Certainly the town of Yale has changed over the years. Except for its cairn and provincial parks department signboards few visitors would stop to think that once Yale was a boomtown. Gateway to El Dorado.
One who well remembered the colorful community at the entrance to the Fraser Canyon in its heyday was David W. Higgins, pioneer journalist and adventurer who, like thousands of others, had joined in the mad rush to British Columbia in1858. Higgins, unlike most, did very little picking and panning for gold. After a short stint as an express clerk he returned to his profession of journalism.
In the spring of 1906 he returned to Yale, scene of his “early manhood’s adventures,” after an absence of almost 58 years. His visit was brief and poignant filled with memories of the hundreds of courageous and outrageous characters who had once walked the busy streets of Yale. But all of that had changed by 1906. What had been crowded thoroughfares were overgrown lanes. Homes and buildings had vanished or were falling down; a tiny lilac bush planted by a long-gone pioneer had grown to gigantic proportions and seeded its own jungle of aromatic bushes.
The Yale of 1906 was a far cry from the Yale of 1858, “the busiest and worst town in the colony.”
There were many God-fearing men and women, but there were many of the bad sort too who never attended church and sneered at those who did. Every other store was a gambling den with liquor attachments. Ruffians, fugitives from justice, deserters from the United States troops who strutted about in army overcoats which they had stolen when they deserted for the British Columbia gold mines, vigilance committee refugees who had been driven from San Francisco under sentences of life banishment, ex-convicts, pugilists, highwaymen, petty thieves, murderers and painted women, all were jumbled together in that town and were free to follow their sinful purposes so far as any restraint from the officers of the law were concerned.
Only a gold commissioner and two constables had been responsible for law and order in that mecca of thieves, with the result that justice was all but non-existent. A drunk without money and without friends, could count on awakening in a jail cell. “High class” criminals with money and friends could easily break jail or arrange to have witnesses bribed or threatened to keep their silence.
On one occasion a miner was shot down because he refused to pay for a drink of whisky. His murderer went into hiding. On the third night after the killing invitations were issued to a ball, which the gold commissioner and the two constables attended. All these men had associated themselves in the hope of tracking the murderer. While the ball was at its height the murderer emerged from his place of hiding and made off in a canoe. He was never caught.
But all that had occurred during the town’s youth. In 1906 Yale was little more than a clutter of shanties and ruins beside the river. As the aging journalist strolled along the quiet streets, his mind travelled back almost half a century and his heart ached for his friends and acquaintances of that halcyon day; most of them had gone from this sphere, and exist only as pictured memories of the past, to be recalled by the pen of the historian who strives to convey to people of the present day an Idea of the sorrows, the joys and temptations of the gold seekers who came here many years ago, and who have left an imperishable record on the towns, the rivers, the rocks and the hills of this province.
As Higgins stood, pondering the course of progress, a cheerful voice interrupted his reverie. Startled, he turned and saw a short, stocky man with a shovel on his shoulder. Before he could return the man’s greeting, the other exclaimed: “By Jove, I ought to know that face Ain’t your name Higgins?” When Higgins nodded, the other replied, “Well, my name is Ned Stout. Remember me?”
“Indeed I do. You were here in 1858, and afterward you went to the Cariboo and gave your name to a rich piece of mining ground. Stout’s Gulch was famous once.”
Grinned Stout: “Yes. I made a good bit of money out of it, but I did not keep it. It all went somehow, and after many years I have comeback to Old Yale to live and die. It is the prettiest and best place on earth anyhow.”
What most struck Higgins was Stout’s appearance — in almost half a century it seemed that he had not aged a day. Higgins thought the famous prospector must have been about 50 in I860, and wondered aloud if Stout had not found the fountain of youth, or if he had In fact died and been reborn. Neither, replied Stout with a chuckle. He was 86 (according to Higgins) and had “outlived all the early inhabitants except you and Bill Aldway there.”
As he spoke he pointed to an old man who, having heard that Higgins was In town, painfully hobbled up to shake hands. As the newspaperman shook his hand he thought back to the day when Bill Aldway and his brother Mose had been packers. Mose, he was Immediately told, had passed on; Bill, bent and broken, was merely awaiting the call.
“But,” said Aldway with a laugh, and with a trace of the old fire in his eyes, “I have had lots of fun; perhaps a lot more than I ought to have had, and I am paying for it now. I am a sick man and it is no wonder, for I am 79.”
“Ah! I remember,” interrupted Stout. “John Kurtz, Hugh Nelson and you, and Walter Gladwin and Old Man Kimball whom we used to call Goodness Gracious,’ and the Barry brothers and Frank Way, the greatest practical joker on the river, and Ben Bailey, who lived all one winter with his wife and children in a tent on the bar, and come out in the spring rosy and happy. Bailey said be had never passed a winter so comfortable and he and his wife and children had never a cold or headache the whole time . . .”
As Higgins listened, his mind trailed back 46 years, to the day when the men Stout had mentioned were living, breathing people; when Yale was In its glory; when the events mentioned were being enacted beside the Fraser. He was returned to the present by the painful thought that all but the three of them — Higgins, Stout and Aldway — were gone.
Everything had changed; everything but the overhanging mountains, the river, and Ned Stout. “There was as little change in the one as the other,” marvelled Higgins. “If anything the mountains and the river were the worse for the wear and tear, but the man — there wasn’t a new line on his face, a new furrow on his brow, a dim spot in his eye, a grey hair or bald spot on his head! “Surely, surely, I thought, he had drunk of the waters of eternal youth, for at 86 he is still a kid!”
He was still incredulous when the three parted. Aldway and Stout went on their way, Higgins continued his stroll through the old townsite. As he walked along the Yale Flat he mentally “peopled the spots where the various establishments stood in those days, and where the old and young, the grave and gay, the good and bad, consorted in common companionship.
“I picked out the site of Billy Ballou’s express office, Barry’s saloon, Oppenheimer’s warehouse and residence (the latter the handsomest in town). Bennett’s gambling house, where a youth was done to death for objecting to the way a sharper attempted to stack the cards on him, the door from which Foster fired when he shot Barney Rice for refusing to pay for a drink, the place where stood the tiny hall in which Rev. Ebenezer Robson, the pioneer Methodist minister, delivered his first sermon; the Hudson’s Bay Co. store over which Ovid Allard presided with profit to his company and satisfaction to his customers; the gambling house in which in 1858 Chief Justice Begbie held his first court, in a room where three nights before a man had been shot. . .
“All these scenes and events passed through my mind that day like a series of motion pictures on the stage. I could recall every face and in my mind’s eye could follow the men and women through their various careers until the grave closed over them. It is sad to think that of the busy multitude whom I knew at Yale 56 years ago only two remained on the scene to welcome the returning pioneer and run over with them the incidents pf the past.”
With a sigh he turned away from the scenes of early life with a feeling of deep regret and sorrow.” Then, with a theatrical flourish, he concluded: “As I bring down the curtain on the moving mind pictures and turn off the lights I return the films to the memory cells where they have long slumbered, and from whence they may never again emerge. As I “dismiss my audience I am tempted to exclaim with Tiny Tim, ‘God bless us all.’ “