Even the wild rush to California in ’49 hardly equaled that to Caribou ten years later.
Surely there has never been such a frenzied scramble for gold as that which filled the harbor of Victoria, Vancouver Island, with a navy of antiquated, leaky craft, laden to the scuppers with a horde of dauntless adventurers, burning to reach the precious placers of the Upper Frazer. These upper reaches are wild enough even today; forty years ago they were in the heart of untrodden wilderness. Civilization had not penetrated further than the guns of the British cruisers could reach: even the log forts of the Hudson Bay Company were not found in the remoter parts of that region so aptly described years afterward by Lord Dufferin as a “Sea of Mountains”. Gold was known to exist; inland tribes bartered with it with others for powder and lead, or blankets, and it eventually made its way to Victoria; but where it was found, or in what quantities, no white man knew; unless indeed it was the head factors of the company, and it was part of their duty to withhold such matters from the world, so that they might keep the great northwest a breeding ground for the fur bearing animals for all time. But one day a certain Jim Barker found his way upstream, dug gold dust from the bars by the spadeful, and then a dozen Hudson Bay Companies could not keep back the adventurers. The rush had begun.
There were no roads, or even trails, save those made by the grizzly and the blacktail, the Frazer and Thompson were cruel streams, ice cold and full of terrible rapids and eddies. But when did danger deter the gold seeker? The army of red-shirted, big booted, daredevils pressed on until Caribou and its rich placers had been reached. Hundreds died on the way; disease and privation played sad havoc with the survivors; but the rewards were in a few cases beyond the dreams of avarice, and the dogged fellows continued to work like heroes all through the short northern summer, with rocker and long tom. Ravishing the rich bars of the wealth they had accumulated during the lapse of eons. Wages were $25 a day, paid in gold dust. It was barely a living pittance. Everything had to be carried over four hundred miles of rough trail on men’s shoulders, as the country produced nothing, after the game had been driven away, except gold dust-but of that there was great store. Potatoes cost $60 a bushel, flour $10 a pound; and a pair of gum boots sold for $50; drinks were paid for in pinches of the precious dust- and some of the bar-keepers had thumbs broader than ever Miller possessed. A few men made fortunes, many managed to pay expenses, but majority went dead broke.
Then the awful winter was upon them. The mercury disappeared in the bulb; the rivers froze almost to the bottom in the still reaches deep snow covered the land, and buried the shanties and tents of the pioneers. Men sickened and died like sheep with murrain. One historian met 4,000 miners returning on the Bakerville trail, destitute, bare-footed, and despairing. When the ice thawed in the spring, the canon of the Frazer was a chapel-house, strewn with the bodies of the red-shirted gold-seekers who had met their fate in its waters.
A few of the most hardy struggled through the great bond of the Columbia River, and, sailing down its broad bosom, eventually found their way back to Oregon. They wintered near the Arrow Lakes, and with indomitable resolution continued prospecting during the succeeding summer. Traces of their operations are occasionally found, but though they were in a country far richer, than Caribou, they knew it not. Placers there were none, and the mysteries of true fissure veins and smelting ores were beyond their ken. They required gold in its native purity- something they could wash out with a pan or rocker and exchange for necessaries without further trouble. It was not there, so they passed on.
Yet, there were superior men among them. One pioneer, at least, must have found rich float on Red Mountain, on the very site of what is now the Le Rol Mine, and evidently followed it up to the outcrop of gossan, or “Iron Hat”, that lay exposed for hundreds of feet. In a half-hearted way, as if he doubted the wisdom of wasting precious energy on a quartz lead, he drove a shallow trail shaft, but, after going down a few feet, became discouraged and moved away- back to the dance halls and rum of the coast. Probably his bones now bleach on some alkali desert, far to the south of the futile shaft he sunk on Red Mountain. A few more shots, and he would have reached ore that would have placed all that wealth can buy within is reach.
For more than a generation Red Mountain lay undisturbed. Wild animals alone wandered over the lofty mass of diorite. The grizzly and mountain lion owned it by turns; blacktail skulked in the forests at its base; big horn skipped over its crest; the white goat of the north chewed the scanty lichens on its scarred side. But the treasure that lay in its bowels rested secure under the protecting “Iron Hat”. Yet through all those long years, a man was growing up in the distant east that had been selected by fate as the inheritor of the hidden treasure in the great Red Mountain.
Born in Suffolk County, New York state, E.S. Topping was by turns sailor, miner, hunter, prospector, Indian fighter and scout. Topping saw western life in all its aspects, until finally he drifted to west Kootenay. Soon although alien, he found himself Recorder and Constable- in fact “the government” of that lonely region. Prospectors were then beginning to stray into southern British Columbia from Idaho and Montana, and such human driftwood formed the bulk of Topping’s subjects. They were a little rough, of course, but “bad men” were scarce, and the few that did wander into west Kootenay invariably showed the most profound respect for the old Indian fighter, and took the first opportunity to remove themselves from his jurisdiction. It is a leaven of just such men as he that made life possible in the mining regions of the west; without them rapine and murder would have stalked unchecked from the Missouri to the coast.
Topping had now found a quiet anchorage after hi adventurous youth, and seemed likely to pass his later days as many another mountain man has done, in an uneventful though not by any means monotonous fashion. When a man is fond of the wilderness and finds himself beside waters teeming with fish, and prairies alive with fowl, and where venison may always be had for the pressing of a trigger, he is likely to be too contented to make any very strenuous efforts to change his lot.
But that was six years ago. Read, and let me tell you how Topping fares today.
One evening in the fall of 1890 he was startled by a violent rapping on the split cedar door of his cabin. He lifted the latch, and Joe Bourgois and his “Pard” Morris stumbled into the little shanty, and dumped the bags of ore samples they had been laden with on the rough floor. Deadbeat and half frozen, they were yet full of enthusiasm over a wonderful body of sulphide ore, which their trail shots had disclosed in the bottom of an old trail shaft high on the flanks of Red Mountain. They had staked out five claims, they said, and would give one to Topping if he would pay the recorders fees on the lot. This, he agreed to do, and in due course became the owner of what seemed the poorest prospect. It is now the famous Le Rol mine. One of the locations is the War Eagle, and another the Center Star, Each a valuable property, but inferior to the Le Rol. From that day Trail Creek, Topping’s abode, began to be famous.
Events move fast in the West, Topping was almost alone at Trail in 1890; today there are hotels, stores, a smelter, a railroad station, and steamboat wharfs, while perched on the shoulder of the mountain near the Le Rol has sprung up the bustling town of Rossland, numbering already 10,000 inhabitants and increasing in population at the rate of 5,000 a year.
Topping of course sold out long ago. He need worry himself no more about ways and means, but can buy all Winchesters, boats and pack animals he may desire, and still have an ample income left- and what more can a frontiersman and old Indian fighter ask? The veteran is a great favorite with his fellow citizens.
And the nameless wanderer who sunk the shallow pit in the iron hat back in the fifties? What grudge had the blind goddess against him? A shot or two more and he would have been rich and famous. But the big air compressors do not pant and groan in his service; a thousand feet below the sunlight, men are tolling, but not for him, the dump sparkles with fifty dollar ore, but the proceeds will not be credited to his account. What writ is writ, and in the Book of Destiny there is no turning back to correct errors- but if the bare, bleached bones on the alkali desert could again be clothed in flesh and revisit Red Mountain, they would weep to see how near the pioneer of ’50 came to finding his El Dorado