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

Just Posted

Golden Country: Daylight reveals the devastation and extent of the Hope Slide

Amid more rockslides and treacherous conditions, the search for the victims begins.

RCMP still investigating disappearance of Spences Bridge resident

Luke Neville was last seen on Oct. 9, 2017.

Smile Cookie Campaign a huge success for Tim Hortons and AVFD

Two anonymous donations had local firefighters and staff busy making cookies

Curling season has started again in Ashcroft

Club has some new members and looking for more newcomers to join

Cache Creek council wants to enter bus service negotiations

Calls from local residents for scheduled public transportation answered

Singer k.d. lang receives Alberta’s highest honour

Celebrated singer-songwriter k.d. lang received the Alberta Order of Excellence in Edmonton

B.C. jury finds man guilty of Japanese exchange student’s murder

Natsumi Kogawa was found at empty heritage mansion shortly after she was reported missing in 2016

B.C. man accused of killing Belgian tourist along Highway 1 appears in court

Sean McKenzie, 27, made second court appearance since his arrest in connection with the murder of Amelie Sakkalis

Colourfully named cannabis products appeal to youth, Tory health critic says

Conservative health critic Marilyn Gladu says the Liberal government needs to do more to ensure cannabis products available online are not enticing to young people

Trial set for man charged with decades-old murder of B.C. girl

Garry Handlen accused of killing Merritt girl; also charged with Abbotsford murder

Bernardo-like sexual deviancy poorly understood, expert says

What exactly causes such deviance is not known but some evidence exists of physical brain damage to the front part of the brain

B.C. high school teacher faces sexual assault charges

A Mt. Boucherie teacher has been charged with child luring, sexual exploitation and sexual assault.

Fashion Fridays: You can never have enough shoes

Kim XO, lets you know the best online shopping tips during Fashion Fridays on the Black Press Media Network

Ex-B.C. cop caught in Creep Catchers sting gets house arrest

Dario Devic pleaded guilty after getting caught up in Surrey Creep Catcher sting in Whalley in 2016

Most Read