In a Border Mining Camp
F. W. Rolt
in The Monthly Review
IT is generally supposed that after his thirtieth year, it is the bounden duty of a good citizen to settle down as soon as possible into the stereotyped decorum of middle age. I am happy to say that in my own case I have found this view of affairs to be quite incorrect. For at a time of my life several years later than the period which I have named, it was my happy lot to be spirited away by the wand of an irrepressibly humorous destiny, and dropped gently into a remote corner of the mountains of British North America, where a new and vgorous mining camp was just springing into lusty life.
It will probably be assumed that the “Auri sacra fames” had something to do with my movements, but unluckily, perhaps, I was never conscious of having been stung by that particular gadfly, and, indeed, I think I may say that I drifted into Golden Gate more by accident than by design. However, I had not been there many hours before it struck me that unless I was much mistaken I was on the edge of a new and thoroughly original experience.
The town, so-called, was, it is true, not much more than a collection of ramshackle wooden shanties, hastily built, and dotted about at random on the slopes and terraces of a wild hillside, still for the most part covered with primaeval forest. On every side frowned down upon it a desolation of mountains, torn by raging torrents into many a gloomy canon and gorge, and surging up as far as the eye could reach, tier upon tier, range beyond range, until their outlines faded into the blue mists of the horizon. The
streets and alleys wandered aimlessly among upheavals of naked rock, and lost themselves in sudden yawning hollows and precipices. One day they were inches deep in thick white dust, the next day weltered in Manchurian-like morasses of mud, through the midst of which I recollect I used to plough with complete unconcern clad in long rubber duck-shooting waders, the flaps of which reached to the waist, a style of foot-gear which, by the bye, I can strongly recommend to any who is anxious to cultivate chronic rheumatism.
When I wended my way to the house in the “suburbs” where I rented a room from some pleasant Irish friends, the path led by a devious route skirting an awe-inspiring mudhole about half an acre in extent, across a small but unexpectedly vicious mountain torrent, and through a tangled thicket of dense under-brush, which on moonless nights was as dark as a wolf’s throat, from whose depths I have often heard other belated nighthawks, like myself, bawling in vain for help and guidance.
But despite these and many other little inconveniences, Golden Gate was above all things a pre-eminently happy place. From dawn to dark and back again—for nobody took any particular notice of the times and seasons of day or night—hope reigned supreme in the breasts of the curious odds and ends of humanity who came hurrying from all quarters of the continent into this new Eldorado, and because they were all hopeful they were all good humored and merry beyond belief.
Among them there were of course
large numbers—perhaps a majorty— of solid decent citizens, but the people whom I found most interesting and in many ways most instructive did not by any manner of means belong to this class, being more or less men of broken fortunes, frontiersmen who loved adventure and hated a settled life, waifs and strays, the flotsam and jetsam of the ever-restless Border. It was a point of honor never to inquire into any man’s past record, nor to allow it to trouble his future chances of success, a charitable leniency which must have been very advantageous and convenient for certain of our prominent citizens, whose antecedents, had the truth been known, were somewhat varied and picturesque. Of course, a population of this kind, many of whom had a supreme contempt for the sober, peaceful ways of older and longer settled communities, needed strong and dextrous management, and fortunately for us the administration of the law was in the hands of a masterful and masterly Warden of the Marches—in the person of Jack Dunkirk, the mining recorder, chief of police, and representative of all the local executive power. . To borrow language used of a far greater name, “Stark man he was . . . and
he loved the free prospector as if he had been his father.” He was of great stature and strength, and when he strode along the streets in the morning, on his way to his office, the boys fell back in admiring and whispering groups, to let him pass, and I used to think that he looked like a modern manifestation of Jupiter Omnipotens condescending to earth among tribes of lesser mortals.
His fame and popularity were widespread, in fact he had at that period already won his way into myth and fable. I never heard of his going about armed, but he carried with him a strong and pliant cane which no doubt could become a terrible weapon when wielded by that mighty arm. His methods as policeman were distinguished by unconventionality and common-sense. Brawls and fights were, of course, matters of tolerably
frequent occurrence in a community like ours, which devoted a great part of its spare time to drinking and gambling, and sometimes they were pretty savage affairs, in which biting of ears and gouging of eyes and suchlike ferocities were not unknown. On an occasion of this kind often have I seen a ring formed in saloon or street and a rough-and-tumble fight in full swing. Suddenly a hush falls upon the crowd, the ranks divide, and in strides Chief of Police Jupiter Tonans, cane in hand and stern authority upon his brow. He takes his place unchallenged in the front, and watches the antagonists with silent and frowning attention. After a time their fury slackens, and they would fain have done, but Jupiter with an angry nod threatens them to proceed, and curtly announces that if they won't fight one another they will have to fight him. In such a dilemma only one choice can be made, and they fall too again with sinking hearts, until Jupiter decides that they have had enough punishment, that they won’t be in a hurry to get to fighting again, and graciously intimates hat they may now be permitted to stop. Then he walks unconcernedly away, amid all sorts of queer tributes from the bystanders, expressive of their admiration of the great man’s personal prowess.
Many were the stories that used to circulate round lonely camp fires or at saloon gatherings of the achievements of this redoubtable champion of law and order. Our town lay only a few miles inside the Canadian boundary line, and was, therefore, at once a happy hunting ground of Western “toughs” and “bad men” and “bunco-steerers” “from the other sde,” as we called the adjacent State of Washington. But from the very first of these modern knights errant of road seem to have recognized that in Jack Dunkrk they had met their master, and that it behooved them at least to assume airs of good behavior, as soon as they found themselves on the Britsh side of the forty-ninth parallel, which in these parts is the international boundarv line. In their
own country they were accustomed to take advantage of all sorts of laxities and imperfections in the administration of the law, and they waxed fat and rampant in their misdemeanours, in a community which is inclined to be easy-going and merciful, except on the rare occasons when it wakes up with a jerk, and handles its malefactors, while the fit lasts, with an energy that borders on the ferocious. This curious condition of affairs was brought home to me very forcibly some years ago by the following characteristic little episode : I started early one summer morning to ride from Bodie, a mining camp in the Indian Reservation in Northern Washington, to Summit City, fifty miles away across the border in British Columbia. At mid-day I stopped to eat and rest and bait my horse at a rough little village in a grove of cotton-wood trees, where a ferry boat runs across the Kettle River. There is a country store much frequented by prospectors and farmers, a building half hotel, half farmhouse, where you can get a very eatable meal ; a large rambling collection of stables and barns, where the stage coaches used to change horses, an Indian burying ground where the Indians, who are Roman Catholics, come sometimes to pray ; and the usual collection of loafers waiting about for the chance .of a drink in the bar-room. After lunch I lit my pipe, and strolling over to the store, was soon the centre of a knot of friendly inhabitants, all eager to hear the latest news, from Bodie, which was in those parts something of a metropolis of civilization and society, though anywhere else it would have been reckoned a sorry enough spot. Remembering that “two things greater than all things are, the first love and the second is war,”
I bethought me of the latest adventures of Mike Flaherty, “the bad man” of Bodie, who some years ago, after murdering a “pal” in cold blood, had broken jail, and escaped the hanging which he so richly deserved. So I told them how on the night before I left Bodie this abominable ruffian had violently and of pure wantonness,
assaulted a well-known mine foreman, who, I am happy to say, had retaliated with compound interest, and nearly beaten him to death with the butt-end of his “gun”—Anglice, revolver. My audience listened to this moving tale with bated breath, and there was no doubt that their sympathies were all on the right side, that they execrated Mike Flaherty and applauded the drastic methods of the mine foreman. But of the fact that the lav/ had been outraged, and ought to be most promptly vindicated, they seemed not to have the least idea, and the discussion was finally summed up by a very respectable and intelligent-looking carpenter, who remarked with a deep sigh, that was almost a groan, “Ah ! that’s the way to treat them ‘bad men’—smash ’em with an axe, or beat their heads in with a club.” And the crowd echoed their approval, “Yes, that’s the only way to handle them ‘bad men.’ ”
So having done what I could for the entertainment of the village, I saddled my horse and rode away, thinking as I rode of our method of handling “bad men” in British Columbia ; of Cariboo, where, as I have been told, they once hanged eight men at one assize; of a famous late chief justice who condemned a man to death and, as no hangman was forthcoming, slipped with his own hands the noose round the criminal’s neck; and last, but not least, of our own Jack Dunkirk, terror of marauders and bulwark of the law.
One story of Jack Dunkirk’s doings is so characteristic that I cannot leave it untold. A drunken “tough” with bellowings and howlings makes night hideous beneath the very windows of Jove’s private mansion. The great man is aroused from his healthy slumbers, and emerges—a portentous apparition—clad only in boots and breeches and night shirt. Once, nay twice his dreadful warning rings out into the night : “Sam Rogers, you shut your mouth ; if I hear any more of your noise I’ll kick you out of town and down the wagon road into che Wild Horse River.”
Alas for human folly ! Silence
reigns for a few minutes. Then Sam Rogers forgets this awful threat, and is suddenly clutched, propelled most violently from behind, and bidden in a voice of thunder to leave the town and to tarry not upon his going, until he reach the aforesaid navigable stream, which at that time was the principal entrance into and exit from our remote mountains.
Oddly enough, there is a moral to this little tale ! Sam Rogers seems, to have abandoned his evil courses, for many years later—only the other day, in fact—is it not of record that he returned to Golden Gate from his violently enforced exile, and presented himself at the office of the great potentate at whose decree he had suffered banishment. There followed mutual recognition and hand-shakings and hearty goodwill all round.
Thus was Jack Dunkirk as policeman “illustrious and consummate,” and as administrative officer he was even more admirable. From morning to night his office would be besieged by hordes of ignorant, dirty prospectors all intent upon recording their claims, registering transfers, passing cover the counter greasy “notes” or “bills” in payment of fees, and conducting themselves like a jostling, crowded herd of halfwild steers. Amid this scene of confusion, in a very Babel of tongue—for many applicants were foreigners, Swedes, Danes, Frenchmen, Germans, and Italians (known, of course, as “Dagoes”), who spoke English most imperfectly—the target of endless importunities, towered the figure of the imperturbable Mining Recorder, now no longer the terror of “bad men,” or the stern corrector of midnight brawlers, but the. serene and unruffled guide, counsellor, and friend of innumerable ignorant, bewildered, grown-up children. My friend and one-time partner, “Cap” Carter, who was since drowned, or made believe that he was drowned, in the neighboring Chinook Lakes, was not a good man nor a discriminating judge of fine points of character. But the sight of Jack Dunkirk in the Record Office was too much for him,
and drew from him a fine, and almost involuntary tribute of praise:
“By gosh (says he), that feller’s not human; he has all the damned fools in British Columbia buzzin’ around him like a wasp’s nest, and he never so much as says a cross word to none of ’em. I tell yer, mister, he ain’t human !”
Upon a tomb in one of the English cathedrals some enthusiastic heroworshipper, in a burst of admiration, has celebrated the virtues of the departed with the words, “Oh! what men !” The phrase often recurs to me as I run over in my mind the collection of oddities and eccentricities with whom I came in contact in the streets of Golden Gate in those careless days. There was old Tom Robson, a tough “Cousin Jack” from Cornwall, who had been prospecting and mining and timber cruising in the west for many years. A very rough diamond indeed was he, as hard as nails and sturdy as an oak, so that in the coldest winter weather I have seen him lounging about in a snow storm with nothing on under his coat but a low-cut woollen sweater, which left his brawny throat and neck and the upper part of his hairy chest naked and entirely unprotected. I watched him once roll down over a steep mountain-side mixed up helterskelter with his fallen horse, and when I ran round to the bottom to pick up the fragments, I found him sitting in a thicket of brambles comparatively unharmed but for the fact that the wind had been temporarily beaten out of his dogged old carcase and that the blood was running from a cut upon his forehead. His battered, weather-beaten face presented such a fantastically ridiculous picture of furious blind rage and comical bewilderment that I thought of Falstaff and Trinculo and all sorts of absurdities, and burst out laughing at him. For a moment he looked so angry that I thought he was going to punch my head; then I suppose he caught the humor of the situation, and fell to laughing loudly, too. A great man he was in a rough-and-tumble fight—the more savage the better as far as he
was concerned—and a terrible drunkard when the fit seized him. I need not say peace to his ashes, for no doubt he is still alive ; in fact, I doubt whether so gentle a thing as death could kill him. A lawyer friend of mine once had to cross-examine him in court, and by way of starting pleasantly remarked: “Mr. Robson,
I'm told that you're something of a fighting man ! " Old Tom put his hand to his ear, being very hard of hearing, and bawled out. “ Fighting man, did ye say: fighting man: you step outside with me for a minute and I’ll show you whether I'm a fighting man or not !" He came of a long line of miners, and had a sort of natural scent for a prospect, though I never heard of his finding anything particularly good. But, perhaps, prospectors are like card-players, and luck favours the young and inexperienced among them.
As you strolled along the streets on a fine spring morning you would find yourself rubbing shoulders with many local celebrities who would greet you with great cordiality, and invite you to drink with them a great deal more often than was good for you, and to gamble with them all day long and all night too if you cared to do so.
Conversation, of course, never strayed very far from the all-absorbing subject of mines and prospecting, and incidentally you would soon be invited to buy shares in a newly-formed mining company, or acquire an interest in some mining claim of highly problematical value. Needless to say, there were lots of sharks to be met with who were on the lookout for any greenhorn with money. But it is part of one’s business in a mining camp as elsewhere, to learn whom to distrust and whom to cultivate, and it was no very hard matter to be hailfellow-well-met with every one without getting too closely involved with any particular schemer. The best plan in Golden Gate, as in most places, was to hold your tongue and let the people round you do the talking. They all had their own adventures to tell and were by no means slow about doing it, and while it was very probable that
you would find something strange and interesting in their anecdotes, you could make up your mind once for all that they would not even pretend to be amused by yours. At all events, many a pleasant hour have I spent lounging about the streets, or in the bar-rooms, or sitting comfortably smoking beside a warm stove fire, while bronzed, hatchet-faced Frank Launce described to us how he went prospecting forty years ago in the Arizona Mountains, when the Apache Indians were still an untamed tribe, and an intruder into their country carried his life in his hand every day ; or Charlie Wilson, of the venerable grey locks and wild blue eyes, spoke dreamily of the wonderful “Lost Claim" of fabulous wealth which lies hidden high up in the Bitter Root Range, where he and his friends had sought for it in vain this many a year. Then, “with a whoop and with a holloa," Liverpool Jack would break in, and in a burst of confidence tell you: “Why, bless your heart, I’ve served in the British Army and British Navy, and the American Army and the American Navy, and I’ll be darned if a man can't have more fun in the British Army in a week than he can have in the American Army in a year !" I remember feeling myself thrilled with a glow of patriotic pride when I heard this somewhat ambiguous tribute to the merits of our most glorious national institution, and I have no doubt that “Liverpool Jack" had “sized" me up accurately, and had counted - upon producing a favorable impression by his remark. He no doubt was by origin a Liverpool “Wharf Rat," but much foreign travel and many vagabond adventures had expanded him into a companionable enough ruffian. He decoyed me once to go with him to inspect a mineral claim which he wished me to buy, and I went, knowing full well that his glorious description of the property was a tissue of impudent falsehoods, but reckoning also that I should be rewarded by hearing many quaint tales.
After several hours hard and hot riding, followed by a long and tedious
scramble up a blazing sun-scorched rock slide, he paused upon a naked and barren granite bluff and proclaimed triumphantly that we were now walking upon the ledge itself. “Ain’t she a beauty,” he kept repeating enthusiastically. “She’s the biggest thing that ever happened ! Ain’t she a dandy!”
I sat down and groaned inwardly, and he must, I fear, have noticed that I was dejected and disappointed. But he would not admit defeat, and continued to expatiate on the glories of the ledge, even while I turned silently away and commenced the painful descent, too tired and disgusted to utter a word of expostulation or reproach. All the way home he tried to keep my fainting spirits with ingenuous stories of love and war, reminding me for all the world of a dog who has done wrong and knows it, and tries to propitiate his lord and master with curvetings and gambols.
An eccentric personage of quite another variety from whom I used to extract much innocent amusement, went by the name of “Highly Metalliferous Brown,” and was the victim of a positive passion for laying down the law on geology, mineralogy and topics of a kindred nature. He was a very tall, rather striking-looking man, with black hair and dark eyes, and particularly long, well-shaped hands, with which he would trace imaginary diagrams in the air for the instruction of his audience, who, If I am to judge by myself, never had the faintest glimmering of an idea as to the drift of his disquisitions. It was his habit to discuss the geology of the “camp” with the voice and air of one crying in the wilderness—the fervour of the prophet mingled with the sullen discontent of the unappreciated genius. Geology at the best is a hard and abstruse subject, but as handled by “Highly Metalliferous Brown” the thing became a dark, weird, impenetrable mystery. In any other country, and under any other conditions, this man would have been voted a bore of the first magnitude, and avoided like the plague, but here he was allowed to talk as much as he
pleased, and though no one paid much attention to him, he was regarded more or less as a credit to the community, and a demonstrator of the unrivalled possibilities of the district. New comers and “tenderfeet” were always introduced to him with a view, I presume, to being put through a sort of matriculation, and as a means of inoculating them with some measure of his gloomy prophetic enthusiasm.
I have never heard a word as to the history of this strange creature, nor do I know whence he came nor whither >he has gone. He turned up apparently from nowhere and vanished in due course as silently as he had come. But if he is still living I have no doubt that he is still following the same way of life, and like scores of other oddities, some of whom I have attempted briefly to describe, is spending the remainder of his years in drifting from one mining camp to another, as fresh discoveries continue to be made in the wild sea of mountains that stretch from Lower California up through British Columbia into the frozen heart of Alaska.
Meantime, while we have been occupied in making the acquaintance of these and many other worthies, the street has been alive with a constant stream of mounted men going to and coming from the mining claims which have been staked out all over the mountains for who knows how many miles round the town. A glimpse at these horsemen and their surroundings will enable one to understand something of the daily life of the prospector and miner.
“Pete the Packer” goes by with his string of pack-horses tied each one to the tail of its predecessor, and loaded with a queer assortment of prospecting tools and requirements : boxes of dynamite, stoves, stove pipes, anvils, hammers, long-lengths of miners’ drill steel, tents, sacks of flour, provisions of all kinds, piles of blankets, rough quilts and matresses, and a hundred other odds and ends. All this equipment is to be transported to the lonely log cabin that has been hewn out under the great cedar
trees many weary miles away in some distant mountain range, where its owners will spend the long toilsome months striving with shaft and tunnel to wrest from the hard rocks the treasures that may perhaps repose within. Much skill is required, as may be supposed, to stow away such a quantity of incongruous and intractable articles upon the narrow frame work of a “cayuse,” or packpony’s saddle, so to hang and adjust each load that its weight is evenly distributed on either side of the animal, and to fasten the whole with that most complicated and voluminous arrangement of ropes known as the “diamond hitch.” I have often wondered how the method of loading of pack-horses in the mountains of the Northwest compares with that in vogue in these islands before the era of wheeled traffic, but I have never seen any allusion to the subject, nor met any one who could throw any light upon it. The men accompanying the pack-trains, who were, of course, themselves nearly always mounted, wore red and blue shirts and curious blanket coats cut somewhat in the style of Norfolk jackets, of parti-colored design, that reminded one of the pictures in children’s books of Joseph’s coat of many colors. Sometimes, when I have been riding
home in the evening down some steeppitched mountain trail, I have caught sight far below me of the pack-train toiling painfully and slowly up the long inclines, the bright colors of the men’s attire standing out in vivid contrast to the sombre grey rocks and the deep green masses of cedar, balsam, hemlock, and pine. A little later and a little higher up they will reach the night’s camping ground, where loads will be unpacked, tents pitched, and soon the smoke of their fires will begin to curl up in blue wreathes among the trees. There will they lay them down in peace and take their rest, in the deep silence of the hills, broken only by the muffled tread of the horses as they wander round the camp in search of fresh grazing, by the distant howl of the timber wolf, or the shrieking bark of the coyote, and by the murmuring of the never far distant streams, which mingles drowsily with the rustling of the night wind in trees. In the freshness of the early morning, before the sun has climbed above the jagged edges of the mountains, if you peep quietly out of your tent, you may chance to catch a glimpse of the lonely wandering caribou, or of the deer, browsing, secure and unalarmed, in the dewy forest gla'des.