When they discovered gold in Wild Horse Creek, it was kept such a secret that it was just a rumour at first.
The Hudson’s Bay Company knew about it because the Kootenay tribe had traded gold nuggets at the fort as early as 1857 when the honourable Company expressed interest in acquiring gold. Like any secret, it attracted interest and as other gold bearing streams in Idaho and Washington became more challenging, gold seekers like John Galbraith set their eyes on the area north of the border.
Gold seekers followed the Kootenay River north to where the rumours swirled around at Wild Horse Creek. By the summer of 1863, hundreds of American prospectors were following the river north.
By the time John Galbraith arrived, there was a town called Fisherville. It wasn’t a town in the proper sense; quite unlike some of the towns in eastern Canada where he was from. There were shanties from logs, shakes and bark or whatever else was lying around but everything looked like it could be dismantled with a good kick. There were two saloons that could withstand a strong wind and a hotel that was operated by a woman they called Axe Handle Bertha.
He handed over his money to Bertha who showed him a room that looked as though it had been used that same day. He stayed one sleepless night at the hotel listening to doors slamming and drunken men arguing. He woke up early the next morning and ate lukewarm bacon and boiled cabbage. Then he gathered his belongings and set out with his gold pan.
Galbraith spent the better part of the morning walking along a well-worn trail beside Wild Horse Creek. There were men with gold pans and some with shovels full of gravel they put into rockers.
“Where can you stake a claim?” he asked one of the miners.
“Not around here.”
Galbraith trudged on with his gold pan tucked under his arm. There were a handful of men on either side, some with guns at the ready, eyeing him warily.
As he walked by he caught snippets of conversation.
“stolen in the middle of the night.”
“there’s going to be hell to pay – a real western necktie party.”
Galbraith shuddered at the thought of a lynching. At one point in the river there weren’t many people about and none of them seemed vigilant. He got out his pan at the river’s edge and rested it just under the water and shook it vigorously with a slight circular motion. His eyes focussed on the bits of gravel as he raised and lowered the lip of the pan into the water. Just as he thought he spotted some coarse yellow grains in his pan, he felt a tap on his shoulder.
“You see that point up there by the boulder at the bend? That’s our claim from here to there.”
Galbraith turned around to see who was talking, a gruff bull-headed man with a large droopy moustache.
He looked to see where the man was pointing to but it all seemed very hazy.
“Yeast Powder Bill has the point beyond that to the boulder about a mile up.”
Galbraith shook his head, “I don’t see a stake in the ground. Do you have a record of it with the gold commissioner?”
The man gave a sharp laugh, “there doesn’t need to be. That’s the way it is.”
Galbraith trudged back to town empty handed. There were two saloons on the street and he stepped inside one of them. There was an Irish flag nailed to the exposed log behind the bartender and a ceramic figure with a Gaellic expression underneath. There were several men playing a lively game of cards on an overturned keg.
“C’mere and close the door behind you. Those damn flies like my beer too much.”
Galbraith drank some beer and asked about the man who had ordered him off the river.
“That would be Overland Bob, or so he calls himself. He and Yeast Powder Bill and his group have laid claim to just about every square inch of the river. It isn’t right I tell you, there’s nothing but Americans here. They want to see us starve out and now they’re accusing our Tom Walker of going through their damn rockers and picking out the gold!” The bartender slammed his fist down on the counter.
Galbraith commiserated as the bartender, Crowley, ranted and told him the story of how he had paid every penny he had to take one of the ‘Ghost Ships’ to the new world and worked his way west. Crowley had been to every gold rush camp along the way and met quite a few unsavoury characters but none as bad as Yeast Powder Bill.
“He’s ruling this place like a feudal lord here in this fly infested swamp ridden bush nowhere near civilization. It’s a good thing we have a lively group of friends here, we make sure we stick together.”
“Friends of Ireland?” Galbraith asked. He had heard about these clubs from his brother Robert who had said that the Fenians as they were known, were stirring up trouble and harassing government officials in Canada East.
The conversation was interrupted by Tom Walker, who was one of the young men playing cards. He had made friends with some of the Kootenays, he said and they had allowed him and a couple of others to pan for gold but there was still a simmering conflict with Yeast Powder Bill.
Galbraith figured as long as there as gold in Wild Horse Creek then gold seekers would be willing to pay good money to see that their horses or mules were safely transported across the Kootenay River just below where Wild Horse Creek empties into it. He wrote a letter asking for permission to set up a cable ferry and in the meantime, he set to work building a wooden raft and then making rope with bark, hemp and any other fibre he could find.
One sunny afternoon in August, he heard someone had found a nugget that weighed 36 ounces. There was a lot of talk and excitement at first. It was hot and the air didn’t move an inch even when the sun turned down onto the horizon and the liquor was flowing, the heat didn’t dissipate. Crowley was irritable and sweaty as were all the miners swatting flies. It didn’t take long before fights broke out.
Galbraith took a shortcut past the back of the hotel where he saw Gunpowder Sue fanning herself. “It’s so hot you would think there has to be thunder somewhere,” she said.
“There are some clouds over there, but I don’t think –“
Suddenly gunshots exploded and people yelled and shouted. Galbraith peered around the corner and saw Yeast Powder Bill and Overland Bob being chased down the street while Crowley leaned over Tom Walker who was lying on the ground, his shirt ripped and bloodied from gunshot wounds.