Sproule's gun, but Hammill was not so lucky. Sproule lay in ambush for him at the Bluebell and shot and killed him. Although he had a six-hour start on a posse, Sproule was eventually caught and hanged.

Captain Ainsworth, the rich capitalist who founded the Oregon Navigation Company, also had mineral interests on the western side of Kootenay Lake, at the small community bearing his name. The town was known for both its silver deposits and warm hot springs, which still attract bathers today. The discovery of ore here and at Riondel set the stage for another mineral find which heralded the birth of Nelson.

In the late summer of 1886, a 15-man party left Colville, Washington, on a gold prospecting trip up to the Salmon River. It was well known that the lower bars of the Salmon just above the border had been well washed in the 1850âs, but Winslow Hall remarked that there was a tributary of that stream heading up in the rough country south of Kootenay Lake which he had always wanted to prospect. William V. Brown, a pioneer merchant, ferryman and prospector, agreed to grubstake an expedition to the area. The Hall party included Winslow Hall, commonly known as Bill, and his five sons Bobby, Charlie, Willie, Tommy and Albert; Winslow's brother Osner and his sons; Oscar and three cousins, Bill, Mel and Henry Oakes. In addition to this large family there was Willie White, son of Captain Len White, who had built and commanded the first steamboat on the upper Columbia. There was also Will Miller, one of the most venturesome prospectors and river men in the upper country. Providing the party with fresh meat was the chore of two Colville Native youths, Narcisse Downing and Dauney Williams.

By autumn, with the snow level creeping down the mountains, the weary Hall group had found nothing for all their efforts and they were discouraged. They decided to pack up and head for home. Tommy Hall, Willie Hall, and Willie White were sent to fetch the pack and saddle horses, while the hunters were sent to get meat for the return trip. Even at these tasks the two groups had little luck and when the five of them met late in the afternoon they sat down to rest on a small outcropping of rock. According to an account by Van B. Putnam, the boys vented their frustration by digging their heels in the ground and kicking away the vegetation. Suddenly, a pine squirrel scooted by and one of the boys picked up a loosened rock to throw at it. Where the rock had been, lay copper-silver deposits which, in their day, were to be famous on two continents.

The following year the Halls returned to their secret area after receiving financial assistance from their Scottish neighbour, John McDonald. In one of his first official acts upon becoming a partner, McDonald bought out Narcisse Downet, and Dauney Williams, the Native meat hunters, with a bonus of $250. The wily Scotsman told the two they were only paid employees of the prospecting partners and, as such, they were not entitled to a partnership. The hunters assumed they had shared in all the work and the accident of the discovery, in addition to the fact that they both had Canadian Miners' permits. But, believing that they had no alternative, they took the bonus money and retired.

The Halls staked four claims in the Silver King group- the Silver King, The Kootenay Bonanza, The American Flag, and the Kohinoor. The mountain was not named at this time and the property was described as being on the divide between Cottonwood Smith Creek and the Salmon River. On July 27 1887, however, Charlie Townsend was sitting on a log half a mile from the Silver King group writing the location notice when he came to the words, "situated on.. Just then a big toad hopped out form under the log and Townsend filled in the blank space with the word, "Toad Mountain". Just the year before, the quiet of the forested hills had been deafened, but by September 20th, 1887, 30 claims had been staked and the miners were pouring in. And with the miners, came habitation.

Arthur Bunting, a son in law of Dick Fry, erected the first cabin near the mouth of Ward Creek. He decided the area would be a good spot for a town-site and the government accepted his deposit, unaware that the reserve granted to Ainsworth and Wright two years before had not yet been lifted. Next to Buntings cabin, his brothers-in-law, Fryâs sons, built another in which A. D. Collins and Silas H. Cross kept their supplies. Later that same year, in 1887, Harry Anderson, a mining recorder and constable, arrived on the scene. He made a location to the east of Buntings land, which was also outside the railway reserve. C.W. Busk made the first survey and in running his lines, he came upon a stake marked "Government Reserve." In filling his field notes in the Lands and Works Department at Victoria, Busk made reference to this reserve. However, officials at the capital disclaimed any knowledge of the reserve and Anderson was able to make good his claim. He called the place Salisbury. In the summer of 1888, Gilbert Malcolm Sproat, a gold commissioner and stipendiary magistrate, who later became known as the "Father of the Kootenay," arrived in the camp. Tents and rough wooden shacks housing between 300 and 400 miners were spread along the banks of Ward Creek and more prospectors, drawn by the mineral wealth of the Silver King, just a few miles behind the camp, were flooding in each day. Sproat was there to establish a capital in the Kootenay country. He said Bunting's land was covered by a reserve, and the name Salisbury would not do. In a letter to The Miner, March 17, 1894, he told why he chose the site, which he called Stanley. "I chose this site because it is close to promising mining camps. It is at the meeting of two valleys along which land traffic from the West and South will have to come. These valleys meet at navigable waters that connect with the mining regions of Kootenay Lake and of the United States. I intend Bogustown [which later became the residential district of Fairview] to be included. It has the advantages of Cottonwood waterfall, meadows for a town common, Ward Creek for a sewer, and a basin between Vernon Street and the lake, as a park for the women and children, God bless them. My dream was that here, where nature was so bountiful, there might be, could we but keep out newspapers and lawyers, the town of all towns for civilized habitation." Sproat had been sent in 1884 to report upon the minerals in Kootenay Lake district and as soon as the government replied favourably to his report, he used a rope to lay off a portion of Vernon Street, which was at that time a beach at the water's edge. A trail had been cleared among the charred logs - a reminder of a forest fire that swept the area in 1885 - from the landing at the mouth of Ward Creek. Adjoining the trail were two tents, the first a general store owned by R.E. Lemmon and J.F. Hume, who had floated their stock down the Columbia and beat their way up through the brush from Sproat's Landing. The other tent was a primitive hotel kept by John Ward. He had an extensive stock of solid and liquid refreshments, but guests who stayed the night were obliged to use their own blankets. His three-roomed tent with its dining room and bar was the first hotel in Nelson, and Ward street was named in his honour. One block east of this street is Josephine Street, named for Ward's wife. After a year, Ward replaced the tent beside his log cabin with a log hotel, and the tent was used as a store by John Walsh. Next to this stood the office of the mining recorder,T.H. Giffin. In another tent beside the government shack, James Arthur Gilker put the stock of goods he had brought down from Revelstoke. In 1889, Ottawa appointed Gilker the town's first postmaster.

Sproat presided at the sale of the first lots in a little log shack as auctioneer. Those who took land as far back as the location of Victoria Street dreaded to settle so deep in the bush. During the same month, Arthur Stanhope Farwell came to Nelson and surveyed the first eight blocks that fall, and the following spring did four more. His next task was to lay-out a wagon road along the river on the trail that Lemon had used to come in from Sproat's Landing. The rest of the town was surveyed in 1890 by a man named Latimer, who later opened the first real estate office and for whom Latimer Street is named. Colonel E.S. Topping continued to sell lots during the winter of 1888-89. By the following year the lots were bringing in as much as $295 for a single lot and $9,515 for a block of 32. Bunting, whose log house was the first in the new town, could not be frightened off his claim, not even by Sproat or Giffin, who became mining recorder for Toad Mountain District in the spring of 1889 when Anderson was transferred to Ainsworth.

Bunting did not move until 1889 and his house stood for nine years.

On March 18, 1897 the City of Nelson was born when the Letters of Patent were issued. The first mayor was John "Truth" Houston. A monument in his honour still stands on Vernon Street, downtown.

To be continued.