Past, Present & Beyond – Lost in the mountains on Christmas Day

Barbara Roden gives us more tales of bravery and foolhardiness on the gold rush trail.

A coloured engraving of Yale

Christmas, 1858. In the gold rush boomtown of Yale, the terminus for steamboats bringing people north, the holiday prospects looked bleak. Many people were still living in tents when a sharp frost hit on Dec. 1, closing the river. With boats unable to reach Yale, supplies became scarce, and the few things available were expensive. It seemed very likely that Christmas Day would be the occasion for a famine, rather than a feast.

And so it was that four young men from Yale decided to venture four miles up Little Canyon, to the wayside house of a man named Hedges. He was known to have several hens and two geese that had been fattened up in readiness for the holiday; and the men were determined to bring some of the birds back to Yale.

One of the men was 24 year-old David Williams Higgins, who would go on to a distinguished newspaper career before being elected to the provincial legislature and eventually becoming Speaker of the Legislative Assembly. He and his companions set out at 2 pm on Christmas Eve Day, but soon found themselves at the mercy of the elements. The snow was two feet deep in Yale; closer to Hedges’s it was three feet deep, and a trip that should have taken 90 minutes took four hours.

Still, the effort was worth it, for when the men arrived at the wayside house they found a blazing fire, a few drops of something warming, and a hearty repast of pork and beans. Several miners who had come down from the upper Fraser region were staying there, and they told of terrible conditions: how men had discarded vital provisions, including food and blankets, in order to speed them on their way to shelter. They warned the men from Yale not to venture out next day; but the quartet was determined. They had negotiated a price of $4 per bird, and vowed to bring the Christmas repast back to town.

At 8 am on Christmas Day morning they set out for Yale, ignoring the warnings of the others. One miner compared them to silly geese, while another said they ought to be sent to an asylum, to have their heads examined. One man produced a measuring tape, and proceeded to use it on all four of the Yale men. When asked why, he said “I’m a carpenter out of a job. I shall begin to make four coffins the moment you pass out of sight, so that when you are brought back stiff and stark there shall be nice, comfortable shells to put you in.”

The men laughed this off, and began on their way. It was not long, however, before they began to think they had been mistaken. Snow was falling heavily, obliterating any sign of the trail, and they found themselves struggling through drifts up to six feet high. Occasionally one of the men would plunge into a hidden gully, and have to be pulled out by the others. By 11 am, Higgins estimated they had gone only a mile, and with no compass they had no idea whether they were headed north or south, or where the trail was.

The wind howled, and the cold was relentless. They had one set of furs between them, and had given them to a man named Talbot, who seemed particularly susceptible to the cold. The others had to keep coaxing him to proceed; but at last there came a time when Talbot sank down into the snow, unable to continue. He urged his companions to continue without him, but they refused, and instead discarded their packs, in order to lighten their load. The precious birds went, too, sinking down into the snow.

The men considered retracing their steps to the inn, but their trail had disappeared under the new snow. Suddenly one of the men pointed at Talbot, and cried out that he had fallen asleep, and must be wakened. While his companions tried to revive Talbot, Higgins broke some dead branches from a nearby pine, cleared snow from the roots of an upturned tree, and managed to start a fire. A few drops of rum, and the warmth from the fire, revived Talbot, and the men huddled close to the blaze.

Around 2 pm the snow stopped falling, and the temperature began to rise. A chinook had set in, and it gave the men hope that if they could only find their trail, they would make it to safety. Higgins left the others and began searching, but soon realized it was hopeless. Darkness was setting in, and there seemed no alternative but to keep the fire burning and wait until morning.

Just as he started to make his way back to the others, he heard a welcome sound: the baying of a dog, from not far off. Higgins pulled out his revolver and fired several shots into the air. Soon there came an even more welcome sound: men’s voices, calling out “Coo-ee!” Moments later a huge mastiff came plunging out of the bush, and the quartet followed it as it headed towards the voices. It was not long before they came in sight of a cabin, and several men who greeted them. Higgins rubbed his eyes in disbelief. The cabin was Hedges’s wayside inn, and the owner invited them to share their Christmas dinner.

The carpenter was still there, and shook his head. “Well, I’ll be durned. It’s just my luck. I’m out $50 on your coffins.”

The men returned to Yale – where they had been given up for lost – two days later. Before they left the inn, however, Hedges informed them that he had found the spot where they had made their fire. After the quartet had lost the trail they had simply gone in circles, and were never more than an eighth of a mile from the cabin. And despite searching, they never found the birds they had risked so much to procure.

Barbara Roden

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