SPROAT'S LANDINGFor a decade the north bank of the Columbia River between the inflows of Pass Creek and Kootenay River was a hub of activity. Following the discovery of the Silver King ore deposit in 1887, waves of miners converged on this site en route to Toad Mountain. A steamer landing was established near the present C.P.R. bridge in 1888; in 1891 the site became the western terminus of the Columbia and Kootenay Railway. Within a couple of months, however, the railway was extended to Robson which offered better facilities for a steamship dock. The community experienced a brief revival of activity in 1895 when the Columbia and Kootenay built a spur line to the Lower Landing so that steamers would not have to negotiate the Tin-Cup Rapids at low water. This line was abandoned in 1897 when the Columbia and Western Railway was completed, making down-river travel by steamer unnecessary. Sproat's Landing quickly faded into oblivion.
The northern shore of the Columbia River in the vicinity of present day Brilliant had strategic importance to the first inhabitants of our valley. Although their relationship with the land is described in another article in this series, it is important to briefly point out the essentials. Early travelers (David Thompson, Alexander Ross, and others) referred to the presence of the Lakes people in the area. The cascades of the lower Kootenay River were utilized as prime fishing spots; the Brilliant canyon was, however, too rugged for easy travel any distance upriver. A good trail existed, on the other hand. From a location near Waldie Island , it followed the Pass (Norns) Creek and Goose Creek valleys to Slocan River, and thence either upstream to the salmon fishing grounds along that river or the prime fishing site at Bonnington Falls.
This trail was utilized by the earliest white travelers who ventured eastward from the great river in search of mineral wealth. John Palliser, of the Palliser-Sullivan expedition, which was searching out suitable passes between the East and West Kootenays in 1858 and 1859, did in fact follow the turbulent Kootenay River by portaging around the difficult cascades, the worst of which were the two Bonnington falls. Some prospectors traveling with heavy loads found it easier to work their boats up this difficult stretch of river. The overlanders, on the other hand, preferred the Indian trail. Before the Hall brothers discovered the rich ore body on Toad Mountain late in 1886 very few whites would have used the natives' trail. A notable exception was Corporal Henry Anderson who used the trail to deliver Robert Sproule to New Westminster where he was going to be tried for the murder of Thomas Hammill, found guilty, and subsequently hanged in Victoria. Anderson made the trip in 1885, camping on the shoreline of the Columbia until he could flag down the "Kootenai" as the sternwheeler was making an upriver run with supplies for CPR construction crews at Second Crossing (Revelstoke). By 1887, however, news broke of the Hall brothers' discovery on Toad Mountain in late autumn of the previous year. Hordes of prospectors followed either the ancient trail or the Kootenay River to the vicinity of the Silver King claims. Some would have come upriver on the Columbia from American territory and follow either the Pend d'Oreille and Salmon rivers (as the Hall brothers did), or the lower Kootenay River; others would have come downstream on the Kootenay River from Bonner's Ferry and followed Kootenay Lake to the foot of Toad Mountain. Others still would have worked their way down the Arrow lakes from the recently completed transcontinental railway. Many in fact were laid-off railway construction workers.
One of these men was Thomas Alexander Sproat who soon recognized the strategic value of the land in the vicinity of the Pass Creek delta. He filed for preemption rights and was granted title to 320 acres (Lot 237) on May 28, 1888. Although he was a brother of the more famous G.M. Sproat, Tom remained in relative obscurity. This was probably a strategic decision, as it appears that he was a 'front' for the manipulations of his younger brother who was in position to know what areas of the Kootenay district would likely be developed and were thus ideal for speculation. G.M. Dawson mentions a well-established farm on the site in the summer of 1889. Surveying notes for Lot 237 show a house, outbuildings and garden in the area later occupied by the Waldie mill yard. Across the river, Albert McCleary had been granted a 320 acre preemption on May 1, 1888 (Lot 181).
The hectic summer of 1888 can be seen through many eyes. In May, R.E. Lemon had a scow built at Revelstoke, filled it with marketable goods and with the help of several men navigated the unwieldy vessel to the landing which by now was known after the homesteader on the site. G.O. Buchanan, who was along, describes the camps of several Americans who were the first customers of Robert Lemon's instant store. The Buchanan party continued to the Hall mine via the Pass Creek trail, rafting down the Slocan. The scow was sold to Albert McCleary, who put it into service as the first ferry across the Columbia. His business came mainly from traffic on the old Colville Trail via Ft. Shepherd. As the scow was rather slow, he had to row vigorously to keep from being swept by the current into Tin-Cup Rapids, less than a kilometer downstream. He probably landed just below Waldie Island and used the back-eddy channel to gain ground for the return run (for more on McCleary, see Albert McCleary: Pioneer Homesteader).
Acting on the recommendations of G.M. Sproat, the government commenced on the
construction of a more direct pack trail from Sproat's Landing to the Silver
King mine. Another recommendation from Sproat led to the establishment of a
reserve for a townsite on the Robson bench. The pack trail was built in 1888
under the supervision of L. Macquarrie. It left the steamer landing just below
the present railway bridge, ran past Tom Sproat's farm, over a bridge close to
where the present Waldie footbridge is located, past McCleary's ferry landing,
and then proceeded to climb onto the Brilliant bench. Here several entrepreneurs
quickly established attractions for the road-weary: George Gilpin a hotel and
bar, and Robert E. Lemon had a general store and saloon. Slocan River was
crossed on a ferry operated by Frank Fitzgerald, and the Kootenay River was
crossed on a second ferry just above present-day Shoreacres; this ferry was
operated by Tom Ward. Ward also maintained a half-way house at the site of his
crossing which was well stocked with liquid refreshments. The original route
followed the old miners' trail up the canyon of Forty-Nine Creek and then to the
Hall mine. This roundabout route into Stanley (Nelson) over the top of Toad
Mountain was severely criticized by those who had no interest in visiting the
lofty mine. In 1888 Bob Yuill was hired to move supplies for a store from
Revelstoke to Ainsworth Camp; he traveled on the "Despatch" on her maiden
At Sproat's Landing he had to wait for horses which were being driven up the
Colville trail; when they showed up two weeks after his arrival, the 13,000 lbs.
of supplies was loaded on their backs, and they set off. Rather than follow the
trail over the top of Toad Mountain, they cut a new trail into Nelson through
A packing business was duly established by Tom Wilson, whose horse corral was a
prominent feature at Sproat's Landing. Much of Wilson's early business consisted
of various supplies and merchandise being rushed to the Silver King mine, or the
growing town of Nelson. There were other travelers, as Randall Kemp
Life in the bustling community of Sproat's Landing is described well by Ed Picard in his memoirs. After being laid off from his job on snowshed construction for the CPR, he was involved in various enterprising schemes which included transporting several loads of supplies from Revelstoke to Sproat's Landing in 1888. In late spring of the following year, he accompanied a few other men as well as a load of supplies and lumber to Sproat's Landing on the first season's run of the venerable "Despatch" under the command of Captain Robert Sanderson. Once there, he joined a work crew whose first duty was to build a warehouse (probably for J.Fred Hume). When that task was completed, the men started working on "a bridge across a back channel that rose in high water." (This would be the site of the present footbridge). Picard and his coworkers were able to improve on their wages by helping themselves to Hume's whiskey: they repositioned a barrel hoop and in its normal place bored a tiny hole through which the liquor could be sucked with a straw. The evidence of their crime was easily concealed when the hole was plugged and the hoop moved back.
In his beautifully written and thoughtful memoirs, Picard describes life in
the bustling community on the river, as well as the location and description of
the existing buildings at the town site. I have taken the liberty of quoting him
Ed Picard witnessed the passage of many well known travelers through Sproat's
Landing during the time he was there. He mentions the following : John Mara,
looking over prospects for a railway; John Houston coming in to set up his
newspaper in Nelson; G.O.Buchanan relocating his sawmill business to Kootenay
Lake; Tom Madden coming to set up his famous hotel in Nelson; Judge George C.
Turnstall; and - now and then - 'a respectable woman'. These were an indication
that things were rapidly changing:
One of the two photographs he took that day is the picture of the "Despatch" tied up at the landing near Tom Sproat's farm. He was to take passage on the little steamer the next day. We can clearly see three structures on the Brilliant bench, just to the left of the wheel-house. The larger of the two on the left would be Robert Lemon's store, while the conspicuous log structure on the right is undoubtedly George Gilpin's hotel. We can imagine George passed out at the bar as the customers are helping themselves. Beyond the wooded point at the right, Ed Picard would be savoring the comforts of McCleary's cabin, perhaps reading one of his many books as he waits for ferry traffic to materialize. It would be intriguing to find Dawson's observational notes and measurements, as well as the other photograph. Activity at the site took on hectic proportions when CPR decided to use the old charter of the now defunct Columbia and Kootenay Railway and Transportation Company to start construction of a railway from Sproat's Landing to Nelson in early 1890. Inklings that something was afoot were evident in the previous year to Picard. The railway followed much of the route of the old pack trail as far as Tom Ward's ferry; from there it remained on the north shore to its Kootenay crossing at present-day Taghum. Supplies and equipment for construction were brought in from Revelstoke by steamers. From the landing, the track followed a long curve towards Pass Creek and then uphill (at what must have been a good grade) onto the Brilliant terrace. In addition to hauling construction supplies, the "Lytton" on her maiden voyage (July 3, 1890) had William C. Van Horne and other dignitaries on board. He came to personally inspect construction of the new line. At Sproat's his party rented horses and proceeded along the railway in the making.
At the time of Van Horne's visit about 5 miles of the grade had been completed by Whitehead, McLean & McKay working eastward from Sproat's Landing. The contractor was just relocating construction camp to the next segment for construction, starting about 4 miles west of Slocan River. At the other end of the line, Keefer & Co. had almost completed an equivalent stretch through similarly difficult terrain. About 600 men were employed on the work, including 23 Chinese.
Van Horne was not impressed. The liberal use of shortcuts such as 'grass-hopper trestles' in place of fill or compromises on design brought out the
worst in his volatile personality (as recounted by John Houston in the Nelson
Miner, July 1890):
The summer of 1890 saw another remarkable development. Gold was discovered on Red Mountain near what would become Rossland. Five claims were staked by Joe Bourgeois and his partner; as they were entitled to register only four, they offered the fifth to Col. E.S. Topping if he would pay registration fees for all the claims. Thus Topping acquired the claim which became the LeRoi mine. After he investigated his claim with his friend Frank Hanna, both men decided that the richness of the Red Mountain discovery warranted the founding of a new town site at the mouth of Trail Creek. Thus it came to be that on a mid-August day a long convoy of Wilson's packhorses appeared at McCleary's ferry, bearing all the possessions of the two men as well as Hanna's sizeable family. At Trail Creek they built a large log building which served as a residence, hotel, boarding house, and store. Now the Colville Trail saw traffic in a reverse direction, especially in the winter months when steamer service was shut down because of ice in the Narrows. McCleary's ferry was a paying business again.
At Sproat's Landing the hectic pace of construction activity changed the picture considerably from the comparably laid-back community witnessed by Picard only a year earlier. All the buildings described by him are still there; however many new ones have sprung up. The Genelle brothers have constructed a sawmill just below the mouth of Pass Creek. Slightly further downstream is a station-house ; the rails run between it and the sawmill and then proceed to make a long turn to the east as they follow a rough grade up to the Brilliant bench past Gilpin's hotel. Below the station, the rails continue their descent, ending at the steamer landing. Other new buildings reputed to be at the site are: six boarding shacks for sawmill employees, three restaurants, the Kootenay House Hotel, a drug store, several houses, a few tents, and J. Fred Hume's hardware and grocery store (which along with Lemon's store will be amalgamated into their joint venture in Nelson by 1892; this cooperative enterprise didn't last long, and they both formed separate establishments again). Green Brothers also operated an outlet for groceries, clothing, general hardware and miners' supplies. The location of many of these buildings is not known, although contemporary advertisements indicate that the establishment of R.E. Lemon was on Railway Avenue, while the Green Bros. enterprise was situated on Main Street. If these streets did indeed exist, they may have been the only ones in the town. An excellent photograph exists which shows supplies being unloaded off the "Lytton", possibly into a waiting box car which has been parked at the lowest end of the track. Lumber, bundles of shakes and other construction material is piled up on the shore, obscuring much of the action. Fully suited dignitaries can be seen on the upper deck of the steamer; could this be the occasion of the Van Horne visit? Just to the right of the steamer we can still see Gilpin's hotel; the other buildings we know are there, and possibly new ones, are unfortunately obscured by the hull.
The other famous photograph of Sproat's Landing was taken later that year,
or sometime in 1891. It is looking the other way, towards Lion's Head. The
curving track can be seen, as can be the Genelle sawmill, at least two cabins,
a house with a ridged roof and the station-house. The station-house is
surrounded by an elevated landing platform for the comfort of passengers; it,
like most of the other buildings, has several water barrels on the roof in
case of fire. The foreground is cluttered with all sorts of construction
materials, including railway ties, planks, beams and kegs of spikes. There are
sacks of what could be potatoes (or possibly ore concentrates), and a pile of
more vulnerable goods is covered by a large tarpaulin. A spare rail car axle
is conspicuous among the objects, as is a dory near the sawmill. Several men
are standing near the station. It is hard to believe that the seeming
permanence which this photograph evokes is really an illusion, for within a
year or two at most, all of this will be gone.
Aside from work on the railway, other projects were launched. As the steamers stopped operating during times of extreme low water or winter freeze-up, an effort was made to improve the Colville Trail so that mail service was not compromised when water navigation stopped. An attempt was also made to make the passage through the Tin Cup Rapids less hazardous by removing obstructions in the river channel. In February of 1891 work commenced under the direction of Captain Gore: " Steamboat rock, in the first rapids above the mouth of the Kootenay and about a mile below the present town of Sproat, will be the first obstruction removed." By late February most of the obstructions in the first riffle had been done away with. In March, however, disaster struck. 'Dan' Reed, 27 years of age, was drowned when the work crew lost control of the boat in the rapids, causing it to broadside a rock and break in two. Two men clung to the rock until they were rescued. Reed struck for shore as he was a powerful swimmer. He made it to a sandbar where he rested for a moment; however, while attempting to reach the shore, he was swept into deeper water and disappeared from view at the mouth of the Kootenay. His body was not found until mid-May, in an eddy just below the international border.
The Columbia and Kootenay Railway started operating on May 31, 1891. Like most similar enterprises during this period, it maintained a very flexible schedule. During the winter months, when steamer operations on the Columbia ceased, the railway slipped into a state of hibernation which lasted until ice was once again breaking up on the Narrows. A popular story relates that two of the first passengers on the line were the bride of J.Fred Hume and her friend who were traveling to Nelson from Revelstoke. They occupied an open flatcar. When it began to rain, the obliging engineer stopped the train and escorted the ladies to the relative comfort of the engine; thus they arrived at Taghum which represented the end of the line, as the bridge was not yet complete. Fred took them the rest of the way by rowboat.
CPR business at Sproat's Landing was managed by John McLeod. The burst of
growth at the small community is underscored by frequent entries in the 1891
issues of the Nelson Miner:
Thus early in 1891 work commenced on the extension. By mid-February the site chosen for the new depot at Robson was being graded, and by the end of May the station building was nearly complete. The construction of the relocated railway required a long trestle which picked up the line at a point near the spot the existing railway meets the level of Broadwater Road below Brilliant School. The trestle then continued to its crossing of Pass Creek, and ended where the Robson bench is attained in the vicinity of today's Relkoff Road. Articles in the Nelson Miner suggest that the spur to the new Robson town site was operational at about the same time the last spike was driven on the main line at Nelson. This development was to many residents the proverbial 'writing on the wall' which led to abandonment of various enterprises or their relocation to either the new town-site upstream, or to Nelson. Thus the new community - still often referred to as Sproat's, until it took on the new name of Robson - started to grow and attract settlers.
We have an interesting insight into this period. In July of 1891 Tom Sproat had his preemption officially surveyed. The field notes survive and form an interesting document for our observation. The survey was recorded at Farwell, the second name for Revelstoke, in use at that time. It was named after A.S. Farwell who first accompanied G.M. Sproat to the Kootenays a decade earlier on a government commission to evaluate the potential of the region. Interestingly, the surveyor in question whose notes we have at our disposal was none other than A.S. Farwell himself. The document sketches out quite clearly the characteristics of Lot 237 (the correct acreage is 310 acres), and it shows the location of Tom Sproat's house (30 by 42 ft.) and an outbuilding (32 by 38 ft.) nearby. These were located on a higher bench, some 300 feet from the river, just upstream of Breakwater Island. Several hundred feet downstream and much closer to the river was a large garden (about 100 by 250 ft.). These were obviously in place at this date. No other buildings are located adjacent to the lines run for the survey.
This fact is very puzzling. At the time Farwell was carrying out his survey, the new railway had been operating for not quite two months. Where could all the structures have gone which are so prominent in the last photograph we looked at? Some things like the sawmill probably were relocated as they were no longer needed for the railway construction. We know that the station house was still in place; Farwell's survey line must have passed right by it. The other very puzzling aspect of this document is that the relocated line is drawn quite accurately while the curving approach to the old landing - which must have been in place in some form - is shown as an almost straight line veering abruptly from the relocated line at an angle no railway could follow. Furthermore, the relocated line appears in the proximity of various surveying stations - and nowhere does it show up as a trestle, except at the extreme eastern edge of the survey where a trestle would not be necessary as we are already on the Brilliant bench. The railway is simply shown as a dashed line which follows impossible terrain. If there was a short trestle at the eastern end of the lot (and we have no reason to doubt it), it may have spanned a short gully by which the intermittent creeks which run off the flanks of Sentinel Mountain drained into the back-water channel behind Waldie Island. If this interpretation is correct, then we must assume that the railway right-of-way to Robson had been legally surveyed but the rail line was not yet completed to the final specifications (with trestle). The still active spur to the old landing is shown in a cursory fashion because it had no legal status and was in the process of abandonment. For similar reasons, buildings, some of which in all likelihood were still there, are not shown because they had no legal status; in effect their owners were squatters on private land. This was fairly common practice, as people moved in and built on someone else's preemption in the hope that their occupation would duly become legal once the official surveys were completed and the purchase price was paid. As the railway relocation put the future of Sproat's Landing into doubt, it is surprising that Sproat even carried out the survey. Perhaps it was an obligation he could not legally escape. At any rate, CPR would be looking at Lot 237 again when a decade later they abandoned Robson and returned to the old landing to construct a bridge which would lead to the decline of Robson and the birth of Castlegar.
In late August of 1891, "Albert McCleary sold his ranch on the Columbia River, opposite Sproat, to E. Mahon of Vancouver, the purchase price being in the neighbourhood of $3,000. Of the 320 acres, 8 acres are ploughed and fenced and about 150 acres more are suitable for cultivation, the remainder being hilly grazing land. A house, barn, and root-house are the improvements. H. Selous negotiated the sale. Mr. Mahon is now a land owner, a town lot owner, and a mine owner in the West Kootenay district." Thus the first preemption in the Castlegar area on which much of present-day North Castlegar is built passed into the hands of new owners. Edward Mahon in turn developed the property as a townsite which he called Castlegar after the place of his origin in Ireland.
Whoever remained on the lower flats of Sproat's Landing would have been dealt a serious blow in late spring of 1894. During the previous winter, record snowfalls amazed everyone. Snow continued falling through the winter until it accumulated to great depths on the Kootenay mountains. At the Silver King mine the task of tunneling through the never-ending snow to go between buildings must have been a daunting one; a total of twenty-two feet were recorded at the mine. A cool spring kept it from melting until a sudden warm spell late in the unusual spring combined with torrential rainfall to produce a catastrophe never again experienced since that eventful year. The extreme floods destroyed portions of the Columbia and Kootenay Railway, keeping it out of operation for three months. At Trail Landing, Topping and Hanna could only watch helplessly as all their labours were washed away by the torrent. Likewise, the old steamer landing and adjacent lands at Sproat's farm would have been totally unprotected against the raging waters, which must have taken their toll on anything which remained in their way. Only the structures on the Brilliant bench were secure; but most likely George Gilpin was gone and his dream hotel was crumbling.
There was a short reprieve of a sort for Sproat's Landing. For several years, steamers had been finding navigation through the Tin-Cup Rapids during low water of late summer and fall a precarious business. To forestall disaster, a decision was made to construct in 1895 a short spur of the Columbia and Kootenay Railway from the Brilliant bench to the mouth of the Kootenay River where a dock was constructed. Thus during low water, the "Lytton" and "Trail" worked between the Lower Sproat's Landing and points downstream, and the "Nakusp" and "Kootenay" plied the stretch between Robson and the landing south of Revelstoke (Arrowhead). During low water periods the steamers did not venture through the rapids. This arrangement led to somewhat complex train schedules. A traveler in 1896 describes how he arrived to Robson by steamer from Revelstoke. Passengers leaving for Trail boarded the waiting train which took them to Brilliant and then backed down the spur to the Lower Landing where another steamer was waiting for the downstream journey. The train picked up passengers for Nelson and Revelstoke, chugged its way up the steep grade of the spur and backed into Robson to send the Revelstoke bound passengers on their way, while the patient Nelson passengers still waiting on the steamer finally got on their way. This delay took between one and two hours.
The Lower Landing operated until the winter of 1897. By spring of 1898 CPR bought out Augustus F. Heinze's Columbia and Western Railway which had been completed the previous year to a point across from Robson (Robson West; which is really south of Robson). A barging system was implemented between the two terminals; thus whole trains carrying passengers, ore concentrates, and - a bit later - Crowsnest coal for the newly acquired Heinze smelter at Trail were ferried across the river. The spur to the Lower Landing, no longer necessary, was abandoned. At the same time plans were made to construct a bridge at the old Upper Landing site and to push the railway on into the Boundary country via the Lower Arrow Lake, Dog Creek, and McRae Creek valleys.
Very little can be seen of Sproat's Landing today. The spur to the Lower Landing is clearly seen in a photograph of the Brilliant community as it was blossoming after so much communal toil by its new residents, the Doukhobors. A few remnants of the wharf are visible today, and the spur can still be easily traced by following the more obvious features which have survived. Of the landing at Sproat's farm, nothing remains. Work relating to the construction of the railway bridge would have obliterated any residual artefacts while remnants of Tom Sproat's farm - if they survived the deluge - must have been obliterated by the Waldie sawmill in 1909. Small segments of the pack trail used by Tom Wilson's horses and mules appear to have survived in the space between the back-water channel and McCleary's ferry landing; these can be seen from Waldie Island Trail. The rest can be conjured up from the rare photographs and first hand accounts which give us here and there a parting glimpse through the mists of history.
** ** **
I am greatly indebted to Byng Giraud whose tireless research of old
newspapers and other documents has provided me with two invaluable sources
used in this account. These are: the quotation and source articles from the
Nelson Miner and a copy of Farwell's survey notes.
** ** **