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

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

Just Posted

Okanagan Lake (File photo)
Thompson-Okanagan ready to welcome back tourists

The Thompson-Okanagan Tourism Association expects this summer to be a busy one

Aerial view of a wildfire at 16 Mile, 11 kilometres northwest of Cache Creek, that started on the afternoon of June 15. (Photo credit: BC Wildfire Service)
Wildfire at 16 Mile now being held

Wildfire started on the afternoon of June 15 at 16 Mile, east of Highway 97

The Desert Daze Music Festival is doggone good fun, as shown in this photo from the 2019 festival, and it will be back in Spences Bridge this September. (Photo credit: Barbara Roden)
‘Best Little Fest in the West’ returning to Spences Bridge

Belated 10th anniversary Desert Daze festival going ahead with music, vendors, workshops, and more

Internet speed graphic, no date. Photo credit: Pixabay
Study asks for public input to show actual Internet speeds in BC communities

Federal maps showing Internet speeds might be inflated, so communities lose out on faster Internet

Fireworks are among the things now banned throughout the Kamloops Fire Centre, as the weather heats up and a dry summer looms. (Photo credit: Black Press files)
Category 2 and 3 open fires, fireworks now banned in Kamloops Fire Centre

Ban on certain types of fires and fire activities in place until Oct. 15

Maxwell Johnson is seen in Bella Bella, B.C., in an undated photo. The Indigenous man from British Columbia has filed complaints with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal and the Canadian Human Rights Commission after he and his granddaughter were handcuffed when they tried to open a bank account. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Heiltsuk Nation, Damien Gillis, *MANDATORY CREDIT*
VIDEO: Chiefs join human rights case of Indigenous man handcuffed by police in B.C. bank

Maxwell Johnson said he wants change, not just words, from Vancouver police

Tk’emlups te Secwepemc Chief Rosanne Casimir stands outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School after speaking to reporters, in Kamloops, B.C., on Friday, June 4, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Kamloops chief says more unmarked graves will be found across Canada

Chief Rosanne Casimir told a virtual news conference the nation expects to release a report at the end of June

A woman wears a vaccinated sticker after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination clinic run by Vancouver Coastal Health, in Richmond, B.C., Saturday, April 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. ranks among highest in world in COVID-19 first-dose shots: health officials

More than 76% of eligible people have received their 1st shot

A screenshot of the First Peoples Cultural Councils First Peoples’ Map. (First Peoples Cultural Council)
Online resource blends B.C.-Alberta’s Indigenous languages, art and culture

Advisor says initiative supports the urgent need to preserve Indigenous languages

An artists conception of the new terminal building at the Pitt Meadows Regional Airport.
Air travel taking off in B.C., but lack of traffic controllers a sky-high concern

There will be demand for more air traffic controllers: Miller

Canadian Armed Forces experts are on their way to North Vancouver after a local homeowner expressed worry about a military artifact he recently purchased. (Twitter DNV Fire and Rescue)
Military called in to deal with antique ‘shell’ at North Vancouver home

‘The person somehow purchased a bombshell innocently believing it was an out-of-commission military artifact’

Phil McLachlan/(Black Press Media
Man shot at Kamloops shopping centre

The man is believed to be in stable condition

Amy Kobelt and Tony Cruz have set their wedding date for February, hoping that more COVID-19 restrictions will have lifted. (The Macleans)
B.C. couples ‘gambling’ on whether COVID rules will let them dance at their wedding

Amy Kobelt and Tony Cruz pushed back their wedding in hopes of being able to celebrate it without the constraints of COVID-19

Most Read