A Work of Fiction By Carolyn McTaggart
In the late 1800’s there were few roads in the Kootenays; the rivers and railways were the main routes of travel. Scores of shallow bottomed sternwheelers plied the often treacherous waterways; they supplied the towns, and carried passengers. They fed the mining boom and transported the valuable metals for smelting. Of course where there are ships and treasure, there are Pirates and the Kootenay Lake system was no exception. Of them all, the roughest and toughest and most to be reckoned with was Gunpowder Gertie, the Pirate Queen of the Kootenays.
A woman pirate, you say? Well where else but in the Kootenays? Here is her story.
Gertrude Imogene Stubbs was born in 1879, in Whitby, England, the daughter of George Stubbs, a train engineer and his wife, Violet, a seamstress. Whitby was a port town on the east coast of Britain and saw much ocean going traffic, including the famous Captain Cook.
Gertrude was a bit of a wild thing from the first; she liked nothing better than to spend her time down at the busy docks, eagerly listening to the stories of sea captains in port between voyages, or riding with her father on his route from Whitby to Pickering and Scarbourough. Getrude’s family emigrated to Sandon, B.C., Canada in 1895 when her father accepted a job to run trains for the newly completed K & S Railway. Violet was somewhat apprehensive about the decision to move to the wilds of Western Canada, but George was convinced that they could make a good life for themselves in the boomtown. They travelled to Canada by steamer from England Gertrude was very taken with life on board the steamer, it made a profound impression that was to forever affect her life.
Less than a month after they had arrived in the thriving town of Sandon, Gertie’s mother was tragically killed in an avalanche that destroyed their home on the steep mountainside at the north end of town. Gertie was coming home from her job at a general store in town and witnessed the whole thing. Her heart broken father blamed himself for Violet’s death and sank into drinking and gambling, leaving his only child pretty much to fend for herself. Gertie had to make sure her father actually made it for his shifts and accompanied him on his routes to Kaslo, helping him shovel coal. Finally, as he slid further into debt and depression, she was pretty much doing the actual running of the engine herself to enable her constantly drunken father to keep his job so they would not starve. After his death in 1896, the Railway refused to allow her to continue working for them because their policies did not include hiring women.
Stranded in Kaslo without a penny after paying off her father’s debts she found that what honest work she could get as a woman paid only starveling wages. After barely eking out a living through the winter, she cut her hair off short, disguised herself as a young man and hired on as a coal hand on the sternwheelers. There she was happy and her knowledge of steam engines soon proved so useful that she was given more responsibilities. Unfortunately, Gertie’s disguise was finally discovered. Her ship and another were racing to establish which vessel had the superior speed when the boiler ran dry. The explosion in the engine room blinded her in her right eye and knocked her unconscious. Gertie was taken to the hospital where the attending doctor realized she was a woman. Without even compensation for her injury she was given the sack, nor would any other steam company hire her on- nobody hired women. Furious that she was not allowed to do the work she was good at merely because she was not a man, Gertrude Imogene Stubbs swore vengeance on the steamlines and Gunpowder Gertie was born.
From there little was known about her life until just recently as most records of her exploits were suppressed by the Provincial Police who were most thoroughly embarrassed by her when she stole their own patrol boat to mount her buccaneering campaign against the paddlewheelers that had treated her so poorly. Originally christened the “Witch” when it was built in Scuttle Bay, just north of Powell River, this 42′ (12.8m ) long patrol boat was purchased and refitted by the Provincial Police with the intention of using it to patrol inland lakes and rivers. She was transported to the interior by railcar where her hull was sheathed in iron and her stern was modified and fitted
with two of the first ever ducted propellers. Unlike the modern propellers we are familiar with today, these experimental propellers were only half submerged below the water line, which gave her a shallow draft of about 18-20″(50cm). There was a funnel over the part of the blades that was above the water which directed the churning water up, thus immersing the whole propeller. The steam engines could drive her at a top speed of 22 knots, making the Witch the fastest thing in the water at the time. Her speed, combined with the water-cooled Gatling gun mounted on the bow made the little boat a fairly formidable vessel.
It was this gunboat that was Gunpowder Gertie’s first ill-gotten prize. The “Witch” arrived in Nelson on February 12, 1898, by railcar. On the morning of February 13, it was gone. It was a feat that would put modern master illusionist David Copperfield to shame. To this day no one has figured out how she managed to steal the ship from its railcar and transport it to the water without so much as being seen, but she did. The next time the ship was spotted, it was sporting her handsewn Jolly Roger and robbing the S.S. Nasookin at gunpoint. Her boiler, washed ashore at Red Sands after she was decommissioned and disassembled still bears bullet holes from the Gatling gun in mute testimony to Gertie’s first act of piracy.
From 1898 to 1903 Gunpowder Gertie steamed up and down the rivers in her gunboat, rechristened the “Tyrant Queen”, attacking and robbing steamboats of their cargos- gold and silver from local mines and payrolls on their way to towns. She would appear out of nowhere brandishing the small but deadly Gatling gun, relieve the passengers of their valuables and the paddlewheelers of their payloads at pistol point and then vanish. Communication was much slower in those days and by the time word got through to the Provincial Police that Gunpowder Gertie had struck again, she would like as not be long gone. Try as they might, the law could never catch her. The sleek and speedy Tyrant Queen could outrun anything else in the water at the time and Gertie knew every little twist and turn, isle and inlet on the lake system. She would hide in the tiniest creeks camouflaged from prying eyes till venturing out to strike once more.
Who knows how long her reign would have lasted if not for the treacherous betrayal by one of her own men, Bill Henson, an engine man who was dissatisfied with his share of the booty. In 1903 he went to the Provincial Police and in return for a handsome reward and a promise of clemency he sold out Gunpowder Gertie. He gave her a phony tip about a supposed fat payroll coming into Kaslo on the S. S. Moyie. When Gertie ordered the vessel to heave to and prepare to be boarded, near what is now known as Redfish Creek, she found it full of lawmen and bristling with guns. Knowing when she was outgunned, Gertie turned tail and prepared to make her escape but the devious Henson had sabotaged one of the gaskets and as soon as the steam pressure reached full, it blew, crippling the Tyrant Queen and making her an easy target for her pursuers. The battle was ferocious! They say the river ran red with blood before the lawmen were able to board the gunboat and capture Gunpowder Gertie, who put up an enormous fight before finally being clapped in irons.
Gunpowder Gertie was sentenced to life imprisonment but died of pneumonia during the terrible winter of 1912. She never revealed where she had hidden her ill-gotten gains. Rumour has it that she buried it somewhere along the river system she’d plundered and left a hidden map that would lead to the treasure. As all her crew perished in the final battle ( including the turncoat Henson who Gertie shot in the back when she spotted him trying to jump ship during the fray) she took her secret to the grave and to this day no one has yet discovered the resting place of Gunpowder Gertie’s gold.