TALES AND LEGENDS OF THE MOUNTAIN KINGDOM: A Miner’s Christmas circa 1895
I am home. I flew in over snowy mountaintops last week from the green coast, arriving in familiar surroundings covered in a mostly pretty blanket of the white stuff, exhausted after a bout with the flu but thrilled to bits to be back in the bosom of my family and friends.
I was stressed; I didn’t get everything done before leaving that I’d wanted to, including this article. I knew my topic already and had my sources ready, but I hadn’t been able to do the writing. But as the little turbo prop plane I was a passenger on buzzed loudly over the vast forests of the Koots on its descent into Castlegar, I was able to get some perspective. Christmas for the pioneers of the 1890s would have been a rough, lonely affair due to the isolation and…er…rustic conditions that prevailed in this area at the time. Who cares if I didn’t get all my shortbreads baked? And so what if I didn’t get my article done – I would have a cozy place in which to write it when I felt up to it. Pioneers and miners didn’t have such luxuries back in the 1890s.
Yet, despite the roughness and isolation, Christmas way back in the day was celebrated with as much merriment and gusto as was possible.
The first Christmas on record that was celebrated in the Kootenays happened in 1888 in a log cabin on the shores of Kootenay Lake owned by Mrs. Mary Jane Hanna. In addition to the 12 bachelors she rounded up for dinner, there were also present a few other men (Mary Jane was the only white woman present in the townsite for that holiday season) of note. There was the townsite’s first doctor, its constable and mining recorder, and E.S. Topping, who would go on to co-found Trail in the not-so-distant future. Mrs. Hanna served up a dinner of roasted duck and all the trimmings she could muster. The townsite was founded by the constable, Henry Anderson, and he called it Salisbury. We now know it as Nelson.
Back in the 1890s, I bet you nowhere seemed further away from civilization or more remote and isolated than the Slocan. In the Slocan, miners lived in bunkhouses near the mines, not necessarily in town the way they did in Rossland. In 1894, the miners from Silverton, Sandon, and Three Forks used sleighs to escape what surely felt like utter loneliness and drudgery. They sledded down into New Denver, where the ladies of the town decorated the town hall for Christmas and hosted a celebration there that was no doubt very welcome. They partied until the dawn, according to sources.
The first Christmas celebrated by Rossland miners was in 1895, when the Mountain Kingdom was but a mucky camp perched on the side of a mountain and Trail still only accessible via the old wagon road. Crappy for the pack horses, but fun for sledding! And sledding is what they did that year, after the miners were invited to Trail to celebrate the holiday.
Trail was just getting its legs, too, but it had a newspaper already and in it the paper owner, W.S. Esling, announced the burgeoning city’s plans to hold a huge ball on December 24 at 9pm. At midnight there would be a feast and and a toast, and the festivities would wind up at 4am. But presumably Rossland’s miners would have still been working and wouldn’t have been able to make the party on time, so the organizers of Trail’s party decided to move the bash back to Christmas Day so the miners could get to the party on time. Also invited were the folks of Northport and Waneta, who would arrive by boat on the 25th
But the turnout was disappointing. The Grand Ball, as it was dubbed, only had an attendance of 30 couples who came to enjoy dancing and a ridiculously enormous feast that included menu items such as roast turkey, prime rib, ham, suckling pig, mutton and desserts like lemon tarts and English plum pudding.
What happened to the Rossland miners who were supposed to be sledding down the hill? It’s a bit of a mystery, but my theory is that they were probably getting pretty drunk in their cold little shacks and having quite the celebration of their own.
The editor of Rossland’s newly-minted little newspaper scoffed at the poor attendance at Trail’s shindig. Which was not very nice or in the spirit of the season, especially as Trail had postponed the party to accommodate the miners. The editor of Trail’s paper responded by saying, “Next year our citizens will give another ball. Trail will be a city of 10,000 by that time and the attendance will be larger than the occasion in question!” .
Christmas cheer spread into the very lonely outposts of humanity in the Koots back before there were roads here or flights to bring us in fro the cities to spend the holidays with our families and friends. It seemed that there were some very generous folk who came to our little corner of the world, determined to make the holidays as special as they could for those who might otherwise have been alone, homesick, and feeling like they might be regretting coming to a locale so much on the margins of civilization and wintering here, despite the riches gold might bring them.
I wish all my readers a very safe, happy, and cozy holiday!
Pioneer Days in British Columbia, Vol. 4, in a piece entitled “An 1890s Christmas in the Kootenays” by Elsie G. Turnbull, as seen on Google Books: http://books.google.ca/books?id=ETRnNvNStZ8C&pg=PA71&lpg=PA71&dq=Sidney+Norman+rossland&source=bl&ots=efvLx-S4Dl&sig=ZRTQQiHTVqkiX-rpe-97NwK7Mcg&hl=en&sa=X&ei=G1mCUv6dFem8jALwi4HIDQ&ved=0CGkQ6AEwCA#v=onepage&q=Sidney%20Norman%20rossland&f=false