Past, Present & Beyond – Only one man came back – Pt. 1: Vanished into thin air

Barbara Roden's bi-monthly tales of little-known BC history.

Although this long ago mystery is not set in our area, it’s fascinated me for some time. I hope you enjoy it as well.

In early June of 1930, three men ventured north from Fort St. James into the bush. They had been working around the Vanderhoof area for several days, keeping to themselves and exciting no comment. All anyone knew about them was that they were German, and when they let it be known they were heading north to look for gold, and planned to be gone for some time, it raised no eyebrows.

In 1930 central and northern B.C. was filled with men who had come from elsewhere to seek their fortune. Some had come north from a United States wracked by the Depression; others had been driven by unrest in Europe. It was subsequently learned that the men’s names were Herman Peters, Max Westphal, and Karl Fredericks.

They arrived in Fort St. James sometime between June 2 and 6, and appeared to be amply provisioned. They purchased a boat, loaded up their supplies, and set out, passing – as The Prince George Citizen noted in November 1930 – “from the ken of the whites to that of the Indians.”

It was soon apparent to the Indians of Tachie, northeast of Fort St. James, that the men were not very competent, either in the bush or on the water. On June 11 they were making very slow progress up the Tachie River, and were given a tow by August Matise to within four miles of Trembleur Lake. The three Germans had a meal with the Indians; then Baptiste Anatol completed the towing job to the lake. The Indians were quietly amused to note that the trio had made camp at the eastern end of the lake, some way off the usual line of travel because it was subject to heavy winds and bad weather.

Two days later the Indians’ amusement turned to surprise when they found the men’s boat tied up at a landing some four miles south of the lake. It contained a large quantity of the men’s provisions, as well as a note asking whoever found the provisions to look after them until the owner returned. Provisions, in the north, were a very serious matter, and could literally mean the difference between life and death. To dispose of them so haphazardly was little short of madness.

The following day one of the three Germans arrived at the Tachie reserve, and said he had taken ill, although he did not say what his ailment was. He told the Indians that he was going south to get hospital treatment in either Hazelton or Prince George, while his companions continued on to Takla Lake. He had money, and bought bearskins, moccasins, and other items – including a pair of moose horns – from the trading post on the reserve. Then he left for Fort St. James, where he got a ride in a car to Vanderhoof and boarded the train heading east.

The Indians discussed the matter, trying to make sense of it. Why had only one man of the three come out of the bush? If he was ill, why didn’t his companions come with him, to ensure his safety? Why had he brought so many of the provisions back with him, when his companions would surely need them? Why had they chosen such a difficult place to make camp on the lake, one that was fully exposed to the west wind? Perhaps the other two men had already established food caches to the north, but they had not seemed very at home in the bush, and no one had noticed them doing it; besides, the provisions that had been abandoned seemed to preclude any caches. It was a mystery; but it was also none of the Indians’ concern.

A few weeks went by, with no answers. Eventually the Indians at Tachie dispatched someone to the Provincial Police detachment in Vanderhoof to report the matter, which seemed worthy to them of investigation. To the police, however, there seemed little to go on, and less to investigate. Three men had gone into the bush; one had come out, with a story that sounded convincing.

Nevertheless, they followed up the only lead they had: that the man who came out had said he would be seeking hospital treatment in Hazelton or Prince George. Police checked with both hospitals, but no one fitting the man’s description had been to either. Perhaps he had recovered, or had gone somewhere else; who could say?

Police next checked with anyone who had been north of Trembleur Lake that summer, asking if they had seen the two men who remained break camp, or had spotted them in the bush. Despite the large – if widespread – number of people travelling through the region, no one had seen any trace of the two Germans who had remained behind.

This was rather more worrying. In 1930 modern communication systems were noticeably absent, the further north one went, but the “bush telegraph” – whereby news was spread by word of mouth from one group to another – was an effective and reliable method of finding out what was going on, and who was where. When this system revealed no information about the missing men, it was cause for alarm.

Constable Jennings of Vanderhoof took a party of men to Trembleur Lake and searched the campsite the men had used at the eastern end. It was easily found, but yielded no clues. The lake – one of the largest in the province – was then dragged in search of bodies, but nothing was found. The shore of the lake was scoured for other campsites the men might have used, but the search revealed nothing. The two men appeared to have vanished into thin air.

To be continued

Barbara Roden

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