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Left too late: Gold miners suffer on overland trek in winter of ‘58

January 23, 2015

In the first week of December 1858 miners were coming down in droves from the gold diggings on the Fraser and Thompson rivers, driven out by the onset of winter. Mining was at a standstill and provisions scarce and very expensive.  Many started the journey downriver in canoes. Steamboats were the easiest way to travel, but already the steamer Maria was caught in ice near the mouth of Harrison River. An outbreak of frigid air swept down the Fraser Valley spilling into the Gulf of Georgia.

At the Hudson’s Bay Company farm on San Juan island, Charles Griffin’s journal entry for December 4th reads: "Blowing a northerly gale excessively cold."  At Bellingham Bay, the Lummi river was frozen hard.

Before the week was out Tom Wright’s steamer Enterprise was stopped  by ice on Fraser River near Chilliwack and could proceed no further. Hundreds of canoeists and steamer passengers left their vessels to walk down to Langley. Traveling in small groups or en masse, they were ill-prepared for the changing weather and the arduous conditions on the trail.

Setting out on a walk on hard ice and snow, squinting into bright warm sunlight was one thing, slogging through soft snow and slush under a cold rain was another. The weather alternated between freezing, sleet and snow. Those who carried luggage soon cast it away.  Worn out during the day, they had no shelter overnight.

"This night we camped, after a hard day’s travel through rain and snow. We had nothing to eat. There was not one mouthful for a poor famishing child, only 18 months old. It rained and snowed all night. We had no tents and many were without blankets."

When word reached Langley of their plight, all possible aid was sent back to those strung out along the way. Hotel-keeper Catherine Lawless sent up "bread, beef and boiled hams."  At the Fort,  Chief Trader JM Yale opened the company storehouse.  Expressman HF Smith—later known as Okanogan Smith—loaded up a pack and worked his way up the trail, aiding any he met and offering encouragement.

Below,  the miner’s town on the  spit at Fort Langley, as sketched by WB Crickmer  before it was ruined by high-water and finished off by fire in the summer of 1859.  Appears to be Mrs Lawless’ hotel at left. Here Crickmer would have his  “chapel-of-ease,”  a second location in the parish of Derby.

Langley, 1859 - Crickmer sketch

With the Fraser River impassable for boats from its mouth, travellers from upcountry next trekked overland  to Semiahmoo Bay, an ice-free port of call for steamers, sloops and other ocean going craft.

On the 13th of December,  JN King, Commissary for the Boundary Commission,  wrote that "100 miners crossed from Ft Langley." 

The next morning another foot of snow lay at the camp and more miners trudged in. King recorded that of this group, "10 died between Chilliwhack and Ft Langley from fatigue."

Of those who did not make it, a correspondent wrote:

"The snows of this region are their winding sheet, whilst the trees are singing their requiem."

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