We’ve heard about some of the many undesirable elements who flocked to Yale after gold was discovered there in 1858. However, there was a more pleasant and cheerful side to the town, and many inhabitants who were notable additions to it, as journalist David Williams Higgins, who arrived there in July 1858, noted.
We have already heard of William Power and his wife, who opened Power’s Hotel in Yale. They had joined Higgins on board the stern-wheel steamer Enterprise at Langley, having decided to try their fortune in Yale. “Mr. and Mrs. Power and I soon became close friends,” wrote Higgins. “They were a most estimable couple and our intimacy lasted for many years.”
Once in Yale, Higgins met up again with Willis Bond, whom he had known in San Francisco and had dubbed the “Bronze Philosopher”. Bond was a former slave who had purchased his freedom and made some money at mining before travelling north to Yale, where he and a partner had built a ditch and were supplying water to the miners who were washing the bank and bench in front of Yale for gold. Higgins called Bond “one of the cleverest men, white or black, that I have ever met”.
John Kurtz, another former San Francisco resident, was described by Higgins as “a noble character. He loved his fellow man. His heart overflowed with the milk of human kindness, and his last dollar was ever at the call of charity.” Kurtz’s partner, Hugh Nelson, was “in every respect and under all circumstances a gentleman.” Nelson went on to become a member of the Legislative Council of British Columbia, a Senator of the Dominion of Canada, and then Lieutenant Governor, “discharging all his duties with honor and credit to himself and advantage to the country.”
As in any community, there was an “upper class” in Yale, members of which organized and attended various celebrations, parties, and events. One such was a ball arranged by the American miners in the area on February 22, 1859, in honour of the birth of George Washington. Higgins wrote that Bennett’s gambling house, the largest building in the town, had been hired for the occasion, and an orchestra of five fiddlers had been engaged. A ball committee, which included Higgins, was formed, and he noted that “all the married ladies in the town were invited”.
Also on the guest list were Gold Commissioner Peter Whannell and his wife. Readers of this series will recall Whannell as the man who at a previous function had got drunk, pulled out his sabre, and caused the guests to go scurrying into the night, fearful of their lives. Higgins described Mrs. Whannell as a lady of “huge proportions. The bosom of her dress was cut very, very low and her arms were bare to the shoulders. She was what would have been called a fine-looking woman anywhere. She wore, as was the fashion in those days, enormous hoops [under the skirt of her gown]. All the ladies wore hoops at that ball, and how in the world they contrived to make their way through the crowded hall and retain their skirts will ever be a mystery to me.”
Higgins records that all went well until midnight, with the few ladies present not lacking for partners. When supper was announced, Judge McGowan was asked to preside at the ladies table, which infuriated another guest, John Bagley, who fancied himself a ladies man and had doubtless hoped the honour would fall to him.
When the ladies had left the table, Bagley fired “a most offensive epithet” at McGowan, who had a bowl of soup in his hand. He brought the bowl down on Bagley’s head, and Bagley responded with a bowl of soup to McGowan’s head.
“The plates of heavy delft flew into pieces and streams of blood and hot soup, with an occasional length of macaroni, ran down the faces and necks of the combatants, saturating their clothing,” wrote Higgins. “The greasy fluid penetrated to their skins and more deplorable looking spectacles than these two men, who suddenly stood in need of baths, it would be difficult to conjure up.
“The adherents of the men yelled with rage. Pistols were drawn and flourished and a scene of carnage seemed imminent for a few moments. Curses filled the air and the crowd in the hall soon became a surging mass of excited men and screaming women.”
The musicians, and all but one of the ladies, fled the scene, and members of the Ball committee tried to turn to Whannell, as the representative of authority, to defuse the situation. However, the gold commissioner was nowhere to be seen, although his wife—the sole lady not to flee—was standing in one corner of the room, apparently motionless with fear.
Kurtz, fearing that murder would be done, asked where her husband was, to which Mrs. Whannell replied falteringly that she had no idea. Kurtz, ever the gentleman, offered to escort her from the scene, and reached out to half-draw, half-lead the woman—who seemed about to faint—from the room.
“As she moved away a pair of boots, then a pair of long legs and finally a long body … came into view. They all belonged to Whannell, who, in a paroxysm of fear and labouring under a suspicion that the row had been raised for the purpose of potting him, had hidden behind his wife’s ample hoop-skirt to get out of harm’s way!”
The anger of the combatants immediately changed to laughter. “I verily believe that the spectacle of [Whannell] rising from the floor and hurrying from the room and out into the darkness, pursued by the hoots and laughter of the crowd, prevented a tragedy,” wrote Higgins. “The two leaders [of the dispute] threatened to fight a duel over the affair of the soup, but they were laughed out of their wrath and nothing more was heard of a hostile meeting.”
In the next instalment, more of the respectable side of Yale.